How inequality leads to unhappiness… and screws us all

Just the other day I was lucky enough to hear a talk by Richard Wilkinson, co-founder of The Equality Trust and author of an influential treatise on the impact of inequality in the modern world, called The Spirit Level. The evidence he presents is, as he freely admits, in the category of ‘things that come as little surprise to anyone’, but like many others I was deeply impressed by the force and profundity of the messages he draws out from his steaming stat-pot.

The central thrust of his argument? That time and time again, using any number of societal outcomes as indicators, the more unequal a society is – i.e. the greater the multiplier between the richest and poorest, measured in terms of income – the worse a place it is to live, not just for the poorer people themselves, but for everyone. Whether you’re looking at physical health, mental health, crime, education, community cohesion or quality of life, the correlation holds firm and true.

To take just one example (the book has literally hundreds of them): there’s almost a tenfold increase between the size of the prison population in the more equal countries (Spain, Japan, Scandinavian countries) and that of the most unequal (the US, UK, Portugal, Indonesia). And there’s no overweening ‘other’ statistical factor at work here: if you control for population size, the correlation coefficient actually goes up; Japan, for example, is very equal but very large, whilst Portugal is small but very unequal indeed.

But what I found most interesting was Wilkinson’s explanation of why we find ourselves in this situation. I haven’t actually read the book itself, so may be over-simplifying, but I think the theory is that in our fluid, competitive, market-driven modern societies, we experience high levels of stress, and that the more unequal a place is, the higher and more prevalent those feelings. In the most unequal societies we often feel that we have to compete and prove ourselves to survive, and this makes us feel unhappy. We know that feelings of happiness and friendship are very strong determinants of physical and mental health, and so these two factors, taken together, explain how inequality translates into poorer outcomes across the board.

The final piece of the puzzle is how unequal societies tend to grow more unequal over time, and how equality leads to more equality. Wilkinson’s theory, which has its foundations in the burgeoning field of epigenetics (see here for an excellent overview of this fascinating field, by Oliver Burkeman) is that in very early childhood we quickly work out, from the attitudes and behaviours of our parents and the way they interact with other people and talk about the world, whether wider society is a place where others can or cannot be trusted to make us happy.

Even scarier: there’s a possibility that before we’re even born, our genetic expression has been conditioned based on the experiences of our parents, and as a result if they thought life was nasty and brutish, we will too. These early messages fundamentally shape our mentality and even our physiology, and root themselves very deeply indeed.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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