By Jim Clifton, Gallup Chairman and CEO, and Deepak Chopra, M.D.
If economics aspires to be a science -- “the dismal science” as it was traditionally called -- it must recognize that the most relevant economic data are human. The rise and fall of GDP, mean household spending, and consumer confidence are useful statistics, but ultimately the “units” of the American economy are bodies and souls. What’s going on with them?
Even as the stock market soars, the unequal distribution of wealth, which reached an all-time U.S. high in 2012 (with the top 1% enjoying an increase of nearly 20%, while the other 99% saw income grow just 1%), also implies inequality in physical and mental well-being. We are breaking recent records there, too. It is well-documented that the greatest burden on the U.S. economy is skyrocketing healthcare costs.
At $2.5 trillion annually, America’s healthcare bill is three times the size of the defense budget and nearly twice the size of the whole Russian economy. It is also roughly twice the size of the entire Indian economy, and India has a billion-plus population.
When you compare America’s per person health care spending to comparable societies, things look even worse. The U.S. spends more than $8,000 annually per person on healthcare, where Canada and Germany each spends roughly $4,500 per person, while the United Kingdom spends about $3,500, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Yet even as we lavishly outspend those countries, Americans have shorter life spans and generally worse health outcomes. In other words, citizens in comparable societies live longer but spend half the money we do on healthcare or less.
What’s afflicting our bodies to such an extent that the medical system may not be able to manage a turnaround? One big answer: epidemic rates of obesity and diabetes. Obesity is the primary cause of Type 2 diabetes and a major contributor to chronic disease in general, including hypertension and coronary artery disease. If the United States solved the obesity problem, its economy would arguably roar back, unburdened by unsustainable healthcare costs. The news that our obesity epidemic has, in the case of school children, stopped rising and shown signs of improvement is a start, although long overdue.
But the country can’t reliably tackle obesity, which is correlated with low income levels, or turn the economy around, if many of its citizens are depressed. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index just uncovered that being unemployed, dropping out of the workforce, or working part time while wanting full-time work are the strongest predictors of having depression. Unemployed adults and those not working as much as they would like to are about twice as likely to be depressed as Americans who are employed full time.
Clearly our society has a crisis of body and soul -- often both, since depression significantly raises a person’s risk for disease almost across the board. Economists don’t realistically figure these human factors into their predictions, and we’ve only scratched the surface. Well-being also declines because of a host of things that, in our view, are specific to America, including: chronic stress, uncertainty over keeping a job, anxiety over lost pensions, pressure to increase productivity (already the highest in the world but constantly pushed to rise even higher), and the longest work week in the developed world paired with the least vacation time.
The cure for the worst things is a full-time job. Gallup workplace data show that the ultimate job is one in which you get to do what you do best every day, your manager encourages your development, and your opinion counts. When and if every American can have this “therapy” of full-time meaningful employment, then depression, stress, and anxiety will subside, and the average person will become much more motivated to tackle chronic health problems like obesity. The human factor can never be over-emphasized if we intend to get the economy roaring again, but more importantly, if we intend to take well-being seriously and not simply raw economic data.