Quality of Life, and Building it for my Kids

**I’m still catching up on posts about all of the reading that I did between Thanksgiving and the beginning of February–my most prolific reading period of the entire year, for sure–and slowly going through the pile of sticky notes that I accumulated as I processed what I read, and what it made me think.**

This week, I have three posts related to the really excellent book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. You should totally read the book, which is full of data that turns what we think we know about poverty, and wealth, and well-being, on its head.

But, as usual, this isn’t so much a traditional ‘review’ as it is my reflections on what a particular concept means for me, and, I hope, for us.

Every parent wants a good quality of life for her/his children, right? I mean, I know not just for my neighbors–here in this pretty affluent suburb–but also for the immigrant parents with whom I have the honor to work, it’s the hope that the future holds something promising, and secure, and healthy for one’s children that motivates much of what we do.

But thinking about what the evidence says about real quality of life, and about how to get it, must provoke a reconsideration of our pursuits. Because, increasingly, we know that having more doesn’t mean having it better.

In the United States, especially for those not in the lowest income tiers, we’re reading the limit of what increasing living standards can offer us, in terms of health and life expectancy and all-around wellness.

In fact, we know that, inequality matters a lot in determining how healthy people are, how much they learn, even how happy they feel, even controlling for income.

It matters even more than we want to admit, because acknowledging how important equality is in shaping our own well-being means that we have to spend more collective energy (and public resources) figuring out wealth distribution instead of trying to get as much as we can for ourselves, or even just adding to the total aggregate.

Mental illness rates are higher in societies with more inequality, with even health among higher-income populations affected by overall levels of inequality.

It’s not enough to have ‘enough’ for yourself.

You’re harmed, in some real, tangible ways, as well as some more subtle psychological ones, by the existence of others who have far less than enough.

And less than you.

We know that from data, but we know it from our lived and practice experience too, right?

I see the anxiety around me, from parents who put their 5-year-olds in tons of activities because they want to produce ‘well-rounded scholars’ (yes, they use that phrase) to neighbors who reluctantly acknowledge that they’re in deep debt because of out-of-control spending to couples whose marriages fall apart because of the strain of overwork. I see a harsh side of inequality in the smugness of those who accept mediocrity from our public school system, secure in the knowledge that it’s still better than what other kids get.

It’s not ‘cultural’, this stress and malaise and vindictiveness.

It’s born of the proximity of desperation, and the knowledge that we are but a few ‘failures’ away from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, which seem like such a long way down. It’s exposed by the tattered safety net and the panicking realization that there’s very little to catch us if, or when, we fall.

It’s a special kind of insecurity that can only be mitigated by building a society where everyone has enough, because we can never hoard enough for ourselves to feel safe.

And that gets me to thinking about our kids, and to facing the awareness that I cannot protect them, as long as I’m only trying to protect them.

Because I want BETTER for my kids, not better like iPads for my 3-year-olds but better like believing that people take care of each other when it’s needed, that belonging to a society comes with certain guarantees, and that no one should have too much…or too little.

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