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02 Dec 2019

BY PROFESSOR STEPHEN LEEDER, EMERITUS PROFESSOR, PUBLIC HEALTH, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY  

Recently, I had an experience which left me feeling exhilarated! 

My wonderful colorectal surgeon, who relieved me in February this year of seriously affected large bowel segments diseased with diverticulitis, called me.  “Why are you scheduled for a colonoscopy next Wednesday?” she asked.
“I thought you arranged it,” I said.
“I usually like to follow-up a year after surgery, unless you have symptoms.”  Truthfully, I was doing well, and we exchanged Christmas greetings and agreed to meet in February.  Santa had come early.

In a recent poem entitled President’s Day, American poet Louise Glück writes of the experience of walking in ‘good-natured sunshine’ after snow. It makes her head joyful, she says, ‘basking in it, getting to feel it first while the limbs waited’. Then she reflects, ‘Joyful – now there’s a word/we haven’t used in a while.’  Two recent reports tell us about the state of peace and happiness in the world today.

The Global Peace Index, the thirteenth edition of which – for 2019 – was published recently by the Institute for Economics and Peace, ranks 163 states and territories ‘according to their level of peacefulness’. It uses 23 indicators.  The Index has three domains – Societal Safety and Security, the extent of Ongoing Domestic and international Conflict, and the degree of Militarisation.

Good news! This year the Index improved for the first time for five years – by about 1 per cent, with 86 countries improving and 76 deteriorating. Iceland, New Zealand, Austria, Portugal and Denmark top the list. Australia ranked 13th.

Since 2008, the Index has fallen by 4 per cent across 17 of the 23 indicators.  Paradoxically, since 2008, the Militarisation indicator has improved by 3 per cent, with military expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product falling in 98 countries. The Societal Safety and Security domain is especially sensitive and small deteriorations in it, due to corruption, inequality and declining economic performance, can tip the Global Peace Index downwards.  When these factors are absent, gross domestic product – GDP – goes up. 

Of the estimated $14.1 trillion (purchasing power parity dollars) impact of violence on the global economy, there was nevertheless an improvement during 2018 of 3 per cent, with a 29 per cent decrease in economic loss ‘due to reduced intensity of conflict in Syria, Colombia and Ukraine.’ 

If this is the global state of peace, how happy are we? The 7thWorld Happiness Report is another complex document based on detailed international comparisons of GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perceptions of corruption, positive and negative affect. Data are drawn principally from the Gallup World Poll. These variables explain roughly half of the overall evaluations of happiness. All the other things – often specific to a country or individual – make up the other half.

At the top is Finland, then Denmark, Norway and Iceland – recall its high ranking for peace as well.  New Zealand comes eighth, Canada ninth, and Australia 11th out of 156 countries.  South Sudan comes last. The US is 19th.

What of the future? The Happiness Report contains a chapter on Big Data, which symbolises tomorrow. The pace of change here is beyond comprehension. Google queries went from 14 billion in 2000 to 1.2 trillion in 2010. Big Data – large datasets that contain multiple observations of individuals – and we cannot calculate the effects they will have on individual freedom or happiness. But the guess is – profound. Big Data from Twitter in Mexico allow us to see ‘the large positive mood swings on particular days, like Christmas 2017 or the day that Mexico beat Germany in the Football World Cup 2018, and the large negatives, like the earthquake in 2017, the loss of the World Cup against Brazil, or the election of Donald Trump in the 2016 US Election’.

All very well, but in a recent essay in Aeon, a Web site, Cody Delistray, a writer and historian based in New York and Paris, challenges us with the question “How did feeling good become a matter of relentless competitive work; a never-to-be attained goal which makes us miserable?” He laments:

Today, market research … has only continued to grow, pioneering in-store face scanning – to determine consumers’ emotions in front of certain products – advertisements that seem to follow us across every digital platform, and, eventually, the Holy Grail of market manipulation: being able to create products that hack our happiness, that make us neurologically need to use and buy them.

As an alternative we were to accept that happiness ebbs and flows, that ‘negativity is fundamental to life and, ironically, to our happiness?  What if we reconditioned ourselves: not to want but to be satisfied in all feelings’.

This may be wishful thinking, but it is a helpful perspective for us and for our patients. Mind you, I’m still happy about that cancelled colonoscopy, although I know February is close!

A peaceful and happy Christmas!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Published: 02 Dec 2019