The Spirit Level: Book Review

The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, is an eye opening, must read for anyone who cares to understand how income inequality truly increases the prevalence of a handful of social and health problems that plague many developed countries. To hone in on the author’s purpose, consider the fundamental question of the book, “How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history?” In order to answer this question, this book analyzes data from 23 developed countries along with US states, based on thirty years of research, which presents evidence that there is a connection between the level of inequality in each country (state) and a variety of problems; levels of trust, mental illness, life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, children’s educational performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates and social mobility (not available for US states).

With that said, the authors suggest that there is a predictable pattern taking place here. The more you get something, the less it contributes to your overall wellbeing. To exemplify this concept, the same levels of income are linked to higher levels of life expectancy. Moreover, as inequality increases so do levels of mental illness, imprisonment rates and obesity etc.

The authors emphasize within the book that high-income inequality is not only an issue for poor people, as it affects a society across the board and impacts the overall level of the problems mentioned above. This is displayed through their discussion of the quality of social relations and how it deteriorates in less equal societies. While our material wealth is a huge determinant of the type of health care, education and jobs we are led to, social integration is a core human need and we depend on it to have to ability to become a mentally stable person. Our values in developed countries make it’s people susceptible to high levels of emotional stress, where all other things being equal, can be the leading cause of what is making us unhealthy. From a medical perspective, it was interesting to discover that the importance of social status on a person’s happiness is displayed in the chemical behavior of our brains.

The recommendations made in order to achieve greater equality were very optimistic, and while I agree with the solutions they raise, a societies political will seems to be the main thing standing in equality’s way. Essentially, a sustained social movement committed to a set of values and beliefs is what is needed to make change. Furthermore, it can’t be a movement that dismembers once small or immediate goals are achieved as the author’s recommend that the best approach is to continuously make incremental changes in a consistent direction. One way to start this movement is to influence people’s sense of security and as a result, reduce fear. People need to see that equality is attainable and a more inclusive, beneficial life will result as we deal with the end of exponential economic growth and face the threats of unsustainable consumption on our environment.

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