When people are asked what matters most for their happiness and wellbeing, they tend to talk
about the importance of their relationships with family, friends and
colleagues. It is their intimate world, their personal networks that mean the
most to them, rather than material goods, income or wealth.
Most people probably don’t think that broader, structural issues to do with politics and
the economy have anything to do with their emotional health and wellbeing, but
they do. We’ve known for a long time that inequality causes a wide range
of health and social problems, including everything from reduced life
expectancy and higher infant mortality to poor educational attainment, lower
social mobility and increased levels of violence. Differences in these areas between
more and less equal societies are large, and everyone is affected by them.
In our 2009 book The
Spirit Level, we hypothesised that this happens because inequality increases
the grip of class and social status on us, making social comparisons more
insidious and increasing the social and psychological distances between people.
In our new book,
The Inner Level, we bring
together a robust body of evidence that shows we were on the right track: inequality
eats into the heart of our immediate, personal world, and the vast majority of
the population are affected by the ways in which inequality becomes the enemy
between us. What gets between us and other people are all the things that make
us feel ill at ease with one another, worried about how others see us, and shy
and awkward in company—in short, all our social anxieties.
For some people, these anxieties become so severe that social
contact becomes an ordeal and they withdraw from social life. Others continue
to participate in social life but are beset by the constant worry that they
have no small talk or come across as boring, stupid or unattractive. Sadly, we
all tend to feel that these anxieties are our own personal psychological
weaknesses and that we need to hide them from others or seek therapy or
treatment to try to overcome them by ourselves.
But a recent Mental Health
Foundation Survey found that 74 percent of adults in the UK were so
stressed at times in the past year that they felt overwhelmed and unable to
cope. One-third had suicidal thoughts and 16 percent had self-harmed sometime
in their lives. The figures were much higher for young people. In the USA,
mortality rates are rising, particularly for white middle-aged men and women,
due to ‘despair’, meaning deaths due to drug and alcohol addictions, suicide,
and vehicle accidents. An epidemic of
distress seems to be gripping some of the richest nations in the world.
Socioeconomic inequality matters because it strengthens the
belief that some people are worth much more than others. Those at the top seem
hugely important and those at the bottom are seen as almost worthless. In more
unequal societies we come to judge each other more by status and worry more
about how others judge us. Research on 28
European countries shows that inequality increases status anxiety in all
income groups, from the poorest ten percent to the richest tenth. The poor are
affected most but even the richest ten percent of the population are more
worried about status in unequal societies.
study of how people experience low social status in both rich and poor
countries found that, despite huge differences in their material living
standards, across the world people living in relative poverty had a strong
sense of shame and self-loathing and felt that they were failures: being at the
bottom of the social ladder feels the same whether you live in the UK, Norway, Uganda
or Pakistan. Therefore, simply raising material living standards is not enough
to produce genuine wellbeing or quality of life in the face of inequality.
Although it appears that the vast majority of the population are
affected by inequality, we respond in different ways to the worries it creates about
how others see and judge us. As we show in The
Inner Level, one way is to feel burdened and oppressed by lack of
confidence, feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem, and that leads to high
levels of depression and anxiety in more unequal societies.
A second is to try to flaunt your own worth and achievements, to
‘self enhance’ and become narcissistic. Psychotic
symptoms such as delusions of grandeur are more common in more unequal
countries, as is schizophrenia. As the graph below shows, narcissism increases
as income inequality rises, as measured by ‘Narcissistic Personality Inventory’ (NPI) scores from successive samples of the US population.
Inner Level and Twenge et al
A third response is to find other ways to overcome what
psychologists call the ‘social evaluative threat’ through drugs, alcohol or
gambling, through comfort eating, or through status consumption and conspicuous
consumerism. Those who live in more unequal places are more likely to spend
money on expensive cars and shop for status goods; and they are more likely to
have high levels of personal debt because they try to show that they are not ‘second-class
people’ by owning ‘first-class things.’
In The Inner Level, the
evidence we show of the impact of inequality on mental wellbeing is only part
of the new picture. We also discuss two of the key myths that some commentators
use to justify the perpetuation and tolerance of inequality.
First, by examining our evolutionary past and our history as
egalitarian, cooperative, sharing hunter-gatherers, we dispel the false idea
that humans are, in their very nature, competitive, aggressive and
individualistic. Inequality is not inevitable and we humans have all the
psychological and social aptitudes to live differently.
Second, we also tackle the idea that current levels of
inequality reflect a justifiable ‘meritocracy’ where those of natural ability
move up and the incapable languish at the bottom. In fact the reverse is true:
inequalities of outcome limit equality of opportunity; differences in
achievement and attainment are driven by inequality, rather than being a
consequence of it.
Finally, we argue that inequality is a major roadblock to
creating sustainable economies that serve to optimise the health and wellbeing
of both people and planet. Because consumerism
is about self-enhancement and status competition, it is intensified by
inequality. And as inequality leads to a societal breakdown in trust, solidarity
and social cohesion, it reduces people’s willingness to act for the common good.
This is shown in everything from the tendency for more unequal societies to do
less recycling to surveys which show that business leaders in more unequal
societies are less supportive of international environmental protection
agreements. By acting as an enemy
between us, inequality prevents us from acting together to create the world that
So what can we do? The first step is to recognise the problem
and spread the word. Empowering people
to see the roots of their distress and unease not in their personal weaknesses
but in the divisiveness of inequality and its emphasis on superiority and
inferiority is a necessary step in releasing our collective capacity to fight
The UK charity we founded, The Equality Trust, has
resources for activists and a
network of local groups. In the USA, check out inequality.org.
Worldwide, the Fight
Inequality Alliance works with more than 100 partners to work for a more equal
world. And look out for the new global Wellbeing
Economy Alliance this autumn.
Our own focus for change is to work for the increase of all
kinds of economic democracy—everything from more cooperatives and
employee-owned companies to stronger trade unions, more workers on company
boards and the publication of pay-ratios. We believe that extending democratic
rights to workers embeds greater equality more firmly into any culture.
Of course, we would also like to see more progressive taxation
and action on tax evasion and tax havens. We’d like to see more citizens paid a
Living Wage, and action taken on universal provision of high-quality lifelong
education, universal health and social services. There are lots of ways to tackle
inequality at the international, national and local levels, so we all need to work
in ways that suit our capabilities and values.
Inequality creates the social and political divisions that
isolate us from each other, so it’s time for us all to reach out, connect,
communicate and act collectively. We really are all in this together.