New research shows that equality, not other issues, equal the most health and happiness. This new research isn’t shocking news or anything. I’d wager that most people would agree that feeling like an equal does correlate with happier feelings. Still, it’s an interesting issue that should be made more public.
British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson has been researching healthy vs. non-healthy societies for decades, and recently sat down with YES! Magazine to discuss his findings.
Wilkinson notes that the healthiest societies he’s come across don’t have more income, more education, or more wealth—but the things they do have are more equitably shared. He also points out that inequality is linked to issues such as higher rates of mental illness and drug use, eroding trust and increased anxiety and illness.
I think this is highly relevant research when discussing educational choices. In most cases, conventional schools don’t promote equality. Schools promote adults as better and smarter than youth, bullying as a norm and the school itself as knowing more than parents. The school speaks and everyone must listen. There’s no equal footing. This system truly sets up schools and the people who run them as far more valued than the families who attend them.
This issue is far reaching, beyond schools, for example, Wilkinson talked to a prison psychiatrist who spent 25 years talking to violent men, and psychiatrist said that he’s “Yet to see an act of violence which was not caused by people feeling disrespected, humiliated, or like they’ve lost face.” If these are major violence triggers, wouldn’t our schools (and other systems) be better off discouraging humiliation, not encouraging it?
“This is about the psychosocial effects of inequality—the impact of living with anxiety about our feelings of superiority or inferiority. It’s not the inferior housing that gives you heart disease, it’s the stress, the hopelessness, the anxiety, the depression you feel around that. The psychosocial effects of inequality affect the quality of human relationships. Because we are social beings, it’s the social environment and social relationships that are the most important stressors.“
One of my favorite points made is that, “Inequality affects our ability to trust and our sense that we are part of a community.” If kids are brought up in a system that ultimately and consistently undermines their equality, what kind of a society are we building? Not a happy and healthy one.
This research says a lot for democratic education, a system that does place youth on equal footing with adults and teaches youth that they actually matter. Democratic education doesn’t tell kids, “Hey, your opinions mean nothing” – which of course will lead to kids who think they’re less equal than others. Perhaps this is one reason why democratic school students have better mental health and believe in their own abilities. It’s something to think about for sure.