I recently listened to a radio show that got me thinking about something, which, to my knowledge, has never been explored.
We all know the famous phrase from the United States Declaration of Independence about the ‘inalienable’ rights of man; “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. However, some new research highlighted in the aforementioned radio programme argued that the act of constantly pursuing happiness can actually make us less happy! The UK government is now pushing the ‘happiness’ issue more than ever. As many a health economist has argued (Dolan, Gandjour, Brazier), the line between happiness and good health is extremely blurry. This made me think…
In the pursuit of good health, do we become any healthier?
Now, in this question I am referring only to the pursuit of good health on an individual level; I am not questioning the value of promoting public health. In eating healthily, doing more exercise, brushing our teeth and generally trying to get a flat stomach, is the average person likely to gain anything? I believe the ‘blur’ between good health and happiness to be largely made up of mental health. Do we actively pursue good mental health? I think not – many of our day-to-day activities are very stressful, tiring, and leave us little time for dealing with our emotions. It seems possible (maybe probable) that the pursuit of good (physical) health could actually be damaging to our mental health. Failure to achieve goals and expectations, for example, could be very damaging to an individual’s self-esteem.
I believe that this is something which could be tested quite easily (I may do it myself one day). The British Household Panel Survey, for example, includes a question on satisfaction with health. It seems safe to assume that if one is dissatisfied with their health then they will be seeking to become satisfied with it. This could then be compared with measures of health and well-being and examined longitudinally to see if those who go from being dissatisfied with their health to being satisfied actually have any significant gain in health over and above those who remain dissatisfied. Data on physical activity and diet could also be incorporated. I’m sure that, with extra thought, more robust methods could be figured out; I am just floating the idea.
If this is the case then surely it would have serious implications for health economics and public health more generally.
Please share your knowledge on this topic in the comments box below. If you know of any relevant literature then please discuss.