A recent comparison of the mental and physical health of Americans and Britons raises some intriguing questions. Consider these data points:
- Americans spend 2.5 more on health care than do Brits – yet have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, lung disease, and cancer.
- The richest, healthiest Americans are as sick as the poorest Brits.
- Americans work far longer than Brits (and other Europeans), and are more likely to hold two jobs – virtually unheard of in Britain.
In searching for explanations, the focus goes to the fact that Americans seem to value wealth and work over social connections, in the view of a British epidemiology team, led by Sir Michael Marmot at the University College London Medical School. One reason for this, of course, can be seen in the lack of social safety nets Americans face. Compare Britain, which like most European countries, has a far more humane social system: in England, a student might pay about $3,000 a year for a university education (and in other European countries the government pays the whole thing); everyone who retires in Britain gets both a company and a government pension; health care is free. Americans, by contrast, live in fear of losing health care, not having enough money to retire on, or huge education bills.
Even among the well-to-do, contentment remains elusive: No matter how much people earn, their desires grow with their earning power. This insatiable pleasure-seeking has been called by Daniel Kahneman the “hedonic treadmill,” meaning that no matter what you have now, the yearning for more will grow proportionately – keeping you on an endless spending spree. Intriguingly, the country with highest rates of contentment worldwide is Denmark – whose people also have the lowest expectations for material comforts.
Add to America’s cultural malaise the fact that our networks of friends seems to be shrinking. Between 1985 and 2005, the average number of confidantes people reported dropped from three to two. By contrast, British and other European cultures place more importance on social connections than money. In Britain, for instance, every neighborhood has a pub, a place where neighbors go most nights to get together. By contrast, Americans disappear into their homes, doors locked.
This shrinking of personal contact may itself take a health toll. Carnegie Mellon psychologist Sheldon Cohen has found the more personal relationships a person has, the more healthy they are.