Health, wealth and happiness (in that order?)

This morning as I was clearing out my spam folder (I suspect a rather common Monday morning displacement activity – as, indeed, is blogging) I idly clicked on a link to a message from some people called ‘real age’ (goodness knows how I ended up on their mailing list) and it took me through to this extraordinary statement:

Are you happy? It’s such an important question because happiness has such a huge impact on your health, from your arteries to your heart, from the glow in your skin to the pep in your step. Happy feelings influence your brain and body chemistry in ways that make you better able to cope with pain and stress and to fend off colds, flu, heart disease, and even cancer.

What I found so extraordinary about it was the assumption that what is of supreme importance is to be healthy. I imagine that most Europeans, like me, would argue the other way round: that the reason for staying healthy is to be happy, rather than the contrary. It was this contrary logic, more than any details of graphic design or English usage that told me, straight away, that this was an American site.

And thinking about it I realised that for citizens of the United States at this moment in history, the fear of ill-health is widespread and overwhelming. Because (unless you are a multi-millionaire or are already in such poverty that you have nothing to lose) becoming unwell, especially from a slow and lingering condition, brings with it an almost certain prognosis that you will slide inexorably into penury. The fear of being ill, in other words, is to a considerable extent also a terror of poverty. And, conversely, health means wealth – or at least a significantly higher chance of hanging on to such wealth as you have. So no wonder, in a materialistic society, that health takes precedence over happiness.

This is the future that the Cameron government has in store for us in Britain too, unless we can find some way of preventing the Health and Social Care Bill from coming into effect and saving what is left of our National Health Service (many of whose underlying principles have already been eroded by New Labour’s commodification). Even if you don’t actually pay out money directly for it, you are increasingly aware of the cost of every treatment and the likelihood of its being rationed. And this is why it matters so much to defend the NHS: it isn’t just the service itself that is important but the value system that is represents. (Read this book if you are not yet convinced of this: )

Do people really want a world in which one’s very body and its parts have become independent sites of capital accumulation – and happiness itself is reduced to an instrumental means of retaining some sort of autonomy over one’s own being?  I certainly don’t.

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