The Spirit Level | Richard G. Wilkinson

Summary of: The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
By: Richard G. Wilkinson

Introduction

Welcome to the summary of The Spirit Level, a thought-provoking examination of the impact of income inequality on societies. Throughout this summary, we will delve into the often-underestimated significance of income disparities in determining health, well-being, and social problems. By contrasting seemingly wealthy nations like the United States with smaller, more equal countries, we will uncover how income inequality leads to increased stress levels, distrust, and violence within societies. Moreover, we will explore how addressing these glaring disparities presents opportunities for creating more harmonious, healthier, and more environmentally conscious communities.

Blaming a Weak Economy is Not the Solution

The book challenges the assumption that a flourishing economy alone guarantees a healthy and happy society. Even countries with strong economies like the US and China suffer from social problems. The book illustrates the disconnect between economic prosperity and well-being in the field of national health through a comparison of two babies born in contrasting economies. The US baby is expected to live 1.2 years fewer than its Greek counterpart despite the US spending more on healthcare. The book reveals the root cause of illness, violence, and climate change to be inequality, rather than economic strength.

Income Inequality: A Root Cause of Illness

Health issues such as obesity and high blood pressure are caused by income inequality. Studies show that countries with higher income disparities have higher rates of health problems. In contrast, nations with more evenly distributed incomes enjoy good overall health. Income inequality causes stress in communities, motivating people to measure up and maintain a high social status. This pressure generates stress, leading to stress-eating and putting a strain on the body. Long-term stress causes the heart to beat faster, raising blood pressure and the risk of heart attack. Surprisingly, income disparity plays a critical role in the health status of individuals and societies.

The Negative Impact of Income Inequality

Income inequality is not just an economic problem; it also has a detrimental effect on our mental health and behavior towards others. Uneven income distribution can make us egotistical, dishonest, and breed distrust. As society becomes more unequal, we become anxious about how we’re perceived by others, leading to defensiveness and a tendency to lie to prove our status. Countries with higher inequality have more mental health problems than those with lower inequality levels. For example, over 25% of the US population suffers from mental illness, while Japan has under 10%. Income inequality also affects how we behave towards others; countries with high levels of income equality, such as Sweden, Norway, and Finland, have higher trust levels. Conversely, low-income equality countries such as Portugal have the lowest trust levels. To improve society’s mental and physical well-being, it’s essential to address income inequality.

Inequality Breeds Violence

Inequality hurts personal and societal health and leads to violent behavior. Social status is important in unequal societies, and violence is an old way to defend it. Countries with high wealth inequality have higher homicide rates as compared to more equal countries like Japan and Norway.

Inequality doesn’t just inflict individual suffering and damage health; it also sows bitterness and wrath in society. Widespread inequality leads to increased violence; however, the most interesting part is, neighborhoods with a more equal income distribution seem to act together as equals rather than fighting each other, as per Harvard University sociologists. But why does inequality cause violence? Social status is essential in these societies, and an old defense mechanism to protect it is through violence. The need to prove social status is stronger when you are uncertain about your position. Consequently, countries with higher wealth inequality have higher homicide rates than those with greater parity, with America holding one of the highest homicide rates globally and Japan and Norway with the lowest. Therefore, inequality causes stress, health problems, mistrust, and violence in society.

Inequality Hurts Everyone

Inequality negatively affects not only those at the bottom but also those at the top of society. Social comparison and competition in unequal societies cause stress for all. An equal society offers clear advantages, including better health for citizens regardless of income level. Even those with high-paying jobs are less healthy in unequal societies, and they could still benefit more from a more equal society.

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