In a recent episode of the TV drama Billions, the antihero Bobby Axelrod is talking to a rival hedge fund manager who is going to have to “close his shop”. “How much are you walking away with,” Axelrod asks. Forty million dollars, the guy says. And then Axelrod details for him all the expenses of his lifestyle, in excruciating detail, implying that $40m won’t be nearly enough. “You’re right,” the guy eventually says in shock. “I’m broke.”
You couldn’t ask for a better illustration of the truth that we feel rich or otherwise not according to any objective measure, but in comparison with how our peers are doing. And vast disparities of wealth in any society just make things worse.
Experiencing these disparities on a daily basis can be extremely damaging for those who, like many in our Talk for Health community, must walk alongside the purr of BMW’s, Mercedes or Audis, while they pass restaurants where a starter costs around £15.00 and supermarkets where food costs much more than in other parts of the UK. They themselves might have just enough money to buy something to eat or pay their rent, but not both.
In their influential The Spirit Level (2009), and its follow up The Inner Level (2017), the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate the pernicious effects of economic inequality. In more unequal countries, outcomes are worse for almost everyone in areas such as health, education, obesity and social mobility. Their new book, more a companion volume than a sequel, concentrates on the doleful psychic effects of inequality on individuals. And here we cross over into causes of the growing mental health epidemic. It doesn’t matter if you’re relatively well-off by most standards; if those around you are earning more, have more status, seem superior, you are likely to experience a sense of inferiority.
It was Alfred Adler, a disciple of Freud who first put forward the idea of an inferiority complex. Something he argued that was not just the province of a few unlucky folk, but affected everyone who ever compared him or herself with peers, celebrities, public figures or passers-by. This continual comparing leads both to problems of self-esteem, shyness or social phobia or those of self-importance, pomposity or snobbery if we attempt to bolster our esteem or reputation by feigning superiority.
Adler was not fooled: he maintained that within every person who acted ‘superior’ lay an insecurity that could only be hidden by strenuous ‘efforts of concealment’.
It turns out that pretty much everything you can think of is worse in more unequal countries (such as the UK and the US), compared with the least unequal ones (Norway, Finland and Japan). We’re more prone to chronic stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, unnecessary spending and ruinous gambling. Our mental health is much worse.
That’s where Talk for Workplace Health comes in: you can read about our successful NHS programme and the principles of T4H here: www.talkforhealth.co.uk
Now, there is a workplace version. Contact email@example.com to learn more.