Frequently, when presented with a problem, we attempt to treat the symptom rather than the real issue. For example, if every morning when you get in your car you notice that one of the tyres looks a bit flat, you could treat the symptom by calling in at the nearest petrol station and putting more air in the tyre. However, as air doesn’t shrink or disappear for no reason, there is obviously a deeper issue involved. It could be that your tyre has been punctured and a screw or nail is still in the tyre, or it could be that the rim of the tyre has been bent or twisted. So, you could go on treating the symptom into the future (and calling at the local petrol station on a regular basis), or you could address the real problem and get the tyre or rim fixed. Sometimes however, the real problem or ‘root cause’ of the issue isn’t quite as easy to observe or fix as a screw in a car tyre.
Johann Hari has written a book entitled Lost Connections, which describes his quest to understand why increasing amounts of anti-depressants prescribed for him for a long time had little or no long-term effect. One of his findings was that people were treating the symptoms rather than the root cause. He uses the example of Kotti, a suburb of West Berlin where those who ‘didn’t fit’ within the general community were housed in decaying apartments in an area that was best described as a ‘nook’ in the Berlin Wall. When the wall came down, Kotti went from being forgotten to become an undeveloped area in a great location in the centre of unified Berlin. Soon after, the developers moved in and the decaying apartments were in danger of being bulldozed. The residents, who fairly typically when developers move in had nowhere to go and with a bit of help started to organise and ‘man the barricades’. Gradually, the barricades became more substantial and people were onsite 24 hours a day on a roster system. Hari describes a number of people rostered on barricade duty, who in the past had completely different lifestyles isolated from each other and society, (as individuals are usually afraid of talking to people that look or act ‘strangely’ or have different moralities), began sitting together with not much to do, and started talking.
Gradually, people started greeting each other in the street and stopping for a chat, realising that regardless of the individual’s beliefs or appearance, they also were human. And gradually a community was born. Shops opened and diversity was encouraged by the residents, leading to a community that had the energy to retain the best of what it had and become a place where people wanted to be, with the local government controlling development so the exiting residents were not overwhelmed. That’s when the medical services began to notice that the people that made up Kotti were gradually becoming happier. They observed the beneficial effect of less medical interventions and drugs being required for the people who lived in the area. Hari also looked at similar examples around the world (including in Australia) where belonging to a community has led to a reduction in mental ill-health and a subsequent decline in the use of prescribed drugs to ‘regulate’ people’s moods.
Obviously, pharmaceutical companies can’t really monetarise community and happiness, which is part of the reason why research into ‘making people feel part of where they live’ is not funded to the same level as the next ‘breakthrough medication’ that will be sold to help people feel (for a while at least) that they are happy and coping with life. There is certainly a place for medication in mental health, but the issue is that long-term use of increasingly stronger doses of drugs is treating only the symptoms, not the ‘root cause’.
It’s the same with politics where there is far more effort and time spent in identifying particular groups of people such as the ‘haves’ or ‘have nots’ and either lauding or persecuting them for the positions in which they find themselves. The reality is that the difference between ‘having’ and ‘having not’ is sometimes a decision made by a manager who might not know where Australia is and is usually totally unrelated to the individual’s performance or knowledge. So the ‘person who used to have’ applies for welfare and gets caught in a spiral where one side of politics observes that welfare is ‘too easy to obtain’ and implements some practice to ‘ensure the dole bludgers don’t rort the system’, making it more draconian, and so on ad infinitum with a resultant deterioration in welfare applicants’ feeling of ‘worth’ in the community where they live.
At the same time, the ‘haves’, observing the language used to justify increasingly draconian practices being imposed on the welfare recipients, believe they should get more as the ‘dole bludgers’ are ‘wasting’ the support they are receiving. So the government promotes tax cuts or increases business write offs/child care supplements/funding for health insurance or private schools, or similar payments (which are really welfare payments in all but name) to appease the ‘haves’ who are clamouring for greater levels of ‘support’.
While there is nothing wrong with targeting groups in the community with assistance to derive some holistic benefit, there is a problem when the targeting is done to seek votes or popularity with certain sectors of the community. Flatter tax rates and so on do benefit those on higher incomes; while the dollar amount they pay can be higher, the percentage of their income required to live in similar fashion to those on lower income is less, leading to inequality, which in turn doesn’t do anything for building or maintaining perceived equity and fairness in communities.
Some Governments, such as in New Zealand and the ACT, have realised that budgets are not just financial documents. How the wealth is distributed is important, as discussed in this ABC report. Bhutan has used a ‘Gross Happiness Index’ for decades.
Maybe they are on to something. We have discussed research that suggests that happiness comes from being in a community, so we can make the assumption that while ‘state against state’ and ‘mate against mate’ might be OK in football games, it shouldn’t be a way to run a country. Rather than creating ideological wars between different groups within our community and treating the symptoms, research suggests our community would be better if the root causes of greed and inequality were addressed. While the ALP seems to be on the right track, it’s hard to see how those promising to ‘Make Australia Great’ or claiming to be the ‘better economic managers’ are helping. Let’s just hope the ALP doesn’t change focus away from community to try to grab some votes in the next few years.
What do you think?
This article was originally published on The Political Sword
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