Can Health Care Lead to Happiness?

If JK Rowling had lived in America, chances are she might never have written Harry Potter–as she famously did while
on public assistance in the UK. She would probably have been so worried about
health insurance for herself and her children that she would have continued
working an unsatisfying job, unable to take a chance on the imaginary boy
wizard with glasses who lived in her head. The loss for the world would be
dramatic, but the loss for her personal happiness would be perhaps even more

As the fight for health care reform ramps up in Washington, it’s important to keep JK
in mind, extreme case though she may
represent. We need to consider the benefits beyond
physical well-being to our society–and particularly for the women in it–of a secure social
safety net, particularly health care but also subsidized day care and fair family leave
policies. Not only does a safety
net mean a healthier population, but it means a more creative,
innovative, and
happy one. And that would be a crucial gain for women, who more often fulfil
the social role of providing for relatives, families, and children. That role requires
the kind of financial stability which may render an outside-the-box pursuit of happiness elusive.

This is all particularly relevant given the the media‘s interest in picking apart what makes women
happy, and what doesn’t. A few months ago, conservatives quickly seized upon a Wharton School of Business study
as evidence of feminism’s failure. The study’s results
indicated that overall and across demographic lines, women reported being less
happy now than they were several decades ago, despite better standards of
living and opportunities. A closer look at the survey’s results and even its
authors’ own interpretation doesn’t in any way indicate feminism’s shortcomings.
As countless feminist scholars and writers from Faludi hooks and Wolf on down have
documented, the entry of women into equality in many areas has led to backlash
in other, less tangible ones: psychologically damaging media portrayals, the rise
of the beauty myth and diet industry, the endless expectation to be both perfect
employees and ideal family anchors, and the feminization of poverty among them.
Our own written feminist history then, points out that huge obstacles to happiness
remain for many women.

Therefore this study, and the U.S’s middling showing in world happiness surveys,
should remind us of the work that feminism has yet to do. And that work is
creating a society in which women’s personal and career choices are genuine
ones, not made of necessity or desperation. Just as reproductive justice aims
to support women no matter what choices they make with their bodies, feminism
means fighting for a safety net that opens up other life choices.

But first of all, it’s important not to take the Wharton study, "Padadox of Declining Female Happiness" at 100% face
value (Another professor at UPenn offers
a critique
of the language of the report and particularly the way it
was picked up by Ross Douthat here).
As the writers themselves openly acknowledge,  there are a number of
factors that make it impossible to gauge objective happiness and whether that
happiness has decreased. For one, we live in the post-psychotherapy era, and so
people are more comfortable telling
a researcher about their frustrations or even their depression. This
particularly applies to women. It’s not that we all used to walk around in
Betty Draper-esque zombiedom pretending everything was peachy — but certainly
deeper discontentment among women wasn’t openly acknowledged. Second of all, as the authors
themselves particularly note, the increased number of choices we’ve won for
women, not just between child-raising and working but in all areas of life,
from school to career to where to live, may have resulted in increased anxiety
about making those choices. I’d note that that the social weight on different
choices has not dissipated as much as it should, so while we are free to decide
how to dress, act and raise kids if we want them, the stigma attached to
certain "unfeminine" or "too feminine" paths can create stress. The authors
also observe that
women are now comparing their happiness to higher expectations raised by the
women’s movement as well as comparing it to the perceived happiness of the
whole population, not just other women like them. These changed points of
reference may make women assess their lives differently and more critically.  So in fact these results may be an example of
feminism’s success in teaching women what is possible.

But whether or not women’s happiness has appreciably decreased, guaranteed health care coverage is a way to help
it increase. The gains made by feminism have opened huge doors to women in the workplace and
academy–but we haven’t yet caught up on the services side. We haven’t made necessary supports like
childcare, health care and sick
leave off all that much easier. And meanwhile our economy has
shifted towards contract,
freelance and part-time jobs, union power has decreased,
the wealth gap has increased, while family structures have shifted to more
single and juggling households. This means that for many, the struggle to pay
the bills has become all-consuming, leaving less time to follow our
dreams–whether that’s to start a business, learn painting, teach a class or
switch careers.

Matt Yglesias wrote in May that universal health care would
stimulate entrepreneurship. Without it, he says, we have "job lock"
where people stay in one career place because they are scared to lose
insurance. Without job lock, we’d have more new businesses and more people
willing to join new businesses. He added that as well as the economic benefits,
we’d get more artistic endeavors from part-time workers, citing Canadian rock
music as an example. As the Rowling story proves, allowing more creativity to
flourish at worst boosts happiness for one person–at best it provides
increased pleasure for millions who experience that person’s output.

I’d add that crucially, in addition to encouraging more entrepreneurs and
artists in general, universal health would free up a different segment of the population to start businesses or other
creative endeavors.

For instance, there’s been a recent media frenzy over
"mompreneurs" who combine parenting with starting businesses that are
often aimed at other parents like themselves. But most of the women profiled in
these stories tend to be from one socioeconomic demographic. They either have
spouses whose income and insurance allow them the freedom to experiment–or
they themselves have worked in a lucrative industry long enough to have amassed
their own capital, investors and networks. But what if a host of other
parents–single moms, low income moms, more moms of color, and even dads–could
also have the flexibility to start businesses aimed at people like themselves?
Again, that freedom would give a jolt to their own happiness as well as the
happiness of those they serve.

According to two Business Week surveys (here and here), key factors beyond financial ones that
contribute to a nation’s happiness are health care, education, tolerance,
gender equality and freedom of choice. And the fact is that those different
factors feed directly into each other–particularly into freedom of choice. The
optimistic and ambitious spirit in America, in my mind, may be what puts us
ahead, in happiness measures, of some countries with better social services
than we have (that and the terrible weather in places like the UK). But right
now, that spirit only becomes reality for some Americans and it needs to be
accessible to all. Universal health care with a public option will open up far
more doors than the one to the doctor’s office.

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  • invalid-0

    Are you absolutely kidding me? This article is so disjointed that it makes absolutely no sense.

    You start off with this awful and counter intuitive emotional appeal about JK Rowling, which, I’m sorry, is just ridiculous, and then you go off on this tirade about how if women had government provided health care they would be happier?

    You only talk about what you actually say you are going to talk about for like…three sentences, and then even in those three sentences your link to happiness by way of public health care is unfounded and nonexistent.

    What poor journalism.

    Go write for American Girl.

  • invalid-0


    It’s official. America and the World are now in a GLOBAL PANDEMIC. A World EPIDEMIC with potential catastrophic consequences for ALL of the American people. The first PANDEMIC in 41 years. And WE THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES will have to face this PANDEMIC with the 37th worst quality of healthcare in the developed World.


    We spend over twice as much of our GDP on healthcare as any other country in the World. And Individual American spend about ten times as much out of pocket on healthcare as any other people in the World. All because of GREED! And the PRIVATE FOR PROFIT healthcare system in America.

    And while all this is going on, some members of congress seem mostly concern about how to protect the corporate PROFITS! of our GREED DRIVEN, PRIVATE FOR PROFIT NATIONAL DISGRACE. A PRIVATE FOR PROFIT DISGRACE that is in fact, totally valueless to the public health. And a detriment to national security, public safety, and the public health.

    Progressive democrats and others should stand firm in their demand for a robust public option for all Americans, with all of the minimum requirements progressive democrats demanded. If congress can not pass a robust public option with at least 51 votes and all robust minimum requirements, congress should immediately move to scrap healthcare reform and demand that President Obama declare a state of NATIONAL HEALTHCARE EMERGENCY! Seizing and replacing all PRIVATE FOR PROFIT health insurance plans with the immediate implementation of National Healthcare for all Americans under the provisions of HR676 (A Single-payer National Healthcare Plan For All).

    Coverage can begin immediately through our current medicare system. With immediate expansion through recruitment of displaced workers from the canceled private sector insurance industry. Funding can also begin immediately by substitution of payroll deductions for private insurance plans with payroll deductions for the national healthcare plan. This is what the vast majority of the American people want. And this is what all objective experts unanimously agree would be the best, and most cost effective for the American people and our economy.

    In Mexico on average people who received medical care for A-H1N1 (Swine Flu) with in 3 days survived. People who did not receive medical care until 7 days or more died. This has been the same results in the US. But 50 million Americans don’t even have any healthcare coverage. And at least 200 million of you with insurance could not get in to see your private insurance plans doctors in 2 or 3 days, even if your life depended on it. WHICH IT DOES!

    Contact congress and your representatives NOW! AND SPREAD THE WORD!

    God Bless You

    Jacksmith – WORKING CLASS

  • invalid-0

    I’m afraid if everyone in the U.K went on public assistance to write a book there would be no one left to pay taxes and they’d all starve before anyone came near getting published. And things are not so bad here when compared to countries where socialized medicine is practiced. There was an excellant article by John Goodman 5/25/09 in National Review on this subject. The five year survival rate for every kind of cancer is higher in the U.S than it is in Europe. This is true for men as well as women. The number of middle aged Canadian women who have never had a mammogram is twice that of American women and the number who have never had a pap smear is three times that of American women. About one tenth of Canadian adults have had a coloscopy compared with about one third of American adults. No doubt this better screening contributes to our better survival rates. I’d say if you want to be happy and not have to worry about your health, this is the place to be.

    • invalid-0

      There’s a bastion of unbiased reporting for you. /snark

  • invalid-0

    OK fine: here’s the same info from NCPA: National Center For Policy Awareness U.S. Cancer care is #1
    -U.S women have a 63% chance of living at least five years after a cancer diagnosis compared with 56% for European women
    -The survival rate for Americans for uterine cancer is 5 percentage points higher than the European average; for breast cancer it’s 14 percentage points higher.
    -For women, the average survival rate for ALL cancers is 61% in the U.S and 58% in Canada.
    -In the U.S 85% of women 25-64 years old have regular PAP smears, compared with 58% in Great Britain.
    -The same is true for mamograms in the U.S 84% of women aged 50-64 get them regularly- a higher % than in Australia, N.Z, Canada and far higher than the 63% of British women.
    These figures reflect the care available to all Americans, not just those with private insurance.
    I must admit though, you’ve got me stumped on the whole “snark” comment. I just have no words to respond with. I’ll ask my seven and eight year old daughters to explain what that means, though and get right back to you.

  • emeraldt

    The cost of health care is escalating, due in part to increased technology and specialized training for physicians. Health care providers have limited the number of days for hospitalization depending upon the diagnosis and prognosis. Health care is now a huge national concern. There’s a lot of talk about health care reform, and the industry does need it, especially since so many people that are only after the most basic of care have to get emergency cash loans to cover something as simple as a simple antibiotics script, and a full third of the nation is without health insurance. The lead researcher for the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, Elliot Fisher, a practitioner for over 20 years, has pointed out that areas that spend more on health care interestingly spend more on unnecessary procedures, and have higher mortality rates. So why do we need payday cash advances for health care that is worse when more expensive?

  • invalid-0

    The cost of healthcare is enough to make any person worry at any given time. Of course if you have insurance you might not have to worry so much but you still have to cover your deductible and your weekly cost that comes out of your paycheck, and that is if you are covered. When my family was not covered it was one of the most stressful times in our marriage. I feel for all of the families that are currently struggling with this issue.