‘…In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich…’
Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Prize Lecture, 1964
For the lucky ones amongst us, it is that peaceful and reflective time of the year following on from the busy Christmas and New Year period when we can afford the time to review the year that has gone and consider the year to come. In his message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, Pope Francis, wishes us all a “life filled with hope and joy”. When we take the opportunity to look back across 2013, though there were many disasters which caused much suffering and misery, there was some good news that reflects the essential human quality of fraternity.
When Bill Gates reflected on the global philanthropic achievements of the last year he concluded that were three good news stories that went largely unnoticed. 1) We got smarter and faster at fighting polio, 2) child mortality rates went down and 3) poverty rate went down again in 2013. The first was in effect due to a global vaccine strategy that adopted a comprehensive plan for responding to outbreaks, improving routine immunisation, and fighting the disease in the last countries where polio is still circulating. The reduction in child mortality rates was due to work towards the realisation of the Millennium Development Goal #4 – “Cut infant and child deaths by two thirds by 2015.” According to a UNICEF Report, the number of under-five deaths worldwide has declined from 12.6 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2012. While that translates into around 17,000 fewer children dying every day in 2012 than in 1990, it still implies the deaths of nearly 18,000 children under age five every day in 2012 which are increasingly concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. And lastly the global poverty rate had been cut in half in over the last 20 years. Compared to 1990, where 43% of the population of developing countries lived in extreme poverty, by 2010 it was 21%. The vision of ending extreme poverty by 2030 is now a realistic aim. According to an article in The Economist, poverty used to be a reflection of scarcity. Now it is a problem of identification, targeting and distribution. And that is a problem that can be solved”
Perhaps we could tentatively conclude that globally well-being is improving in some areas. However it is interesting to note that according to the NAB Australian Wellbeing Index measured last September collective wellbeing fell in all Australian states except Tasmania. If you are an 18-29 year old male, earning under $75k per year and living in shared accommodation in Perth you are more likely to report high levels of anxiety and lower levels of well-being than you were earlier in the year. Admittedly this survey was based upon only 2062 respondents of which only 10% are based in Western Australia but it did get me reflecting the complexity of defining well-being. The NAB survey asks respondents to rate how satisfied they are with their life nowadays, to what extent they felt the things that they do in life are worthwhile, how happy did they feel yesterday and how anxious did they feel yesterday? Those conducting the survey must also record the basic demographic data like income, age, gender etc and then infer causality between such data and the subjective responses to well-being. For example, if you are a female living in Tasmania with higher income you are likely to report higher levels of well-being. But is it possible to link satisfaction, achievement and happiness with prosperity to infer well-being?
According to Pope Francis such assumptions of causality can reflect a “theology of prosperity detached from responsibility for our brothers and sisters or to depersonalised experiences which are nothing more than a form of self-centredness. This is a personal well-being that represents a search for our own interests and human glory rather than those of Jesus Christ (Phil 2:21). It is those ideologies, characterised by rampant individualism, egocentrism and materialistic consumerism that serve to weaken social bonds, fuelling that “throw away mentality which leads to contempt for, and the abandonment of, the weakest and those considered useless” according to the Pope in his World Day of Peace message. In this message, the Pope reminds us of one of the fundamental principles of the Church’s social teaching the universal destination of goods. That God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone. Each person must have access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development. (#171-172 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church). Each person must have ‘hope’ that this coming year will be better than the last, that the psychological, physical and social resources they have at their disposal will hopefully balance the challenges that they confront.
Rather than focusing on measures of well-being we should do as the Pope suggested and find ways to live a life full of joy and hope in 2014.