A New Year’s resolution that will do the whole country some good

With the ringing in of a new year many of us make commitments to get fit, lose weight, start something new, give up something old and broadly address some part of ourselves we feel needs an update. We do this knowing that most New Year’s resolutions only last a few weeks.

It turns out that seeing your friends and other social connections is very good for you.

There are ways to increase our chances of achieving our New Year goals. Studies in behavioural economics find that making resolutions public increases the success rate. The act of public declaration, and the threat of losing face, strengthens our commitment to our new selves. In the hope this science will help me stick to my New Year’s resolution, I hereby commit to invest more time with my friends in 2020.

I have made this resolution over a number of years, and I have consistently failed. Distracted by too much work, overwhelmed with family commitments and dogged by poor organisation. Months and too often years can go by without a proper catch up with a dear friend, and I am poorer for it.

Compared to sweating in the gym or following a restrictive diet, my resolution is light-on in terms of sacrifice. At worst, it will involve additional cups of tea, long walks or nights out enjoying the latest gastronomical hit. But in my gym shy defence, research shows the benefits of spending more time with friends may be as great, if not greater, than hitting the gym.

Enhancing the quality and quantity of your social network, or friendships, is linked to higher productivity at work, decreased chance of death from heart disease, cancer and stroke, improved mental health, slower mental decline from ageing, lower rates of diabetes, higher levels of overall happiness and reduced stress. Astoundingly one study has even found that the negative impact of loneliness on your health is equivalent to smoking. It turns out that seeing your friends and other social connections is very good for you.

Researchers from the University of York reviewed 23 independent pieces of research and found those with weak social connections, or who were classified as lonely, were 32 per cent more likely to have a stroke and 29 per cent more likely to suffer a heart attack.

Our lack of social connection is emerging as one of the biggest public health issues of our time. Levels of loneliness are rising across the developed world and are particularly high among our youth. Being connected through a device is not a substitute for real life connection.

Researchers in the US are even developing a pill to combat the ill effects of being lonely. But before we all start popping a pill, rather than popping in to visit an old friend, there is a need to ask whether government has a role in combating growing levels of social isolation and loneliness?

Many will say that government’s role should not extend this far into our lives; but given the impact of social isolation on our health, productivity and overall wellbeing, it is hard to maintain that there isn’t some role for government policy. If government isn’t in the business of improving the wellbeing of citizens, then we could legitimately ask what is its purpose?

Most mothers in Australia will join a group supported by local government after they have their first child. An otherwise random group of 10 or so women struggling to recover from childbirth and adjust to parenthood. These groups are not primarily about teaching you to parent, but directly combating the social isolation which can lead to post-natal depression.

As part of new suicide prevention trials, safe haven cafes are being trialled around Australia. These provide people needing support for their mental health somewhere to go, talk and connect to peers with similar experiences.

These are just some examples of what governments already do to support our social connections.

However, there is no way to measure these efforts to improve the wellbeing of citizens. We instead focus on the narrow measures of success such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or whether the budget is in surplus.

In 2019 New Zealand was the first country to introduce a new way to track progress, by delivering a “wellbeing budget”. The budget was developed in reference to 12 domains of wellbeing, including jobs and income, health, the environment and social connections.

Over time the New Zealand approach aims to focus policy on initiatives that enhance wellbeing now and into the future. And like the chances of fulfilling our New Year’s resolutions, the act of a public declaration, alongside ongoing accountability, will help guarantee this greater focus.

In Australia, the federal government is so laser-focused on one economic metric – delivering a budget surplus – they are allowing us to drift slowly on the precipice of a recession rather than investing to secure economic growth and save jobs.

A New Year brings a sense of hope, that we can progress where previously we have failed. Realistically I may not fully succeed this year in spending as much time as I should with the people I care about – but I’m going to try because I know it will improve my (and hopefully my friends’) wellbeing. What a positive change it would be to see our government make a similar commitment to focus on improving our wellbeing rather than simply delivering a budget surplus, and commit in 2020 to follow our New Zealand cousins’ lead by delivering Australia’s very first wellbeing budget.

Angela Jackson is an economist at Equity Economics.

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