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Economics, health and happiness: what do scholars say?

In Lugano, a conference entitled “Economics, Health and Happiness” organized by Supsi, Heirs and the Swiss School of Public Health. We talk about it with Luca Crivelli, director of the Department for Corporate, Health and Social Economics of SUPSI.

by Antonella Ferrucci

160114 16 Lugano Conferenza Happiness 1607 ridAn international academic conference, one of a kind, gathered 150 scholars from 4 continents last week in Lugano to discuss a topic - economics, health, happiness - which attracted a wide variety of researchers and gave the event an interdisciplinary nature that's rarely present in this kind of conference. Economists, psychologists, sociologists and physicians, each with the typical approach of their discipline, exchanged their ideas for two and a half days on the relationship between economics, individual and collective health and welfare, presenting works of great variety, in a real kaleidoscope of topics. There were 33 parallel sessions held in which every paper, previously read by a discussant, was thoroughly commented.

 “An interdisciplinary approach always creates divisions and rivalries between different scientific approaches - here, however, it generated great enthusiasm in the scholars: it is the dialogue between the disciplines that unleashes the wealth of views and allows us to gain an in-depth understanding of these issues that are so universal”, says Luca Crivelli.

Luca, would you mention some of the topics discussed?

There were many contributions worth spending a few words on. First of all, the very first presentation by Bob Sugden who is an economist and a deep thinker, and his exercise of deconstructing the anthropological premises that underpin the “Nudge” theory developed by some behavioural economists. Drawing on the contribution of psychology for the analysis of economic and social choices, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein define an attitude called "libertarian paternalism" that considers the intervention of the architects of choices legitimate in the accurate definition 160114 16 Lugano Conferenza Happiness 0142 ridof options from which citizens will be called upon to make their own choices. Even though they know that some choices are bad for our health (like smoking or drinking hard liquor) and others right (proper diet, physical activity), the majority of people continue to practice the wrong ones. According to the "Nudge" theory, people should be "helped" to make the right choice, thereby making it less exhausting (for example by placing desserts only at the back, behind fruits, vegetables and other healthy food in the self-service school canteen), because this reduces the effort needed to "resist the temptation" and will result in more rational choices in the interest of people. In some way a cost of fatigue tends to be attributed to the "wrong" action through a kind of "libertarian paternalism". Now, Bob Sugden does not agree with this vision and he showed through a number of very apt examples that the motivations that lead people to make non-rational choices are numerous and far more varied than what the nudge theory presupposes.”

Other interesting ideas?

"I will mention a few. There was a very interesting talk by sociologist Dorothy Watson presenting the example of Ireland, where the current welfare indicators are not adequate to account for the multidimensionality of poverty produced by the current financial crisis; 160114 16 Lugano Conferenza Happiness 1445 ridand the intervention of Carol Ryff who reported the results of a very detailed study conducted in the USA which shows that one of the fundamental elements for well-being and physical and mental health is to have a purpose in life. Jennifer Nedelsky emphasised the need to rethink the organization of work and care completely, encouraging regulations that prescribe, on the one hand, a maximum of 30 paid work hours and 12 unpaid hours devoted to the care of others, on the other hand, a minimum of 12 paid work hours (work part-time for all) with a maximum of 30 for care. Therefore Nedelski imagines a share of paid work as well as of care for everyone. This is about codes of social behaviour, making a prolonged working time which does not provide for the free hours of care something that is inadequate, "unbecoming".

No doubt the relationship between economics, health and happiness was understood in very different ways... any more ideas?

"Yes, I would mention still a few. Giampiero Griffo, President of the World Council of Disabled Peoples' International, asked himself the question how studies on welfare take into account the point of view of those who live in a state of disability, understood not as a deprivation but as an expression of a diversity that makes a ''lowering of barriers" necessary in order to160114 16 Lugano Conferenza Happiness 1007 rid express their full potential. Or I could mention Swiss epidemiologist Nicole Probst-Hensch who pointed out that welfare and happiness may produce measurable phenotypic genetic marks. In this perspective biomarkers may prove to be a most powerful tool to confer biological objectivity to what emerges from subjective studies. If one could combine the tracks that happiness leaves in the body with the psychological subjective aspects in contemporary databases on welfare, causal relationships between the various factors would be made more evident, and interventions to improve people's lives could be identified. This is about using genetic research as an ally of policies to build welfare for all."

Here, too, we find a great surplus value given to "relatedness" between various disciplines...

"Yes. I must say that the relational dimension was experienced in an extraordinary way in this conference, starting with the keynote speakers, who - contrary to what normally happens - participated assiduously at the 160114 16 Lugano Conferenza Happiness 1689 ridconference, being always present and listening to everything and everyone. Then the atmosphere, which was definitely not competitive and very friendly, has allowed a very different dynamic from what we are used to in the academic world and created bridges that would be otherwise unimaginable in these contexts: many participants thanked us for this after the conference. Finally, there was a unique thing that gave it an artistic touch. In parallel to the classic "call for papers", a sui generis for students of the school of art and theatre associated with SUPSI had also been launched. It resulted in a series of theatrical performances on Friday evening: a point of view - that of the young artists - which was truly amazing, offering a harsh critique of consumer society. This was definitely one of the high lights of the conference.”.

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