Friday 24 January 2020

Brendan O'Connor: 'Some modest proposals: let's feed our souls for a happy and healthier 2020'

From health to making connections, there are good intentions we can focus on in 2020, writes Brendan O'Connor

SHINING EXAMPLES: The New Year’s Eve celebrations are over and now we can concentrate on making 2020 the start of something better
SHINING EXAMPLES: The New Year’s Eve celebrations are over and now we can concentrate on making 2020 the start of something better

HEALTH: Alcohol consumption in Russia has halved in the last decade after a ''pan-government crusade''. This meant that every government department bought into the crusade, so there were nudges and restrictions operating across all areas of life. And it came from the top down, with Putin making his healthy lifestyle a big part of his public image. There is also a crusade against smoking going on. Life expectancy in Russia has increased by five years in that 10-year period, and as the crusade continues it is expected it will also impact massively on crime.

As we face the usual annual health crisis in this country, and as we reflect once again on a year of record trolley figures, it might make sense to look at scarce health resources in a different way. Rather than increasing supply all the time by pumping more and more money into the system, why not focus a bit more on reducing the demand for healthcare? While we have many well-meaning health promotion programmes in this country, we should consider incentivising people to be healthier. Living a healthy lifestyle is complex. It is bound up with class and privilege and opportunity, and also with a person's physical and genetic ability to exercise. What we can say is there is no doubt that many people who end up in hospital with certain common illnesses might not be there if they had made different choices. And we should make it easier for people to make good choices. One simple example: Why are nicotine products so expensive? Considering how much someone is likely to save the health service by giving up smoking, why don't we, within reason, offer free nicotine patches or gum or spray to anyone who wants it?

In general, there hasn't been enough conclusive research to show that external motivators and inducements, like giving people free gym membership or cheaper health insurance if they exercise, absolutely works for everyone. But there's no doubt we should look at making it easier and cheaper to have a healthy lifestyle, and we should look at paying people to get healthier. It will likely save hugely on resources in the longer term.

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THE ENVIRONMENT

In a similar vein, we should also make it easier and cheaper for people to live more sustainable lives. The conversation around becoming environmentally friendly has tended to feel quite penal so far.

Farmers and other groups feel victimised. Excessive carbon taxes can lead to violent protest, as in France. Individuals, in general, also feel that they are being penalised for what is, in reality, a much bigger issue. We shame individuals taking flights while China and Australia increase their massive coal use. We introduce policies to penalise people for using petrol and diesel cars instead of making it cheaper for people to own EVs, currently only something the well-off can afford. Our approach needs to be reframed.

Maybe we need to reframe how we present the argument, too. Pictures of melting icebergs can seem a bit remote for many people. Look at how the story of the Australian bushfires has brought climate change home to us. We all have friends and relations in Australia, and we can relate to cities and beach resorts being destroyed. Of course, we should care about polar bears but the reality is many people relate better to things that seem closer to home.

When we talk about the environment, why don't we talk more about the Irish children who have breathing problems exacerbated by pollution here, or about the 800,000 people who die prematurely in Europe every year due to air pollution?

CYCLING

Now let's combine those two issues of health and environment. Cycling is a no-brainer. It helps the environment and it helps keep people out of our health system by reducing obesity and increasing fitness. So why do we make cycling so difficult? I am a motorist, a cyclist and, most often, a pedestrian.

I walk a lot of places around Dublin that I wouldn't dare to cycle, because, as everyone says, sometimes you are taking your life in your hands on a bike. I am also on both sides of the angry and aggressive behaviour of some cyclists and motorists.

There is a heightened air of aggravation on the roads around Dublin, motorists getting furious, cyclists kicking and banging on cars, everyone going too fast, screaming obscenities, and little patience or respect much of the time. This is partly because motorists and cyclists are sharing a space that is unsuitable for sharing.

Making our towns and cities, and indeed country roads, cycling friendly should be far more of a priority for the Government. And we should also have a conversation about how to foster a bit more mutual respect on our roads. TECHNOLOGY This might be stating the obvious, but we should all become much more mindful about our tech use in 2020. There is no doubt now that technology and specifically social media are adding hugely to mental health issues among young people. On top of that, most of us pay no attention to how we and our data are being used by surveillance capitalists.

On one hand we are told that 2020 will be the year that governments finally start clamping down on big tech, but still nothing happens, so in the meantime we probably need to start taking some more responsibility ourselves. But on we go, blithely clicking through privacy policies without reading them or thinking about them. It sounds as if the next big issue in tech is going to be location data.

Just two weeks ago, The New York Times was presented with a trove of location data with more than 50bn location pings from the phones of more than 12m Americans. This kind of information is available to bad actors, without your knowledge. While many young people say they are not too concerned about privacy because they have nothing to hide, and you may agree with them, whether you have a secret life or not it's not safe for anyone to be able to access this much information about your life and the lives of your children. Would you willingly wear a location tracker that allowed everyone from paedophiles to kidnappers to blackmailers to access information about your every move? Of course not.

It's up to us all now to educate ourselves a bit more about the tech we use unthinkingly.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

The funny thing about this massively connected world we live in is that many people feel less connected than ever, and this is unquestionably a major contributing factor to the levels of stress, unhappiness and loneliness in our lives.

Though Johann Hari's book Lost Connections didn't get universally rave reviews, it is one of the books that has stuck with me from the past few years. Hari argues that many malaises of the modern world are caused not by the chemical imbalances for which we often blame mental illness, but by disconnection. He talks about our disconnection from other people, meaningful work, meaningful values, the natural world, a hopeful and secure future.

While Hari is a bit dogmatic in his thesis, there's no doubt he has hit on something. I think a great intention all of us could set, going into 2020, is to mind our connections - to each other, to elderly neighbours, to the soft contacts who are part of your daily life in shops and cafes and on the bus, to nature, to our families, friends and colleagues, to some sense of values, and to those who need connection themselves, whether they be homeless, lonely, vulnerable, in a bad place.

Let's feed our souls and make ourselves a bit happier in 2020 by taking time in our busy lives to feed and water those connections.

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