Democracy: Good for our health and happiness

By Leah Persky, PhD & Certified Family Life Educator  • Family Life Education Manager

With the tumultuous events of the past year and the tragic and jarring events that took place at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021; many of us are left feeling a bit numb. What is next? How can we prepare for the future? The uncertainty around the pandemic and the very fight for our democracy are a lot to make sense of. We thought 2021 was going to be better and brighter, with life maybe returning somewhat to normal…?

While we hope that will indeed be the case, we cannot take that as a given, especially as the foundations of our democracy were physically attacked in the first week of the year.

Globally, democracy has been on the decline for years. According to Freedom House International, which measures democratic governance and peoples’ access to civil and political rights in 210 countries, democracy is on the decline around the globe, including in the U.S. But it is not too late. American support for and dedication to democracy in the U.S. and around the world continues, in small and large acts. We as Americans must re-commit ourselves to the foundations of democracy and realize there is really no other option.

This is a good time to remind ourselves of just what a force for good democracy is. There are duties that come along with being a citizen (voting and jury duty at the bare minimum), but with our democracy in crisis, we should be inspired to work for equality and social justice; cornerstones of any high-quality democracy. This is an issue that goes beyond partisanship. There are many reasons to support and fight to protect our democracy. For one, it is good for our health and happiness.

According to recent research, democratic countries have better health outcomes and, in general, longer life expectancies. This is especially pronounced in regards to chronic diseases. Citizens in a democracy provide an important electoral check on leaders in democracies, spurring them to focus more and put more resources towards health efforts. Leaders who fail to pay attention to health may jeopardize their re-election, and it is no secret that the goal of all politicians is to get re-elected. Further, citizens in a democracy theoretically experience lower levels of stress and violence. This has many real immediate and long-term impacts on well-being of individuals and communities.  

Democracy also has a positive impact on happiness of citizens. According to the World Happiness Index, using data from the Gallup World Poll, there is a correlation between well-being and democracy. The index measures well-being variables: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. The Nordic countries, Switzerland and New Zealand consistently rank in the top 10. The U.S. is ranked 18th, a decline of several spots over past years. You can probably think of many logical reasons as to why people living in a well-functioning democracy would be happier, but the specific causes are complicated. The bottom ranks of the happiness report are filled by authoritarian regimes, countries experiencing significant instability, ill-health and poverty. For more on this research, see the report.

With this momentous week with the transfer of power to a new presidential administration, we must work to make sure a peaceful transfer of power occurs and that we embrace the winners of the free and fair election, no matter your political affiliation. One of the hallmarks of democracy is a peaceful transfer of power after a free and fair election. As citizens in a democracy, we know that we will have another chance to vote for the president in four years. We will stand by the institutions of our democracy, and know that it is the safest, most-equitable and only path available that will allow us to live in a better and happier and healthier world. There is really no alternative.

In closing, it seems timely to reflect on words of Martin Luther King Jr., who famously said: “The time is always right to do what is right.” The right thing to do now is to protect and respect our democracy, to fight for justice for all, and to be an informed citizen. We can all do this, pandemic or not.