28 May 2019

Naps, black holes and a shiny new Wellbeing Budget

For as long as I can remember, if the GDP numbers were positive, all was well in the land and the government could take credit for doing a sterling job. Sometimes they would even venture to say that New Zealand had a ‘rock star’ economy. I don’t know much about economics, or rock stars, but when you combine the two it must be good.

However, at the very same time as all this alignment of the stars, we also have record homelessness, suicide rates, environmental decline and bullying in parliament. But these things don’t show up on the magic GDP, so are they actually important? Of course they bloody are! Only issue is they’re all very uncomfortable subjects to shine a light on, because once you have, what do you do about it?

Hats off to Jacinda and her team for introducing the Wellbeing Budget this week, hoping to make a difference. It’s a very courageous thing to embark on as a government, because unlike many economic policies, this one is not going to be felt for many years to come. How they create some metrics to measure the impact and the return on taxpayer dollars, will be a football that will be kicked around for ever after.

Wellbeing is a subject very dear to my heart, as I grew up in a family where it was often in short supply. Back in the day though, wellbeing was not discussed. Being stoic through adversity was seen as admirable and that’s what our family practiced.

My father suffered from epilepsy, which was always covered up. He did not go to WW2 as a result, and received white feathers in the mail because he was considered a coward. My mother suffered depression periodically but never sought help, due to her denial and shame. Sister Jude had her first of seven hip replacements at the age of 27 years, due to not being checked as a baby for congenital displacement. She was never able to have children as a result. My other sister, Philippa, was diagnosed bipolar as a teenager, at a time when mental illness was a disgrace and all conditions were just labelled as ‘having a mental breakdown’.

In our family, wellbeing was something that was often out of reach and when you don’t have it, life sucks.

A few weeks back I was interviewed by Steven Moe for his podcast Seeds and it reminded me that at the heart of Collective Intelligence is wellbeing. When you see people down and out, we understand they may need help. But if you are seen to be doing well in the world, it’s less obvious. And if people think you are doing well in the world, it can very hard to let them know that in fact sometimes you’re not.

This is why the Wellbeing Budget is so important to Aotearoa. It is going to affect every single citizen of this country, directly or indirectly over time. Just by acknowledging that it’s important is a huge step forward.

I have been reminded of just how important wellbeing is over the past few months, as mine personally has been shite. For 20 years I have known I had osteoarthritis in my right hip and 2019 was the year to have it replaced. Kate had been on to me saying ‘you will wear out your good left hip because you are favouring the right one all the time’. So, in December I started the process of getting it underway with an x-ray. Straight forward enough until I sat down with the GP to discuss the results and found out both hips had severe osteoarthritis. Oops.

And then the left hip did give way, only 10 days after the x-rays. Karma? This was a whole new ball game. Whatever had given way would jam every time I stood up and the pain level would reach between 5 to 9. That was a whole new ‘special’.

Summer holidays sucked as a result. Not much sleep and I didn’t really feel like doing anything. Playing golf was only on a cart – again not as much fun. Sculpting was out, as standing or sitting in one place for any length of time was painful. Just trying to get into a Blokart was painful. Oh, and apparently, I wasn’t great company. Go figure.

Surgery was scheduled and I went under the knife in early March. I went into it theatre in good spirits and thought I can deal with this easily enough. It’s done every day right and simple enough. Yes, it is. However, it is still intrusive surgery and I soon learnt little things become big things very quickly as a result. I won’t go into details as that’s not the point, but the next 3 to 4 weeks were tougher than I was expecting, and my level of vulnerability was the lowest I can remember in many years.

And here’s the learning. In a period of a few months my life changed. I went from being fit and active, with a future that excited me, to a level of discomfort and uncertainty in myself that made me doubt what lay ahead of me (and even my relevance in the world). No one thing happened for that to occur, but a series of compounding events added to a very low resilience level.

I have been low in my life before (and will be again) however this time was different. I had more experience and new tools, a wonderfully supportive team around me, and most of all, I didn’t fight or deny where I was at.

My wife Kate became concerned I was depressed, or close to it, and we discussed this openly a number of times. There were many tears shed through this recovery, that I had initially thought was just going to be a physical battle.

However, I chose not to be stoic, or grunt it out. When people asked, I told them how I was feeling. I ended phone calls quickly at times telling them my concentration was gone. I was determined not to hide what was going on for me.

As a sheep shearer in my early years, I learnt to nap at 12.45pm every day by lying on the shearing board. A fifteen-minute nap and I’m a different person. Since those days I have always prided myself on having a nap every afternoon, even in the office (on a beanbag in a back room). I couldn’t do that anymore as I was unable to get down on the floor, so took to napping on our office sofa in full view of the sidewalk. My mindset was – whatever is good for my recovery, I will do it.

My daily nap, a crucial tool in my personal wellbeing kit.

There’s no heroics to this story, but rather an acknowledgment that as individuals we can prepare ourselves for adversity for it turns up when we least expect it. We are all prone to shite happening in our lives, and it’s not what happens to us that makes the difference, it’s how we respond to the shite.

From adversity comes new shoots and I now have a fresh view of the world, while also mentally preparing for that right hip replacement (which keeps reminding me it’s still there). I feel excited about the possibilities that are ahead.

I acknowledge that this story is about one very small example of wellbeing and that the budget, as we know already, is focussing on a broad spectrum of issues. I also acknowledge that many of us do not need any assistance from the government to activate a higher level of wellbeing, but rather we need to take responsibility for what we need to get on with personally.

The point of this blog is this: wellbeing is possibly the most important thing a population can aspire to, because if you nail this, so much more is possible. It will be interesting to see if it has a positive impact on the GDP in time. I think it just might.

Here’s something to think about. The USA spends something like $700-800 billion on its military every year in an attempt to dominate the world. However, its health budget is $3.5 trillion annually and rising rapidly, due to its appalling national wellbeing. It’s heading towards $5 trillion annually and at that point their economy will start to crumble. Obviously more spent on military is the answer.

I personally don’t have anything to do with central government, so I asked someone who does, Sarah Tocker, to give a view on what has been going on in the engine room to develop this legislation:

I know it has taken a huge amount of work for Treasury staff to define and understand what wellbeing really means in practice and how to measure it, and that there has been some criticism of the measures and financial connection for elements of wellbeing. For me, wellbeing is something to measure to track progress, and I wonder how individually we think about this and the economic impact of not managing our own wellbeing – both in the day to day but also cumulatively.

It also makes me think about the balance between individual and community – how well can I manage my own wellbeing (even if it’s wonderful) if it is surrounded by a community or country where wellbeing isn’t managed effectively. Surely the lack of wellbeing in others impacts my own? We see this in teams and businesses, but also the impact of colonisation which has impacted generations of people. In any traditional society, we would be measuring collective wellbeing rather than individual, but many of our tools to measure our own wellbeing are just about us. A bit like living in a flash house with a great standard of living but in the middle of a socio-economically deprived area of people who are disenfranchised.

So what action are you going to take as an individual?
What action are you going to take as a whanau?
What action are you going to take as a company?
To bring about higher wellbeing in your lives?

Here is one tool that I know works: meet CoLiberate who are into Mental First Aid. They will help any organisation increase the wellbeing of their team. I wish they had been around for my family when I was growing up.

Ian Harvey (Harv)


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