By: Sasha Agapiev
Cities and companies alike are now aiming to increase monetary output by providing public access to green spaces and parks. While great for now, these new initiatives raise important questions about the future of mental health and economic productivity in the U.S.
Nowadays, it feels as if people are making every effort to tap into the final frontiers of productivity. Having a strong technical and communicative skill set is far from enough to set one apart in the current business world, so people are looking into new ways to enhance their own cognitive capabilities and to bolster the efficiency of those around them. This trend has led to an abundance of new productivity hacks appearing in the past few years, ranging from tech companies giving employees access to meditation rooms all the way to online consultants offering courses on how to microdose psychoactive drugs to optimize output while at work.
One novel approach that can now be added to this list is the hacking of mental health. It should come as no surprise that mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, can hamper productivity and ambition, and this has been proven through countless studies going back all the way to the 1900s. However, what might come as a surprise is how strongly poor mental health correlates with idleness and regression, and how much the success of a business depends on the mental well-being of its employees.
For instance, in 2011, a group of researchers at the University of Colorado found a linear relationship between severity of depression and magnitude of productivity loss, and this finding has been backed by a number of similar studies. Conversely, author and researcher Shawn Achor has shown that the human brain is naturally more efficient when experiencing positive sentiment. Perhaps it is no coincidence that periods of economic decline are referred to as depressions.
The implications of these links are staggering, as the World Health Organization reports that mental health disorders are directly responsible for a $1 trillion loss in economic output globally every single year. On a national scale, well over $200 billion is lost yearly to depression and anxiety, which makes mental illness the costliest ailment in the United States, above conditions like obesity and heart disease.
With this mound of indisputable evidence, it is natural that business managers and researchers alike would look into ways to minimize general sadness as a means to maximize productivity and profits. One of the more recent studies into this field has involved researching the impact of having green spaces, such as public parks and botanical gardens, in cities and office buildings.
A team of researchers from the University of Vermont recently used an unconventional approach to deduce that interaction with city parks improves general mood to an extent matched by characteristically-joyous holidays like Christmas. The team created an analysis software, nicknamed the Hedonometer, which they used to analyze an archive of Twitter posts wherein target words were mapped to numbers representing sentiment. Tweets which contained words like ‘happy’ and ‘flowers’ produced high happiness scores, whereas Tweets mentioning ‘prison,’ ‘trapped,’or ‘crash’ produced low scores.
Once the system was trained to interpret mood levels from people’s online language, the team tracked Tweeting patterns of people before, during, and after a walk through an urban park during a normal work day. The trends observed were so consistent and revealing that after the exercise, the word ‘parks’ received a hedonometer score comparable to the word ‘happy’ itself.
So, why is this relevant?
First, if the presence of urban parks correlates directly with heightened mood, and mood correlates directly with economic output, then parks could act as an interesting and original signal for economic projections. It is known that news of a new park development will almost always raise housing prices in nearby neighborhoods, and this has been used to guide real estate investments in the past. This does not mean that building another park in lower Manhattan will lead to greater yearly returns on the S&P 500, but the effects on general mood and productivity are definitely not negligible.
Second, this study and the studies mentioned prior emphasize the notion that economic development is just as much a matter of thriving community as it is a matter of business models, innovation, and optimization of resources. In other words, not only are the people a reflection of their respective economy, but the economy is a reflection of the state of its respective people.
It is fantastic to know that mental illnesses are now being treated with the sociological and economic urgency that they warrant, but there is one unfortunate elephant in the room. All of these findings, investments, and initiatives have had little impact on overall mental health in the United States, especially in the younger generations who are going to shape the future workforce. To put it mildly, rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide have all gone up significantly across most demographics in the U.S since the year 2000, especially in people 30 years old and younger. To put it bluntly, the depression diagnosis rate for Americans aged 15 to 24 has risen more than 30% since 2013, while suicide rates for the same age group are at the highest rate they’ve ever been since statistics became available in 1960. In the words of university psychologist Jean Twenge, “I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that we have a mental health crisis among adolescents in the United States.”
From an economic standpoint, the United States is no different from any other business. The U.S GDP is comparable to the concept of a public company’s market cap, and competitive countries strive to produce ever-growing GDPs similarly to how companies aspire to grow their valuations to please shareholders and to trump their competition. If the U.S is a business, then its citizens would be the de-facto employees. Building off of this analogy, if Apple were to suddenly reveal that ⅓ of its next cohort of incoming programmers were significantly more depressed and suicidal than their predecessors, panic would likely ensue on the part of executives and shareholders. Yet for some reason, this response has been largely absent when it comes to gauging the future of the U.S economy. It is a rare sight to see a mention of mental health problems in younger generations when reading an economic outlook report for the U.S, when in reality this statistic should be posted in bold right next to estimates like job growth forecasts.
City parks and meditation rooms may help employees stay positive and productive, but it seems as if these remedies are merely small bandaids on a much larger wound. If the correlation between economic growth and mental health is truly as strong and legitimate as the aforementioned studies claim, then perhaps the next wave of monetary growth initiatives should target the masses of distraught young adults who will eventually shape our future economy.
After all, there is surely a limit to how many green spaces an executive can have installed in their company buildings before the flowers start to lose their charm.
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