Hugh Mackay applies a social researcher's lens to health promotion in a special interview.
Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and the author of 14 books – nine in the field of social psychology and ethics, and five novels. In recognition of his pioneering work in social research, he has been elected a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society.
A newspaper columnist for over 25 years, Hugh is currently an honorary professor of social science at the University of Wollongong. In his latest book The Good Life Hugh asks the big question: what makes life worth living?
What are you working on at the moment?
A book called The Art of Belonging: It’s not where you live, it’s how you live which is due out in October. It explores the state of neighbourhoods and communities in Australia, illustrated with stories from the life of a fictional Australian suburb, and argues that we are essentially social creatures, sustained by communities, and that those communities must be nurtured if they are to survive.
What compelled you to write your most recent book the good life?
Over the last few years of my work as a social researcher, I had become conscious of a widespread feeling of disenchantment and bewilderment in Australian society, and a feeling that our relationships – in marriage, in the family, in the neighbourhood, in the workplace – were not functioning as well as we’d like them to. My diagnosis of the problem: we had fallen for the idea that the good life meant material prosperity or ‘feeling good’, whereas ‘goodness’ has more to do with a sense of meaning and purpose.
How have Australians' perceptions of their health and wellbeing changed over time?
In response to huge advances in medicine and biotechnology, we have drifted towards thinking that either medication or surgery will ‘fix us up’ and so we don’t have to be so v
igilant about our own health strategies. Hence the epidemic of obesity in a society that knows how bad this is for our long-term health.
What are the main factors influencing our health and wellbeing today?
Negative factors: Sedentary lifestyle, excessive consumption of processed foods, sugar and carbonated soft drinks, binge drinking. Positive factors: The falling rates of smoking, increased interest in fitness, the recent dietary trend towards eating less (but still a long way to go!).
What health/wellbeing interventions/strategies do you think have had the most impact on society?
Vaccination; the antibiotic revolution; cardiac surgery; medications for hypertension and mood disorders. In terms of public health education, the anti-smoking and anti-drink-driving campaigns have been our major successes. We still have a long way to go with nutrition education.
What are the main health and wellbeing trends you see in the future?
I hope to see us eating less, drinking less, exercising more and taking more personal responsibility for our health. We need to accept that unhealthy lifestyles are not a private matter: they put pressure on the public purse. I fear we may rely increasingly on medical intervention – from cosmetic and lap-band surgery to drugs – to correct health problems created by so-called ‘lifestyle’ factors.
I expect to see a greater emphasis on engagement with the community, with all the social and health benefits that flowfrom that.