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Taking the nation's pulse

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According to Abraham Maslow, humans have a tiered approach to feeling secure and fulfilled. If we can get our baselines covered – get our fill of food, sleep, sex, shelter, safety, freedom from hunger and physical pain – then we can move on to enriching our interpersonal relationships, build up our self-worth and respect before attempting to summit by creatively achieving our ‘full potential’.  

Such pyramid schemes of actualisation remind me that perspective is invaluable in evaluating life. Got hunger pains, or toothache? Stressing out about the rent? Or are you basking in the warmth and accolades of the populace while savouring the peeled grapes of acclaim? How you feel depends on what you’re enduring or embracing. Take for example, these manic Melbourne words I wrote to my family, friends and the world at large on social media, on 24 July, 2021:


‘Another locked-down day and night. We have become too used to these. Today the kids played music. Trudy taught students to play piano, through computer and phone screens. I wrote. Bought some groceries.  Cinder the dog got walked, we watched some stuff, ate. Washed and dried clothing, dishes. Listened to music. Bathed. We all played some cricket on our property. The puppy fielded and even brought the ball back. Mostly. These were normal pastimes in another abnormal year marked by a misshapen set of circumstances. These are not healthy times. But they are not without hope. We are grateful for the puppy and for each other. I am grateful for health and safety, which are never guaranteed states. The greater part of the world is wrestling with strategies as the pandemic takes its toll on people's lives. My family, your family, my friends, your friends, my community, your community. My world, your world. I am hopeful of a return to better times with more freedom to be with friends and family. God knows we need them and they need us. I encourage you to continue to reach out to your mates, your family, your neighbours, colleagues, teammates. Let people know you love them, please be sympathetic to what they are going and growing through. Show grace. Be kind. We're not alone, don't lose hope.’


If those musings strike you as a tad Pollyanna then you were probably not stranded in Melbourne during the Covid restrictions. Repeatedly quarantining a metropolis was a bizarre thing to live through. (Although proponents would point out that living is the key word in that sentence.)


Lockdown 1 Monday 30 March 2020 – Tuesday 12 May, 2020. 43 days.

Lockdown 2 Wednesday 8 July 2020 – Tuesday 27 October, 2020. 111 days.

Lockdown 3 Friday 12 Feb. 2021 – Wednesday 17 February, 2021. 5 days.

Lockdown 4 Thursday 27 May 2021 – Thursday 10 June, 2021. 14 days.

Lockdown 5 Thursday 15 July – Tuesday 27 July, 2021. 12 days.

Lockdown 6 Thursday 5 August 2021 – Thursday 21 October, 2021. 78 days.


I don’t know how you felt reading through that litany of lockdowns – I felt queasy typing it. How’s your addition? I make that 263 days, going by health.gov.au and coronavirus.vic.gov.au, although the consensus of the media suggests it was a mere 262. Maddening, depressing and distressing, the lockdowns have marked many and still have an impact.

The reason I reflect on this time, two years ago, is that we recently only just scraped up a pass mark on a national wellbeing report card released by the Commonwealth, evaluating aspects of national life under the headings ‘health, security, sustainability, cohesion and prosperity’. It’s a mixed bag.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ stated desire to better align ‘economic and social goals’ may have borne some early fruits, with progress in ‘life expectancy, emissions reduction, acceptance of diversity, trust in others, per capita income, childhood development and job opportunities and [job] satisfaction’.

What we choose to value and treasure, as a well-known rabbi named Yeshua once quipped, is ‘where our heart is’. While the late Dame Thatcher denied there was such a thing as society, less sociopathic views would contend that we do not, and never have, lived in an economy.


'Amidst the horrors of a pandemic, concerns about life satisfaction were a bridge too far.'


Which brings us back to ‘wellbeing’; a holistic view of a nation’s state as reflected in the experience of its least affluent citizens. The term well being was infamously dismissed by former federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg as ‘doublespeak for higher taxes and more debt’, but the concept deserves more respect, as do those eking out an existence in our nation’s poorest suburbs and hamlets.

The concept of assessing a country’s wellbeing is not hitherto unthought of; that path has already been taken by Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales. In fact, Australian academics Professor Robert Costanza and Dr Ida Kubizewski have pointed out that the wellbeing framework that Chalmers is advocating doesn’t ‘differ much’ from work put forward 30 years ago by ecological economics pioneers.

Staying ‘within planetary biophysical boundaries’, meeting ‘all fundamental human needs’, creating and maintaining ‘a fair distribution of resources, income, and wealth’, efficiently allocating resources to allow ‘human development and flourishing’, and creating ‘governance systems that are transparent, fair, responsive, just and accountable’; these are all highly idealistic and elusive aspirations.

That truth in itself does not mean these kinds of goals should not be pursued, nor that they will always evade our grasp. Still, despite the signs of progress previously referenced (life expectancy, emissions reduction, acceptance of diversity, trust in others, per capita income, childhood development, and job opportunities and [job] satisfaction), Australians aren’t feeling it.

Satisfaction with life generally, the government’s wellbeing report shows, has ‘stagnated, as have measures of mental health, job security, income and wealth inequality and trust in key institutions like the police’.

‘And the country is going backwards when it comes to households making ends meet, chronic health problems, online safety, national security, homelessness, productivity and trust in government.’

Not surprisingly, the cited decline in life satisfaction in the overall period measured has been attributed to a familiar villain. ‘Between 2014 and 2020 the average overall life satisfaction in Australia (out of 10) was relatively stable at around between 7.5 between 2014 and 2019 before declining slightly to 7.2 in 2020,’ the report says. The decline was likely due to COVID.’

During the height of the pandemic, we were concerned with physical health, economic survival and familial dysfunction. We fought fear and misinformation. We hoped and stressed and groaned, hoping for better. We suffered the acute pain of social isolation and yabbered away at each other over phones and computer screens. Amidst the horrors of a pandemic, concerns about life satisfaction were a bridge too far.

The crux of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – the pilgrimage of self-actualisation – was to be a grown-up. Someone who can accept the fact we’re broken; pursue our goals in a flexible and spontaneous manner; hold and live to ‘consistent and strong morals’; appreciate our lives; and find joy and wonder in creating. Faced with such lofty peaks, it feels like we still have a fair bit of recovering to do.




Barry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Life, Community, Family, Wellbeing



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Existing comments

A well-researched and academically well-supported article, with that excellent personal touch, Barry. For many in Middle Australia things are pretty grim and some are faced with the real prospect of homelessness. I regard poverty and homelessness as the chronic scars to the Australian landscape. Meanwhile, we have the astronomically wealthy, like Gina Rinehart, telling us which way the country should go. The direction we seem to be moving in is that of the USA, where aspects of civil society seem to have broken down. Now I am not anti-American, in fact I had relatives there. A cousin lived in Massachusetts and taught at a university in Boston. However, he lived in North Falmouth, not South Boston. There are areas in the USA, like Washington DC, you never go for a walk, particularly at night. The Prime Minister seems preoccupied with major initiatives, such as the Voice and AUKUS. Perhaps he should be more concerned about more down-to-earth issues? Life is not one long Garma festival with endless photo opportunities. It is lived on the streets of Middle Australia, in places such as Melton, Casula and Logan. They are hurting. Badly.

Edward Fido | 17 August 2023  

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