Happiness, GDP, and the Presidential Race

PHOTO: Happiness, GOP and the Presidential Race

Even though the outcome of the presidential race hangs significantly on the state of the economy and the unemployment rate, research has shown emotions often matter more to people than money.

A clue to the appeal of one psychological concept -- happiness -- occurred during the first presidential debate when a focus group's ratings spiked after Mitt Romney referred to the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Assurances about collective well-being was certainly evident in President Obama's words in New Jersey after the devastation of superstorm Sandy when he said, "We look after one another and we don't leave anyone behind."

We've heard from the candidates, economists and political pundits. It's time for psychologists to weigh in.

The importance of emotional well-being has already gained attention on the international stage. At a groundbreaking high-level meeting at the United Nations last April, representatives from government and various sectors and organizations of society – economic experts, academics, NGOs and community and interfaith leaders – came together to support the value of measuring not just a nation's wealth in development but also its well-being. Hosted by the Royal Government of Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country whose king initiated a Gross National Happiness Index in 1976, the meeting made the point that focusing on Gross Domestic Product is not enough.

From Great Britain's proposed General Well-Being (GWB) measure to Japan's government-sponsored department to France's commissioning three Nobel-laureate economists in 2008 to explore alternative measures of development during the global economic downturn, examples abound of countries considering the value of measuring social and environmental factors beyond GDP. Add Italy, Denmark and Zambia to the list, as their representatives spoke at a forum on the topic at the United Nations Commission in Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro last June.

The U.S. government has not been among these voices. While the National Institute of Aging focuses on well-being measures to guide policy, the future of elder care and Social Security are both in danger and hotly debated.

States, however, are slowly catching on. With its General Progress Indicator (GPI), Maryland is the first state to integrate well-being indexes into the measuring of development. The GPI includes factors such as the cost of commuting and lost leisure time, and the value of housework and volunteer work. Sean McGuire, at Maryland's Office for a Sustainable Future in Annapolis told me, "Our GPI works, and other states have consulted with us about how to tailor such a measure to their needs."

Vermont took heed. Its legislature recently passed a law to consider indicators of social development. Recommendations from the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics are due by January 2013.

Citizens are also taking action. Last August, activists and experts (teachers, doctors, NGO founders, lawyers, psychologists and entrepreneurs) gathered in Seattle for the Happiness, Compassion & Sustainability Conference, co-sponsored by the Happiness Initiative.

Many of these participants, including me, are planning celebrations for the International Day of Happiness in March 30th to include community events, film festivals and a possible trip to Bhutan. Another targeted day is April 13, birthday of Thomas Jefferson, who's credited with writing the "pursuit of happiness" line in the Declaration of Independence, named National Pursuit of Happiness Day.

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