Happiness, GDP, and the Presidential Race


Does Happiness Trump Wealth?

In September two Vermont women walked nearly 600 miles across seven states to Washington, D.C., to promote happiness as an alternative measure of how well we're doing. "Happiness Walkers" Linda Wheatley and Paula Francis, co-founders of Gross National Happiness USA (GNHUSA.org), asked people along the route what makes them happy. Most answered "family" and "other people." When I joined them on the walk, a waitress told me, "Watching my daughter's eyes light up at Christmas," a man said "doing karate in my wheelchair," and a guy at a roadside garage shooed me away while yelling back "Money."

In my own surveys about what attracts men and women to a partner, honesty and caring top the list. Money is mentioned as an aside, often with a smirk, which people explain reflects reality but superficial values.

Small businesses are even cashing in on the appeal of the word "happiness," using it to sell flowers, gifts and even soup (in a currently running TV ad).

Critics maintain that happiness cannot be measured, but psychological research and conclusions in "The World Happiness Report," co-edited by three economists, show otherwise. The Happy Planet Index rates countries on citizen well-being as well as life expectancy and ecological footprint (Costa Rica was recently rated #1). Gallop polls regularly track people's life satisfaction. Many other scales are available, though they address overlapping concepts like quality of life, satisfaction and well-being. The World Health Organization Quality of Life-BREF asks, "How much do you enjoy life?" The GNH Happiness Survey asks respondents to evaluate statements like, "So far I have gotten the important things I want in life."

Psychologist Martin Seligman, reputed father of positive psychology and the only psychologist given the podium at the U.N. high-level meeting, defines well-being on five dimensions: positive emotion, being lost in a task, relationships, accomplishment and meaning. Economist David Brooks, author of "Gross National Happiness," similarly links happiness to meaning, found ultimately in unconditional love for children.

Psychologists like me have been lobbying governments at the United Nations about the important role of well-being and empowerment in the eradication of poverty – the topic of this coming year's U.N. Commission for Social Development. Numerous articles in the journal, "Health and Well-being," published by the International Association of Applied Psychology, an NGO I represent at the U.N., as well as research in the newly released volume "Humanitarian Work Psychology," prove the relationship between unemployment and well-being.

Such research often builds on the results of a classic study, referred to as the Hawthorne Effect whereby workers' productivity increased when lights in the workplace were turned either up or down, leading to one interpretation that motivation is affected by workers' perception of employer's concern for their welfare.

With all we now know, it's time for governments, companies and the political candidates to attend to people's emotions about unemployment and the economy — to lead our country to well-being as well as wealth in the next four years.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Judy Kuriansky is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University Teachers College, chair-elect of the Psychology Coalition at the United Nations, a member of the International Day of Happiness Committee and an author, most recently, of "Living in an Environmentally Traumatized World: Healing Ourselves and Our Planet."

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