Happiness, GDP, and the Presidential Race

PHOTO: Happiness, GOP and the Presidential RaceGetty Images
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.

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.

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."