The Politics of Happiness

Are the typical  economic indices largely used to measure well-being in the USA (GDP, employment and inflation as basics) adequate to measure American health and well-being? Many think not. But most still argue the “facts” of economics. There are, however, those still small voices that argue, as did psychology professor Martin Seligman in his book Flourish:

…[G]ross domestic product should no longer be the only serious index of how well a nation is doing. It is not just the alarming divergence between quality of life and GDP that warrants this conclusion. Policy itself follows from what is measured, and if all that is measured is money, all policy will be about getting more money.

In fact there are nations of people who are no-where near the top of the list of countries with strong GDPs who strongly argue for a more holistic approach to development such as Bhutan who spearheaded the General Assembly’s 2011 resolution 65/309 entitled “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development.” They and many others from diverse fields of expertise and interest argue for a shift away from monetary measures only. Yet the American media and politicians still prefer to “bite size” support for policy in primarily monetary terms. After all, “it’s the economy stupid.” This and much of the “body language” in America reduces success, satisfaction and the human quest to dollar signs.

What Really Constitutes Well-Being?

Meanwhile, a 2013 study conducted by Healthways and Gallup measured key elements determined to be essential to well-being in their “Well-Being 5 Survey.”  This survey measured five essential elements of well-being, not just one to create a Well-Being index incorporating:

  • Purpose: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: Having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: Liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Physical: Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

This along with other research supports the call for a shift in focus away from the singular focus on monetary measures. For example, Diener and Tay’s findings in their 2011 study indicate that there are universal needs that are not substitutable for each other and it is a balance amongst all these that affects a person’s sense of well-being. So while financial concerns and our satisfaction of basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, safety) have a major role, our other needs, such as social relationships, respect, mastery and autonomy are also significant. These findings re-invent Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the same way the food pyramid has recently been. All is not a simply linear process that builds one on the other. Rather there is interrelationship of various components, each with their own integrity rather being is a simplistic dependent relationship.

Maslow 2.0

This indicates that the reduction of well-being to purely monetary measures is not only inaccurate, but at the policy level, is sending our society in the wrong direction. One that will be more expensive to say nothing of the other complications that will occur when all the needs of a nations citizenry are not met.

For example, if you tie together these Gallup studies alone, the financial cost of disregarding emotional health and happiness become pretty obvious:

Smoking Linked to $278 Billion in Losses for U.S. Employers
Americans Who Hate Their Jobs Are More Likely to Smoke
Americans Who Smoke Suffer Emotionally
Depression Costs U.S. Workplaces $23 Billion in Absenteeism 

The solution isn’t simplistically “more money.” Rather the solution lies in building facets into the work environment that address the needs for respect, mastery and autonomy. And most of these are highly cost-effective to implement:

Science_of_WB_online_2_pdf-2Areas of Greatest Opportunity

Another way of looking at this can be seen in this figure taken from the benchmarking that Healthways has done in their Science of Well-Being which is an endeavor to provide useful, actionable information to those in positions to develop corporate or national policy regarding well-being programs. This show that the areas of greatest opportunity to improve productivity lie in :

  • providing resources
  • building personal capacities for personal problem solving
  • providing training
  • improving physical health and
  • helping people deal with depression and anxiety

As we pay as much attention to the non-financial areas of human need as we do to the monetary, we will be doing ourselves, our communities, companies and nation a real and measurable service.

Then there is The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being by Derek Bok.