Happiness is grabbing an enormous amount of attention in terms of global public policy. A resolution passed at the UN General Assembly in July stated that “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal” embodying the globally agreed targets in the Millennium Development Goals.
UN member-states along with civil society groups and foundations also embraced the offer of Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan country that uniquely has adopted the concept of gross national happiness over gross domestic product as the barometer of developmental success, to convene a panel discussing happiness during the current General Assembly session in New York.
This campaign to bring happiness into the core of global governance builds on the momentum created by a number of national initiatives among developed states. The best known of these is the backing given by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France for the recommendations of a report by Nobel-prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen that wealth should be measured by an index of happiness.
And in a signal that demonstrates just how extensive the support for the happiness agenda has become, David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative prime minister, has also become a keen supporter of utilizing happiness to gauge his country’s mood. Pushing back on those critics who either reject such projects as “woolly” (with the project being caricatured as public policy with happy faces!) or simply as bad politics at a time of sometimes violent backlash against austerity, Cameron described happiness as one of the “central political issues of our time.”
As a big idea, happiness — or well-being — needs to be taken seriously. As many civil society groups recognize, the privileging of happiness helps fill a missing “human” gap between the organizational objectives they are advocating and implementing and the needs of people on the ground.
As reflected in the decision of Sarkozy to launch an inquiry into happiness in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, or Cameron’s concern about a “broken society,” the concept also serves as a means to counterbalance excessive greed or hyper-consumerism.
In all of this enthusiasm to embrace happiness as public policy the embedded psychological dimension of happiness should not be forgotten. After all, the scientific research on happiness tells convincingly that individuals have a level of happiness that we are born with, a genetic set point that accounts for about 50 per cent of our happiness quotient.
Within these limitations, however some key themes jump out about happiness that reveal why there is such enthusiasm for the concept in public policy circles. One theme subordinates “where we live” to “how we live.” In other words, you don’t have to live in the wealthiest area (or that with the best climatic conditions, such as California or the Mediterranean) to be happiest. Factors that are most important to happiness remain traditional ones: the sense of being involved with others and being part of a community.
Individuals also retain an amazing capacity to recover our happiness after negative or stressful events — a resilience that allows a reversion to the original level of happiness in a relatively short period of time.
But arguably the core take-away about happiness research, especially via the work of Daniel Kahneman, the eminent psychologist and Nobel laureate, has to do with the financial threshold of happiness.
Sarkozy and his commissioners can embrace work-life balance in a rich country such as France, with plentiful long weekends, holidays and shortened workweek built in. And the pursuit of all Millennium Development Goals in developing countries is highly advantageous in reinforcing community and resilience. But what should not be left out are the emotional desire and the rational need for individuals to reach an income that provides for basic security and material well-being. Why else do hosts of individuals throughout the world risk leaving their communities and test their resilience further through patterns of migration?
This focus on income has a marked threshold after which there is a process of diminishing returns in terms of an association with how much money adds to our emotional well-being and eventually makes no contribution. That is to say, there is a benchmark for income that we need to provide to ourselves — and others — but beyond a certain point of increasing amounts of income there is no equivalent increase in happiness.
In an era of market turbulence, such a core insight retains enormous value in public policy terms. Rather than taking an inward parochial turn, there is a great logic in pushing the happiness agenda forward, not as a distraction from our problems, either as individuals or as member of society, but as a fundamental ingredient to solving problems of inequality and stability beyond our borders.
Andrew Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo and a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Sarah Maddocks is a Toronto clinical psychologist