Happiness: economists want to measure it, researchers want to understand it and we all want it – but is it really what we need?
Happiness is officially big business.
The chairman of the Federal Reserve believes measuring national happiness could be an effective method of tracking economic progress – maybe even as important as inflation or employment statistics. In a video presentation at a conference of economists and statisticians, Ben Bernanke argued it may be the key to understanding the country’s well-being, while being the ultimate goal of all his department’s economic decisions.
He’s far from the first to jump to this conclusion – the country of Bhutan has been tracking GNH (Gross National Happiness) since 1972, as journalist Eric Weiner explores in his hilariously grumpy travelogue The Geography of Bliss. It’s also not the first time Bernanke has mentioned happiness studies – in a May 2010 commencement speech at the University of South Carolina, Bernanke cited research suggesting that beyond a level of wealth that financed our basic needs, there was no correlation between money and happiness.
So, you’re suggesting telling this to America, right now? As Christopher Rugaber notes in his article for AP/NBC News, “you don’t need money to be happy” and it won’t go down terribly well with a nation struggling with a slumped economy and a truly terrifying amount of national debt – all this during the upheaval of a presidential election campaign. Rich people telling poorer people they don’t need money to be happy? Wince.
However, science may be on Bernanke’s side. Recently released results of 4 experiments published in the journal Psychological Science point to a lack of correlation between “socioeconomic status” and well-being, with happiness instead being driven by peer respect and admiration. In short, happiness isn’t about what we have in our pockets, it’s all about who we hang out with. (Could this be the reason for the boom in online social media at a time of global economic strife and its associated mood-dampening effects? One to ponder).
But are we in pursuit of the healthiest thing here? The so-called self-help revolution is all about nailing down a lifestyle that fills our days with joy – but is that what we truly need right now? Writer and blogger Penelope Trunk thinks we’re barking up the wrong tree. In conversation with Dan Schwabel at Forbes, she said:
…people should focus on how interesting their life is. In fact, many people already intuitively aim for interestingness rather than happiness. But they don’t have the language to describe what they are doing. They feel out of step with the rest of the country, maybe, but in fact, they are leading the path to the new American Dream. […] Engagement, fulfillment, continual learning, these are things that feel good. And they are much more attainable than the old-school version of happiness.
Could it be the key to true happiness is unfulfillment?
Further reading: Check out The Happiness Project, from #1 New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Rubin.
Image: Charles Chan