Positive Politics and Government

6 Reasons (Backed by Science ) to Make Happiness a National Priority

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Americans are so used to national goals like economic growth, military dominance, and reducing crime rates that suggesting increased wellbeing or happiness as national goals may seem silly, naïve or just impractical. But a closer look reveals the opposite to be true. Scientific research shows that happiness has a variety of practical benefits that can make a society wealthier, healthier and safer. Here are six reasons backed by science for making happiness and wellbeing national goals that we track, measure and consider in how we run our communities, companies and country:

One – Happy People are Healthier People:

Happiness has been shown in scientific studies to benefit the functioning of the immune system.[1] In other words, happier people on average don’t get sick as often or as severely as unhappy people. In part this may be because happier people tend to take better care of themselves physically than unhappy people. Ilona Boniwell reports that “Optimists report more health-promoting behaviors (like eating a healthy diet or having regular medical check-ups) and enjoy better physical health than pessimists.”[2] But it’s not just that happier people take better care of the themselves.

Positive emotions can eliminate psychological and physiological stresses, which wear down the immune system. Chronic stress can lead to headaches, insomnia, irritability, anxiety, depression and difficulty with digestion. It can raise the risk of hypertension, contribute to the rise of heart and lung disease, and exacerbate type 2 diabetes. All of these health problems cost the people who suffer from them (and their insurance companies) billions every year to treat. They lead to workers missing more days and hours of work, or to less productive hours when they try to soldier through the symptoms. Unhappy people put a greater strain on a struggling healthcare system and on their employers.

Chronic stress can also contribute to overeating and abuse of narcotics and alcohol as people try to medicate themselves with their drug of choice, so positive emotion may be a line of defense against substance abuse.  And stressbusting is not the only reason that happiness may be one of our best defenses against addiction.

Two – Happy People are Less Prone to Addiction:

With the opioid crisis in full swing, addiction is once again climbing high on the public agenda. Research begun by psychologist Bruce Alexander almost two decades ago is finally starting to shake up much of what we thought we knew about addiction and suggests that a life of enjoyment, fulfillment and relationships can act as an effective preventative to and can aid recovery from addiction.

Much of the modern understanding of addiction rests on experiments done on rats from the 1960s to the 1980s in which rats in cages were given the choice to take drugs (heroin, cocaine, etc.) by pushing a lever. The rats became hopelessly hooked on the junk and met catastrophic ends. The conclusions seemed clear: the chemicals in these drugs essentially hijack the brain and develop a crippling dependence. Alexander was initially as convinced as anyone, but a few observations made him question the dominant paradigm. First, he noted, rats are “highly social, sexual, and industrious creatures” who were for the purposes of experiment being held in total isolation with almost no room to move, exercise or work. If a human were put in such a situation for long enough, he reasoned, they would likely take whatever drug was put in front of them as often as possible to mentally escape their situation. Second, he noticed, getting the drugs took virtually no effort and there was nothing else to do anyway. Simple boredom and lack of alternatives could drive the compulsive behavior. Third, he said, was that rats are not humans, plain and simple.

The young researcher and his colleagues sought to compare the rats in cages with rats in an environment that they actually enjoyed. And so “Rat Park” was born – loaded with food, toys, companions of both sexes, ramps for climbing, hamster wheels for exercising and dark places to hide, along with clean water and drugged water. As it turns out, the happy residents of Rat Park consumed a lot less drugs than the rats in isolation. If the addictiveness of the drugs were solely functions of the chemical hooks they contained or the genetic vulnerability of the rats to those hooks, there should have been no difference between the two groups. But happy lives seem to be less likely to end in addiction, even when drugs are tried and easily available.

Alexander’s research extended to humans as well. Though the kinds of experiments he performed on rats would be unthinkable to perform on humans, he did identify “natural experiments” throughout history. For example, Native American tribes whose cultures and hopes were destroyed faced major problems with alcoholism, while those tribes whose cultures persevered did not, even when alcohol was equally available to them. The United States Government found that roughly 15% of American soldiers fighting in Vietnam were addicted to heroin. But they also found that once out of the hell of war and back home, only about 5 percent of the addicts relapsed. In 2001, facing one of the worst drug problems in the developed world, Portugal decriminalized all drugs and replaced harsh sentences with small fines and sometimes referral to treatment. In general, addicts are actively encouraged and supported in their efforts to integrate into society productively through rehabilitation, therapy and employment programs. As a result, the British Journal of Criminology reports that intravenous drug use is down in Portugal by a whopping 50 percent. Lifetime use, past-year use and past-month use are all down significantly, as are drug related deaths and drug-related HIV contraction. The War on Drugs in the United States and other countries has cost billions of dollars, penalized millions of people and seen nothing close to these kinds of results.

A new understanding of what hooks people on unhealthy things is developing. In response Peter Cohen, a prominent medical researcher in the Netherlands, is calling for the medical community to essentially scrap the concept of “addiction”, and instead calls the phenomenon a manifestation of normal human bonding. In other words, when a person lacks bonds to things like supportive relationships, meaningful work, healthy food etc., they may bond with chemicals or unhealthy activities that provide bursts of pleasure. The strength of these unhealthy bonds are largely dependent on whether a person has healthier, happier things with which to bond instead.[3]

In short, widespread public happiness would provide a buffer against the spread of addiction, and greater ease in breaking established addictions. The Federal Government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that substance abuse costs the country more than $484 billion per year, including health care expenditures, lost earnings, and costs associated with crime and accidents. Investing in human happiness will pay huge dividends – both financial and social – in combatting addiction.

Three – Happy People are Better in the Workplace:

Happiness also makes for better entrepreneurs, bosses and workers. One reason for this is that happy people have been found to be more engaged in activity at work.[4] This may be because they also tend be less distracted by personal problems like health issues, substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships and the like.[5]

Another reason is that once engaged, they tend to persevere. Ed Diener, one of the leading researchers in the field of positive psychology, found that happy people persist longer at less enjoyable tasks, are better at multi-tasking and are more systematic and attentive. In his work with Martin Seligman, he also found that “those who are dispositionally happy or artificially put in a happy mood outperform others in various tasks such as accurate decision making, clerical error checking, anagram solving, original and flexible thinking.”[6] His research also found that happy people are more likely to graduate college, find and retain a job, get better pay and evaluations at their jobs, and to find new jobs quickly if they become unemployed.[7]

The research on optimists bears this out as well, showing that they are more likely to exert continuous effort and less likely to give up[8]. The process of building, running or working in a business or nonprofit is always full of setbacks and obstacles. Success is often a matter of perseverance and persistence when faced with them. Optimism seems to be quite a force for success. “Optimism is conducive to problem-focused coping, humor, making plans, positive reframing (putting the situation in the best possible light) and, when the situation is uncontrollable, accepting the reality of the situation.” All this is likely why a variety of studies show optimists to be more productive in the workplace.[9] What manager wouldn’t want workers who are creative problem solvers, pleasant to be around, practical and forward thinking? What worker wouldn’t want such a manager?

Barbara Frederickson’s work showed that experiencing positive emotions makes us more likely to be creative, pick up on opportunities, open ourselves to relationships with others, play and show more personal flexibility and open-mindedness.  And measures of overall well-being show a strong influence on creativity and divergent thinking.[10]  In short, it seems that felicity is a force for producing results in economic endeavors of all kinds.

Four – Happy People Are Better Neighbors and Citizens:

There is also evidence that people who feel better tend to treat others better. In political terms, happiness has been shown to increase civic virtue.

Psychologist Alice Isen has run a variety of what must have been among the most uplifting experiments in the world for all involved. In Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, Isen left dimes in payphones[11] for random strangers, who were then met with one of Isen’s confederates who would “accidentally” drop a stack of papers.  Those who found the dimes were more likely to help gather up the papers. She found similar results by giving people small gifts (candy, cookies, packs of stationary), showing them happy pictures and rigging video games for them to win. In all scenarios, a little burst of happiness brought out the kinder, more helpful side of people.[12]

This is not just a pleasant side effect, but a vital need in society and one that is undervalued at our peril. Acts of kindness and helpfulness improve trust and connection and facilitate the building of “social capital”, a concept famously articulated by sociologist Robert Putnam as an important part of a functioning democratic society. Put simply, social capital is a measure of the connections we have in our lives. Putnam studied voluntary organizations, from bowling leagues to fraternal organizations to and he and those who have followed have noted a decline in social capital.

Nowhere is this decline in trust and connection more visible than in American political life. People with opposing views no longer simply disagree about policy; they ascribe sinister motives and evil characteristics to those on “the other side”.  People who support the “wrong” party or candidate are accused of hating and even wanting to destroy America. In one example, radio talk show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones said of Hillary Clinton:

“She is an abject, psychopathic, demon from Hell that as soon as she gets into power is going to try to destroy the planet. I’m sure of that, and people around her say she’s so dark now, and so evil, and so possessed that they are having nightmares, they’re freaking out…I’’m telling you, she is a demon…I’m told her and Obama, just stink, stink, stink, stink. You can’t wash that evil off, man. Told there’s a rotten smell around Hillary. I’m not kidding, people say, they say — folks, I’ve been told this by high up folks. They say listen, Obama and Hillary both smell like sulfur. I never said this because the media will go crazy with it, but I’ve talked to people that are in protective details, they’re scared of her. And they say listen, she’s a frickin’ demon and she stinks and so does Obama. I go, like what? Sulfur. They smell like Hell.”

Such rhetoric is certainly not limited to the political right. Trump’s opponents call him derogatory names from “Orange Hitler” to “The Cheeto” and attack him mercilessly as well. Divisive rhetoric has turned to violence and even death at campaign rallies, protests and in other smaller incidents across the country. This kind of mutual hatred and distrust decreases the chances of cooperation, compromise and compliance – all very important parts of a functioning democracy. If making people’s lives happier makes them kinder, more civil and more prone to build connection with others; that in itself is a reason to make widespread public happiness a national goal.

It appears that improving happiness has the potential to directly improve the level of social capital in the United States. Kesebir and Diener list a variety of studies that show positive feelings, higher life satisfaction and higher levels of happiness in general tend to bring out the best in people as social creatures making them more social and cooperative, more trusting, and more ethical.[13] Ruut Veenhoven also found that happy people tend to not only make more friends, but are more likely to participate in the kind of voluntary organizations that Putnam has emphasized.[14]  Happiness, as it turns out, is vital to a functioning democracy.

Five – Happiness is Contagious:

All of these benefits are compounded by the fact that happiness is in no way a zero-sum game. One of the most wonderful things about happiness is that the benefits do not only accrue to the individual who finds it. The more one person has, the more everyone can have. Research in the science of networks demonstrates that happiness is quite literally contagious.[15] Happy people tend to help make those around them happy as well. The Gallup-Healthways Global Wellbeing Study found that:

“According to a 30-year longitudinal study involving more than 12,000 people who were all part of an interconnected network, Harvard researchers found that the odds that any one individual in the network would be happy increased by 15% if someone they were directly connected to in the network was happy. Further, if a direct connection’s friend was happy, the direct connection’s happiness increased by 15% and the original individual’s happiness increased by 10%, even though that person had no direct interaction with or in many cases did not personally know the direct connection’s friend.”[16]

This makes pursuing a Politics of Happiness even more practical and well-advised. Where positive gains are made, they are not going to be limited to those directly influenced.

Six: Our Current Goals and Measures Aren’t Working Out So Well

When assessing “how America is doing” and prescribing policies to address our problems, we tend to focus on a few main goals: national and individual wealth, power and safety are primary among them. To assess our progress toward these goals, we rely heavily on standard measures of progress toward like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which measures overall national wealth, stock market performance or the unemployment rate for an understanding of individual wealth. We evaluate the power of our military and track crime rates to find out how safe we are. Each of these measures tells us something about the progress toward the goals they are intended to assess, but not as much as we might think. And while they all are related in some way to well-being and happiness, the measures tell us even less about how we are doing in those areas.

National Wealth

Putting aside happiness; GDP and Stock Market performance give absolutely no indication of the economic security of individuals and families. GDP has risen steadily since the Great Depression, with occasional dips and dives. And the Dow Jones Industrial Average, despite the occasional crash, has increased greatly since the 1950s. Yet for most American workers, average wages have stagnated or declined for decades. Adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has about the same purchasing power it did in 1979. The percentage of workers with pensions has dropped from 35% in the 1990s to less than 18% today. Most Americans now work more hours and have less time off than they did in the past. Aside from the very top income earners, who have seen their wealth skyrocket, Americans today are less financially secure than they were a few decades ago, despite strong gains in GDP and the stock market.

Prioritizing economic growth above all else has come at the cost of serious damage to the environment and thus to human health. Oil, coal and gas have been useful and profitable, but air pollution from burning them leads to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, premature birth, infant and adult mortality and more. Add water and soil pollution to the mix and impact of unrestrained economic growth is vast and devastating. The direct effect is unhappiness faced by individuals and families who contract disease and lose loved ones because of them, the animals and plants that are irreparably harmed or killed and the loss of green spaces, productive agricultural land and waters depended on for food production. The indirect impact includes a strain on the healthcare system, loss of productivity among workers, and decreases in property values.

It should probably not be surprising that research shows growth in GDP and in stock prices have not been accompanied by an increase in any measures of happiness and subjective well-being, at least in developed nations like the United States. Reported happiness and life satisfaction have been stagnant in countries where overall wealth has increased substantially since World War II. Not only that, but some studies have actually documented a “paradox of unhappy growth” in countries above the global median in wealth and that are growing at a rate higher than the median growth rate. According to these studies, rapid economic growth actually can drive declines in national happiness and wellbeing. Other studies show economic growth to be correlated with decreases in perceived standard of living and satisfaction with health. Thus, national economic growth for its own sake does nothing to guarantee that the benefits will be broadly enjoyed, but ensures that the costs will be broadly borne. Individual wealth and employment as goals fare better as goals, but not by much.


Studies do show that work is strongly related to personal well-being and fulfillment, so unemployment is certainly worth tracking. But even this focus is deeply flawed. Aside from the usual complaint that the unemployment rate is biased downward because it only counts those actively looking for work, there are other reasons that it is inadequate as a guide, particularly when it comes to human happiness.

First, the unemployment rate says nothing about whether people are engaged in work they find fulfilling, meaningful and enjoyable. If everyone who currently has a job they found meaningful were suddenly thrust into a job that broke their soul and their back on a daily basis, the unemployment rate would change not at all, but you can be sure that wellbeing would suffer. Second, the unemployment rate says nothing about the economic security of those jobs. If every professional whose job included a generous salary, benefits and vacation time were suddenly thrust into a minimum wage job with no benefits and the constant threat of layoff, the unemployment rate would likewise change not at all.

Finally, too much focus on the unemployment rate tends to undervalue the role of men and women who choose to stay home and raise a family. If everyone who truly desired to follow the domestic path suddenly had a partner who could afford to provide enough for the entire family and let them live their dream, it may not directly impact the unemployment rate (since only those looking for work are counted), but those who interpret the numbers for the public would generally see and describe a catastrophe. It is very common for those who interpret these numbers for the public to refer to people leaving the labor force as those who have “given up” and either imply or directly say that they are now mooching on the system, living off government cheese and refusing to get off their butts and contribute. Even if the reality were a huge number of Americans joyfully taking on the noble challenge of caring for a family, there would be enormous pressure on politicians to define it as a problem and to “fix it”.

Our leaders are missing the mark when they are hyper-focused on maximizing the growth of the economy, or continually boosting stock prices, or raising incomes, or lowering the unemployment rate. These are not bad things in and of themselves. But not only do these measures fail to guide use toward widespread public well-being, when taken as the only worthy goals they can actually lead us further in the opposite direction. According to the psychological research, a better goal would be to maximize the number of people who feel secure and content financially regardless of the raw number of dollars they make in a given year and to maximize the number of people who feel a sense of security and purpose and pride in their work.

Power and Safety

Since the United States ascended to “superpower” status after World War II, its leaders and its people have gotten used to the role and have come to expect and demand to continually be the most powerful nation on earth. We now measure, at least in large part, our fulfillment of America’s potential based on the might of our military and our influence over world affairs.

Studies show that like national wealth, national strength is also not correlated with the happiness of the people. The most economically and militarily powerful nations on earth (including the US) generally do not even crack the top ten in lists of countries with the highest happiness and wellbeing. A foreign invasion would certainly be crushing to the happiness of Americans, and so a strong national defense is something to be valued. But it is also worth looking at Costa Rica, a country that consistently lands at or near the top in studies of national happiness and wellbeing and yet has no military at all. In fact, none of the countries that consistently score at the top on such measures are known for their military dominance. Surely America can find a happy middle ground between spending a quarter of its discretionary budget on defense in an effort to dominate the earth and total disarmament. Stronger is not the equivalent of happier.

Internal safety is almost certainly more important for the happiness and wellbeing of the people than maintaining global hegemony, and so our politicians also focus a great deal on crime rates. The rate of violent crime is certainly important when it comes to maintaining a happy nation. Happy people generally are not violent people, and so the rate itself can tell us something about felicity in America. And of course violent crime can not only be devastating to the happiness of a victim, but also to those who love them and more broadly to the community in which they live whose lives become more frightening and insecure overall. But the overall crime rate is something else entirely. Here, too, we need to look critically at what we are measuring.

The fallibility of the crime rate as a measure has to do with what, exactly, is being classified as a crime. The War on Drugs in the United States made drug use and even possession itself a criminal offense. While drugs surely have the potential to damage lives, many drug users and even many of those who sell drugs do no violence to others, steal from no one and damage no property. Unlike those who commit acts of violence, theft or vandalism their commission of a “crime” may say nothing about their own happiness, and may have no effect on the happiness of others. The classification of what is and is not a crime also makes international comparisons all but useless. Since Portugal has decriminalized all drugs, even if they had the exact same proportion of drug users and sellers as the United States they would have a dramatically lower crime rate since no one there is being prosecuted for such actions. In the same way, prostitution is legally accepted in countries like the Netherlands but considered criminal activity in most of the United States. So overall crime rates tell us little about how we compare on a global scale.  Better measures would tell us how safe people feel in their homes and communities and how much they trust those around them.

In short, wealth, power and safety are all highly touted goals in the American political system, and we pay great attention to measures that purport to tell us how we are doing in attaining those goals. Yet there are serious problems sometimes with the goals themselves and sometimes with how we define and measure those goals. While it would be unwise to abandon the goals of wealth, power and safety altogether, it would be very wise to add happiness and wellbeing to that list and to track them with as much or more vigor.


In short, there are six practical, research based reasons to make happiness and wellbeing a national priority. Some of the leading minds in psychology and economics are already pushing for this and it is not in the realm of the theoretical anymore. The government of the United States has already adopted some such measures in a few agencies. The government of France has moved in that direction as well and the United Kingdom has done so more comprehensively. The Kingdom of Bhutan has jettisoned traditional economic measures altogether and adopted and measured “Gross National Happiness” as their national goal instead. If we can gear our nation toward wellbeing at the individual, organizational and governmental level, we would be much better off for it.

January 2, 2018 | Ryan Rynbrandt

[1] Cohen, S., Doyle, W.J., Turner, R.B., Alper, C. M., &  Skoner, D.P. (2003). Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychosomatic Medicine 6,5 , 652-657.

[2] See  Ilona Boniwell (2012). Positive Psychology in a Nutshell: the science of happiness (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill) and Cohen et al 2003

[3] Peter Cohen (2009), The Naked Empress. Modern neuro-science and the concept of addiction. Presentation at the 12th Plaform for Drug Treatment, Mondsee Austria, 21-22 March 2009.

[4] Ruut Veenhoven, (2010)  How Universal is Happiness in Ed Diener, John F. Helliwell and Daniel Kahneman eds, International Differences in Wellbeing (New York, NY: Oxford University Press)

[5] Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener (2008) Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing) p.86

[6] Ed Diener & Martin Seligman (2004). Beyond money; Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 5, 1-31.

[7] Diener, E., Nickerson, C., Lucas, R.E., &  Sandvik, E. (2002). Dispositional affect and job outcomes. Social Indicator Research 5, 9 ,229-259.  It should be noted that in these studies the researchers were carefully to ensure that they were correctly identifying happiness as the cause and not the effect of these things.  See article for a description of their methods.

[8] Ilona Boniwell (2012). Positive Psychology in a Nutshell: the science of happiness (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill) p 20

[9] Robbins et. Al 1991, Carver and Scheier, 2002.

[10] Ilona Boniwell (2012). Positive Psychology in a Nutshell: the science of happiness (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill) p 38

[11] For my younger readers: city streets, hotel and hospital lobbies, schools and other places used to have coin operated phones called “payphones” and at one point a single call could be placed for just a dime! I myself am old enough to remember and to have used payphones, but just young enough to remember that calls were up to 25 cents when I was using them.

[12] Jonathan Haidt (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom.(New York: Basic Books) page 173.

[13] Pelin Kesebir and Ed Diener (2008), In Pursuit of Happiness: Empirical Answers to Philosophical Questions. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 3, 2, 117-125.

[14] Ruut Veenhoven, (2010)  How Universal is Happiness in Ed Diener, John F. Helliwell and Daniel Kahneman eds, International Differences in Wellbeing (New York, NY: Oxford University Press)

[15] See also Hill, E.M et al (2015, Aug 19). Spreading of healthy mood in adolescent social networks.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 282 (1813)

[16] State of Global Wellbeing: Results of the Gallup Healthways Global Wellbeing Index page 10

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