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Column Real success is about happiness, not wealth

Recent decades have seen an explosion in economic growth – yet we’re no happier than we were 60 years ago. We need to change how we measure progress, argues Mark Williamson.

THERE’S A PARADOX at the heart of modern life. Recent decades have brought unprecedented growth in average incomes, but surveys consistently show that we’re no happier now than we were sixty years ago. This startling fact is behind the launch of Action for Happiness, a movement of people and organisations committed to helping build a happier society.

It’s based on the idea that the best society is one where as many people as possible live happy, fulfilling lives and as few as possible live unhappy lives, whether due to deprivation, depression, isolation or anything else. But if we want that kind of society, we’ve got to approach our lives in a way that prioritises the things that really matter, especially the happiness of others around us.

With many families and communities facing difficult economic times, job insecurity and savage spending cuts, it may, at first glance, seem naïve to talk about happiness. But on the contrary, now more than ever we need to help people build their emotional resilience and create a culture where we are less preoccupied with material wealth and more focused on each other’s wellbeing; where people from all walks of life come together to make positive changes in their personal lives, families, workplaces and neighbourhoods.

Over the last 50 years we’ve made great progress in terms of living standards and material wealth, reaching a point that previous generations could only have dreamed of – and perhaps one that future generations will look back at longingly. The engine for this progress has been continued economic growth, which has become the yardstick of success for our societies. But most of us recognise that this economic progress is really just the means to an end, not the end in itself. We’ve focused on growth because it’s seen as a useful indicator of how well our lives are going.

‘We’ve seen huge increases in anxiety and depression’

But the sad fact is that economic growth isn’t delivering social progress in the way we had hoped. Despite all our material progress, people in many developed countries are no happier than they were six decades ago. Over that same period our societies have become increasingly competitive and selfish, with a culture that encourages us to pursue possessions, appearance and status above all else.

In the 1960s, 60% of adults in Britain said they believed “most people can be trusted”. Today the figure is around 30%. Our growing focus on self-centred materialism has also contributed to wider social problems. We’ve seen huge increases in anxiety and depression in young people, greater inequality, more family breakdown, growing environmental problems and crippling levels of debt.

Professor Tim Jackson puts it best: “We’re being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about”.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. The good news is that by focusing our time and energy instead on things that have been shown to consistently bring happiness, we can live much more rewarding lives. These things include loving families, close friendships, good self-awareness, strong communities, doing things for others, and having some kind of greater purpose to our lives.

These ideas are not new and we instinctively know their importance. But this wisdom of the ages is now backed up by a growing body of research into the causes of happiness, from fields as diverse as neuroscience, psychology and economics. The findings confirm that our relationships and mental health have a much greater impact on our overall wellbeing than our income or possessions.

Happier people live longer

A recent analysis of 160 different studies found “clear and compelling” evidence that happier people, on average, have better health and live longer. But focusing on happiness isn’t just great for us as individuals, it also brings huge benefits for the organisations we work for and for society at large. For example, evidence also shows that happier people are more creative, more productive and do more to help others. Also happiness has been shown to be contagious, so happier people in turn have a positive influence on others through their relationships and social networks.

Action for Happiness is based on this new science and the evidence that we can affect our happiness. The movement is growing fast and already has over 16,000 members signed up in over 100 countries. Members take a simple yet profound personal pledge: “I will try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around”. They then try to take practical everyday actions that not only help boost their own happiness, but also help to create happier families, more positive workplaces and stronger communities. These actions are simple and include finding things to be grateful for each day, trying out something new or different and looking for the good in others. They also include skills to be more “mindful” in our thinking.

Following the findings from the international commission set by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, an increasing array of governments are planning to introduce new measurements of well-being to complement existing financial indicators of progress such as GDP. This a huge step forward, but we need much more than just measurement. In truth we need a fundamental cultural shift away from self-obsessed, materialism towards a more balanced society which values well-being, trust and positive relationships – and where people care more about each other.

When people do good, they feel good. By choosing to live in a way that prioritises the happiness of those around us, we can create this vital shift in societal values. So let’s stop aiming for lives filled with riches and focus instead on helping people lead richer, happier lives.

Join Action for Happiness today and take the pledge.

Mark Williamson is director of Action for Happiness.

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