Gross National Happiness and National Priorities

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Gross National Happiness and National Priorities

In the July 2004 and June 2006 issues of Trends, we discussed what neuroscientists, psychologists, and economists have learned about happiness. To sum up: Research shows that there is a direct relationship between income and happiness in the lowest income brackets. However, once people reach the level of middle-class income, they no longer become happier as their incomes go up.

Edward Diener, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, concludes that lacking money causes unhappiness, but having more money does not cause more happiness. Millionaires are no happier than people of average income. As a group, the old are happier than the young.

A 2002 study showed that the percentage of Americans who said they were "very happy" was no greater than it was in the 1950s, even though the average American's real income went up by more that 200 percent from 1957 to 2002.

According to Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University, 50 years of research shows that the happiest people are those who have the best relationships. Moreover, having solid relationships seems to help people stay in good health and live longer.

Brian Knutson, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University, tracks changes in the brain to measure happiness. Knutson found that the anticipation of a reward often causes greater feelings of happiness than actually receiving it. In one study, Knutson asked test subjects to play a video game. He found that people were actually happier, as measured by oxygen flow in the brain, when they anticipated winning money than when they actually won the money.

Now, an important new addition has been made to the newly emerging science of happiness research. Arthur C. Brooks, professor of business and government policy at Syracuse University, has published a book titled Gross National Happiness1 that distills nearly five decades of research into what makes people happy. The well-supported conclusions are valuable for individuals, managers, and policy makers. Consider just seven of the most important findings:

First, happiness increases as we acquire material rewards up to a level of about $10,000 per capita per year. Above that level, having more, in and of itself, does not seem to make much of a difference.

Second, above the cut-off just mentioned, it is increased relative wealth that makes people happier. Research shows that people use money to keep score and making more money gives them validation that they are adding value.

Third, marriage improves happiness...

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