The Importance of Being Happy

I was surprised last fall to see a short article in Science magazine (“Well-being in metrics and policy by C. Graham, K. Laffan, S. Pinto, 19 Oct 2018, p. 287-8, DOI: 10.1126/science.aau5234) targeted one of my pet non-academic projects. Namely, is our society’s narrow attention to financial wealth (and the things that go with it, such as the seemingly endless pursuit of money and material consumption), our best measure of social progress? That is, does a larger bank balance, salary, and house, actually make us feel happier, and better able to deal with life’s endless challenges? So I read the article from top to bottom.

The article begins by noting a modern paradox. Many of us living in first-world countries are economically and materially richer than ever before, and yet the wealthy societies we inhabit seem powerless to address an entire set of deep and broad social challenges, including “climate change, persistent poverty in poor countries, and increasing income inequality and unhappiness in many wealthy ones.” And paradoxes in wealth and quality of life abound. The US possesses one of the world’s wealthiest economies, but life expectancy in the US is falling. China’s economy is a success story in terms of rapid growth and falling poverty, but life satisfaction has fallen “dramatically” and China’s suicide rate is “one of the highest” in the world.

The rest of the article discusses best research practices for assessing well-being, identifies some specific factors that seem to correlate with life satisfaction of respondents worldwide (the 5 factors that correlate most strongly with life satisfaction are, from strongest to weakest correlation: log household income >> smiled yesterday ~ learned something yesterday ~ no health problems ~ freedom to choose what to do with your life), describes the three dimensions of well-being (hedonic, evaluative, and eudaimonic) that scholars focus on, and, in keeping with the article’s title, urges policy makers to consider well-being and life satisfaction in the formulation of public policy.

As for me, my policy choice has already been made. I’ll continue my meditation practice. Because, when it comes to cultivating balance, compassion, and an open mind and heart, paying attention to life as it happens seems like the most “profitable” practice of all.

Endnote #1. log household income refers to logarithm. This means a household must raise its income exponentially in order to raise the member’s life satisfaction. There are different kinds of logarithms, but I will assume log in this article is ‘logarithm base 10’. If that guess is correct, then raising household income from $100,000 per year to $1,000,000 per year has roughly the same effect on improved life satisfaction as raising income from $1,000,000 to $10,000,000 per year. Billionaires are likely to be more satisfied with their lives than the rest of us, but the gap isn’t as much as you might think. Finding something to smile about every day is a much cheaper alternative.

Endnote #2. Are you interested in learning more about scholarly definitions and tools for measuring well-being, life satisfaction, happiness, etc.? Take a look at this report from the National Academy of Sciences: A. Stone, C. Mackie, Eds. Subjective Well-Being: Measuring Happiness, Suffering, and Other Dimensions of Human Experience (The National Academies, 2013)