The Blog

The Happiness Agenda in America

Will America heed the happiness call, buttressed by increasing research into the causes of happiness, and set a new public and personal agenda in this country, namely greater attention to increasing our happiness and decreasing our misery?
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

The verdict is in: Happiness is hot! For centuries thinkers have mused on the topic of happiness, but never before has there been such a global demand for more focused attention on getting us to a happier place. In fact, the United Nations General Assembly has invited member states to "pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development with a view to guiding their public policies." The historic World Happiness Report, commissioned by the U.N., has now been published by Columbia University's Earth Institute. The question is: Will America heed the happiness call, buttressed by increasing research into the causes of happiness, and set a new public and personal agenda in this country, namely greater attention to increasing our happiness and decreasing our misery -- in each case, with nominal, if any, cost to our institutions of government or us as individuals?

The state of America's happiness leaves ample room for enhancement. We are 11th on the list of happiest countries in the world. We also worry a lot. In January 2012 Gallup released information about the high levels of financial worries in the U.S. In 2012, 51 percent of Americans are worried about maintaining their current standard of living, 43 percent about paying medical bills, and 34 percent about becoming unemployed in the next 12 months. In 2004 these figures were 34 percent, 32 percent and 21 percent, respectively. Further, studies have shown that higher average incomes do not necessarily improve average well-being. For example, according to the World Happiness Report, "U.S. GNP per capita has risen by a factor of three since 1960, while measures of average happiness have remained essentially unchanged over the half-century."

An important concept in happiness economics is the Easterlin Paradox, coined and trumpeted by economist Richard Easterlin of the University of Southern California. Easterlin found that while people within a particular country with higher incomes have a greater likelihood of being happy, over time happiness does not increase when a country's income increases, at least for countries that have sufficient income to meet basic needs. While the Easterlin Paradox has been analyzed and debated, the statistics cannot be ignored for argument's sake. There is no escaping a critical fact: America would benefit exponentially by a coherent, targeted happiness agenda.

Such an agenda must be championed by both political leaders and each one of us as individuals. Government -- at all levels -- must take a stand on happiness in this country. Various world leaders and governments have stepped up to the happiness plate. As an example, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has said, in connection with his launching of a new happiness inquiry, that "improving our society's sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times."

The Bhutanese have taken a massive leadership role in measuring and using government to increase the happiness of its population. In 1972, the Fourth King of Bhutan declared the concept of Gross National Happiness to be paramount to Bhutan. The Constitution of Bhutan (2008, Article 9) directs the state "to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness." Thailand, after the military coup of 2006, promulgated a happiness index and releases monthly Gross National Happiness data.

Recently, here at home, experts in psychology and economics, including Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, have been participating on a panel, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to attempt to define reliable measures of "subjective well-being." President Obama is reported to have "welcomed" the panel's endeavor. The ability of government to take a more direct role in fostering happiness is not, however, limited to the federal government. State and local governmental bodies can also be influential in bringing communities closer to maximum happiness. And as it turns out, if structured properly, and no matter the level of government, taxpayers need not pay the bill!

Much of the focus of government's role in fostering happiness to date has been on its expenditure of taxpayer money to fund studies intended to measure happiness, perhaps as an alternative to the GNP or otherwise as criteria to evaluate public policy. Debate has ensued over the proper role of government to get in the "feelings business," opponents arguing that with historic debt, unconscionable unemployment, and a host of other financial priorities, funding happiness studies may not be prudent at this time, if ever. Notwithstanding the debate on government's role, I would proffer a new focus for government, namely, taking the lead in structuring public-private partnerships to increase happiness within our communities.

A great example of this is something that happens to be close to me and my family. A little more than five years ago, we lost my father, Benedict "Ben" Brocato, at an early age to heart failure. At the time of his death he was the longest-serving current Alderman in the City of Berwyn, Ill. -- my hometown. A park near where I grew up was recently renamed Brocato Park, which includes a playground and garden, and was entirely rebuilt through a wonderfully-powerful partnership among the North Berwyn Park District, the City of Berwyn, not-for-profit organization Kaboom! and its generous funding partner, Disney, as well as residents and community businesses. In just under eight hours, with more than 350 community volunteers, Brocato Park was a reality. Everyone present rallied around one goal: to work and build a brand new playground and garden in one day.

At Intense Coaching and Consulting Worldwide, we believe that working hard (whether for payment or not) is a major foundation stone for happiness. Everyone was working hard building Brocato Park, and the contagion of happiness that day in the park will not be soon forgotten by those present. Further, the recruitment of volunteers provided an excellent opportunity for individuals to increase their existing skills and learn new skills, allowing them to remain competitive in the market for their services -- a positive by-product of the project. Government -- at all levels -- can and should look for ways to emulate the Brocato Park endeavor, through similar public-private partnerships. Doing so will both assist people in maximizing their ability to remain employed and secure employment in the future and provide opportunities for individuals within communities to work together more -- resulting in increased happiness for entire communities.

We, as individuals, also must have an agenda for our own happiness. Government must not be viewed or relied upon as the sole, or even primary, means by which we derive happiness as Americans. While certainly there are many obstacles to happiness in our lives, it is attainable provided we try to live a certain way. This takes personal responsibility and an agenda. Such an agenda involves, initially, an understanding of some fairly-reliable behaviors and mindsets that inevitably lead to unhappiness. Through Intense Coaching and Consulting Worldwide, I have identified 30 foundation stones for happiness, based on a number of behavioral characteristics and thought processes which, when aggregated, can provide an easier pathway to genuine happiness in our lives. In addition to working hard, another one of these foundation stones is the notion of taking more time for ourselves. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of sustained happiness in life is an acknowledgement that our happiness comes first. Taking time for ourselves is absolutely critical to not only finding happiness in our lives for the long-term but being able to bring happiness to others. Ignoring our own happiness is tantamount to robbing ourselves of it, leading to the worst kind of unhappiness: a surrender of our essence as an individual.

We need to consciously determine to take time for ourselves. Taking time for ourselves includes deciding to do those things we want to do, within the bounds of the law, of course, and to the best of our individual means. We should go to those places we want to go and enrich our lives to the fullest, instead of watching others around us doing so. For many, taking more time for oneself is easier said than done, given hectic lifestyles, along with financial and other obligations. But oftentimes further reflection reveals small changes (many without cost) that one can make that yield more personal, satisfying time during one's schedule. These small changes may include rekindling a relationship with an old friend, taking a class to pursue a passion, or waking up an hour earlier to work out, read the newspaper, or start that novel you always wanted to write. Life enrichment does not choose us. We choose it. Commitment to a surprisingly-simple, personal happiness agenda can result in an exponentially greater likelihood of sustained happiness and fulfillment throughout our lives.

America's challenges are varied and complex. Putting people back to work, ensuring our safety at home and abroad, defining the proper role of government in our lives, and other more high-profile issues are front-and-center in today's political dialogue. But underlying everything is the idea of happiness. We all want to be as happy as possible during our short time on this earth. But to maximize the possibility of this level of happiness, more focused attention must be placed on the topic, both by government via a new focus on public-private partnerships to foster happiness with nominal, if any, taxpayer expense, and also by each of us, as individuals, as we set our personal happiness agenda through a better understanding of those behavioral characteristics and thought processes which can propel us down the pathway to sustained happiness in our lives.

For more on happiness, click here.