Do We Want a Happy President?

Much of the academic research into the intriguing topic of happiness has involved efforts to both explain its causes and measure it. Commentary surrounding the relationship of happiness to government has focused on how government might use such research to assist us in our quest for a happy life. While this insight answers many questions, there are two other timely queries we should ponder about the concept of happiness as we embark into the thick of the current presidential campaign: Is the level of personal happiness of our presidential candidates relevant to us as voters in November? If the answer is yes, then how do we determine such level of happiness, and, more importantly, the relative happiness of President Obama and Governor Romney when compared to one another?

When we, as Americans, articulate the qualities we look for in a presidential candidate, we tend to think in terms of fairly obvious traits. In springtime 2007, Gallup polled Americans as to the most important quality they looked for in a presidential candidate. One-third said honest and straightforward. Leadership was second. Integrity and the ability to govern were tied for third. Surveys from the 2008 primary campaign in New Hampshire yielded a candidate's honesty and willingness to talk about the challenges affecting the nation as key characteristics that voters consider. Thus, we as Americans do not typically emphasize a candidate's personal level of happiness as a pertinent characteristic in our decision-making process when we step into the voting booth. However, we should. There are several reasons for taking a candidate's happiness (or lack thereof) into consideration in November.

First, studies have demonstrated the relationship between happiness and emotional intelligence -- the ability to perceive, appraise, and express emotions accurately and adaptively. In a study of the correlation between happiness and emotional intelligence, leading emotional intelligence researcher, psychologist Reuven Bar-On, concluded that "emotional intelligence is highly associated with happiness." In fact, in another study, happiness has been found to actually promote emotional intelligence. Researchers determined that happy study participants had higher emotional intelligence than unhappy participants, which confirmed their hypothesis that happy participants will show higher emotional intelligence than unhappy ones. The happier people participating in the study were found to regulate their emotions more effectively by an enhanced ability to more rapidly recover from psychological distress. Psychological distress is as prevalent as Olympian stress in the White House.

Emotional intelligence is important to a president's performance. When Fred I. Greenstein, of Princeton University, discussed the 6 personal attributes that affect presidential job performance, he found that among them a president's ability to manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes rather than be dominated by them and allowing them to undermine his public performance (i.e., emotional intelligence) was the attribute that warranted a stern admonition, namely "beware the contender who lacks emotional intelligence. In its absence, all else may turn to ashes." He notes how Lyndon B. Johnson's mood swings "of clinical proportions," Jimmy Carter's "rigidity," Bill Clinton's "lack of self-discipline," and Richard Nixon's anger and suspiciousness "of Shakespearean proportions" prevented each of these presidents from living up to their own "towering aspirations."

While other qualities that Greenstein discusses (effectiveness as a communicator, organizational capacity, political skill, policy vision, and cognitive style) must be carefully considered, it was emotional intelligence which could cripple the effectiveness of a president. Moreover, emotional intelligence is likely fundamental to raw leadership ability, which is, as noted above, a quality historically important to most voters (Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. (Free Press 2002)). The positive correlation between happiness and emotional intelligence, and the relevance of emotional intelligence to presidential effectiveness, suggests the prudence of an inquiry into the level of happiness of our candidates.

Further, a happy candidate is likely to be more productive and effective in the job of president. Julia K. Boehm and Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside determined that there were many positive correlations between happiness and job performance. In particular, they noted that an individual who frequently experiences positive emotions (e.g., joy, satisfaction, contentment, enthusiasm, and interest) -- their definition of happiness, is more likely (than unhappier individuals) to: be better decision-makers, have better interpersonal skills, show less contentious behavior, find mutually beneficial solutions, manage negotiations through collaboration and cooperation rather than through avoidance or competition, display more originality, and solve problems creatively. All of these attributes, I believe, are essential to a highly-effective president. Thus, the happier a candidate is, the more likely he or she will be to display the foregoing attributes in the job of president.

At Intense Coaching and Consulting Worldwide, I have identified 30 foundation stones for happiness, a few of which are particularly relevant to an individual's relative ability to perform at a maximum level as president. For example, characteristics of happy people include keeping one's word, living honestly in every aspect of your life, empathizing with others, and communicating effectively in relationships. These characteristics are paramount to a highly-effective president. The extent to which our presidential candidates possess these characteristics (i.e., demonstrate a possession of these indicia of happiness), especially relative to one another, is and should be relevant to our consideration of their potential effectiveness as the next president.

Certainly, I am not suggesting that being a happy person is the only attribute we should consider in predicting the future success of a candidate as president, but given the correlation between happiness and emotional intelligence, job performance, and other characteristics which facilitate better governance, it is prudent to inquire as to the happiness level of our candidates. Frankly, while the present discussion is limited to presidential candidates, such inquiry should be made, frankly, for any and all candidates for political office.

If, then, the personal level of happiness of President Obama and Governor Romney is relevant to us as voters in November, then how exactly can we determine whether or not these individuals are truly happy? Perhaps more importantly, how do we measure their relative happiness to one another, since the happier person would, arguably, possess more of the attributes which justify the discussion of happiness and presidential potential? At first glance, it is certainly convenient to assume someone is happy based on overt features or characteristics such as an alluring smile, financial success, a good family, or even attractive looks. But such things are dangerously inaccurate in predicting an individual's level of personal happiness. We all know that smiles can be real or manufactured, there are plenty of miserable rich people, "good families" sometimes yield surprising revelations of betrayal, violence, and disappointment, and good looks do not protect against internal despair. Thus, we need another measuring stick.

It is imperative, first, to consider the definition of happiness, from which we can draw in our attempt to answer these questions. Unfortunately, the mere notion of the concept of happiness defies compartmentalization. But however defined, happiness must be authentic. By "authentic" I do not mean periodic, ephemeral surges of happiness, but rather a more profound characterization -- the type of happiness that the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, describes as an "enduring level of happiness." Further, notwithstanding any precise definition, what is for certain is that happiness is not an endgame concept. As world-renowned happiness researchers, psychologists Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, explain, "happiness is a process, not a place."

The process of happiness can involve many things, including the frequent experiencing of positive emotions. But notwithstanding any academic attempts to define the notion of happiness, in the last analysis whether a person is "happy" is, I believe, ultimately up to that person. In fact, self-identification of being happy is considered the most accurate means of determining if someone is happy (How We Choose to Be Happy: The 9 Choices of Extremely Happy People -- Their Secrets, Their Stories, Rick Foster and Greg Hicks (Pedigree 1999)). Thus, it is really up to our two presidential candidates to demonstrate to us that they are, in fact, authentically happy people. But such demonstration must be guided and prompted, in part, by the media. The media, as part of its obligation to help us vet the qualifications of the two candidates, should engage each candidate in a discussion of their personal level of authentic happiness, through in-depth interviews based on an open colloquy which should include the following questions, among others:

How does each candidate define happiness for themselves? Answers to this question compared against academic and our own definitions of happiness would be illustrative and would provide a framework within which to consider the balance of the discussion of the candidate's personal level of happiness.

What positive emotions does each candidate frequently experience and what are the sources of such emotions? As we have seen, the frequent experience of positive emotions is tantamount to an academic description of happiness.

And what are the signature strengths of each candidate and how do they relate to the job of President of the United States? The application of the signature strengths of a person to the major realms of that person's life, including work, is indicia of authentic happiness.

Each candidate's sincere and candid answers to these questions would allow us, as voters, to more critically understand not only the degree of personal -- authentic -- happiness of each individual, they would also provide a glimpse into the relative level of happiness of the candidates when compared to one another.

Happiness is relevant to our consideration of both President Obama and Governor Romney in November, as it provides keen insight into the potential and likelihood of each of these men to possess the emotional intelligence to aspire to great heights in office for the good of the entire country, to maximize his productivity and effectiveness while in office, and to exemplify a number of other important behaviors and characteristics worthy of the esteemed office to which they seek our approval. Of course, happiness is not and should not be the only criteria for assumption of the grave obligations of president, but it is one factor -- an important one -- which should be addressed and considered as we exercise our cherished right to vote.