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Hope Yancey
May 24, 2012

Happiness: What’s Your Policy?

Happiness is a popular topic of debate in recent years: what defines it, how to measure it, whether people are born with a particular set point.

So I was interested to learn about the World Happiness Report, commissioned for the April United Nations Conference on Happiness.

It was published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, a research and education organization comprised of scientists, students and others dedicated to searching for practical solutions to world problems. According to information on the institute’s website, the organization focuses on nine interdisciplinary themes: Climate and Society; Water; Energy; Urbanization; Hazards and Risk; Global Health; Poverty; Food, Ecology and Nutrition; and Ecosystems Health and Monitoring.

The happiness report the institute released includes various external factors influencing happiness such as income, community and governance, and internal ones like mental health, physical health and age.

Interestingly, mental health was identified as the single largest factor affecting happiness in any country.

The report lends credibility to the idea that happiness is something worth examining, and that it is possible to study it scientifically.

I was most pleased to see the report’s editors make the point that results obtained from measuring happiness can be used by policy-makers to assess effectiveness of public policy.

My own view is that we are all profoundly impacted in our daily lives – and overall happiness – by the policy decisions made by our leaders, much more so than we often take time to stop and consider. Each of us can probably think of adults we know who do not even vote.

Some people have a rather shallow and narrow view of happiness, as though it is something that falls completely within one’s internal locus of control. As though simply smiling more and adopting an optimistic outlook are enough to bring about happiness. As though happiness is merely something we can choose or fail to choose for ourselves.

I believe that even “internal” factors such as mental health have external and public policy aspects that must not be overlooked, too.

I have a friend who grew up in Finland and now lives in Sweden, and in many respects I admire how those countries do things. It came as no surprise to me that countries in Northern Europe – countries with extensive social safety nets for their citizens – ranked highly in happiness measurements.

Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina

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