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Paradox of income and happiness


Since 2012, the International Day of Happiness has been celebrated on the 20th of March. It was created by the United Nations with the idea that this day would promote positive social action to create a more peaceful and caring world. The intent was to eradicate isolation and loneliness and, rather, focus on social cohesion and the pursuit of happiness.

The Paradox of Income and Happiness

The United Nations had a happiness briefing, on March 19 titled, “The Paradox of Income and Happiness”, which I was more than happy to attend! If you follow Global Citizen on Twitter (which you’re behind the times if you don’t already) then you might have caught me live tweeting this event, but if you missed it, here’s a summary of how the briefing went down.

The briefing’s objective was to look at how research is helping governments measure happiness and how it’s affecting its citizens. There was a panel of great people, whose professions ranged from NGO leaders, to economists, to education advocates, and to artists and musicians. With this wide array of professionals, they hit every point possible. Below are points that each panelist made that really resonated with me.

Hector Escamilla, President of Tecmilenio University in Mexico, points out that the “most important thing is to be happy, not success. Happiness leads to success, not the other way around.” Escamilla works on fostering well being through scientific research measuring health, positive relations, and engagement- all leading to the idea that this happiness model leads to social capital gains.

Dr. Kai Ping Peng, a Professor in the department of psychology at the University of California Berkeley, has been working on positive education in China through a project called the “Happy Teacher Project”. This project has been focusing on reforming Chinese moral education. They asked a number of Chinese students what makes them happy and unhappy and found that school was under the list of unhappiness (I definitely had those days, but it's sad to think that such an integral part of their life made them unhappy). This made them want to promote education in a different light and it’s been quite successful-students’ happiness and teachers’ satisfaction both increased.

Jeffrey Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the author of the World Happiness Report. Now, if you refer back to my first ever article for Global Citizen (!), you’ll find that this World Happiness Report is quite popular and ever so important. By the way, the 2015 3rd edition will be coming out April 23rd. This report measures the patterns of well-being around the world in terms of happiness. Sachs pointed out that while economic prosperity matters, it is not the only determinant in defining happiness. He brought up Aristotle:

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god."

Umm, what? Basically, we need each other, that’s how we’re made. So, in conclusion to Sachs’ part of the discussion, he called on us to pursue the idea that public policy needs to promote well-being. “Think hard on how your country can contribute to the SDGs. All countries need to measure well-being as part of the SDGs, especially for humans to thrive.”

Deborah Heisz, of Live Happy (thanks for the goody bag, I’ll take a free t-shirt any day!) brought up great points about how happiness contributes not only to ourselves and our well-being, but to our surroundings. Heisz states that environmentally-friendly people tend to be happier than their counterparts, and the key to a greener planet is to seek out a sustainable lifestyle and happiness. Money cannot buy happiness, something you probably hear all too often. Now check this out: the US spends about $10 billion a year on happiness. However, according to Sachs’s World Happiness Report, the US is not the happiest country in the world, nor does it even make it to the top 10…

“Choose to be happy through the choices that we make” was the overall sentiment. Heisz points out that we need to create the social cohesion that this planet needs (this is Live Happy’s objective– share happiness through small acts). Ultimately, happiness affects the environment and our planet, and we can’t forget that.

Alejandro Adler Braun, a member of the International Expert Wellbeing Group, greatly recapitulated the other panelists’ points when he stated that while the GDP (gross domestic product) has become synonymous with progress, and this has little effect on the increase of happiness. In other words, whether or not GDP increases, happiness will not be affected as a result. Braun essentially says that wellbeing is teachable-there are learned skills to overall happiness that everyone can adopt, but we must bear in mind that it is a lifelong process.

Mary Mitchell Campbell created Astep, an NGO that empowers artists to end poverty and use art as a vehicle to teach health education. Campbell talked of her personal experience and growth when she visited a developing nation for the first time. She said, “those in extreme poverty always share, they never think not to”. People in developed nations could learn from this mindset. She even dubbed the “Holy Grail Syndrome”, defined as a society that focuses primarily on achievement. Campbell, also a musical director on Broadway (wow, what else does she do?!), used this example: a dancer’s life goal is to dance on Broadway, when she finally makes it she asks,“is that it?”

Campbell brought up the cons of American Media with the idea that “If it bleeds, it leads”. Essentially, we fill our brains with negative emotions. She advises us that it is our personal responsibility to focus on positive messages and images. While the news is very informative and we have a right to know even the negative happenings of the world, we need to be careful with constant stream of negativity and not let it affect our lives. We also must be mindful about what and how we’re consuming. Essentially, we could take this as an indicator to right the wrongs in the world. 

Ami Dar, founder of Idealist, brought up a great question: “We are all experts on what makes us unhappy, then why don’t we do what makes us happy?” Dar brought up examples of how society is changing, and not for the better. It seems as if we are becoming more and more isolated from each other. He mentions that children belong on the streets- they should be playing and taking up the whole street after school. Why is it that we are kicking them out of the streets? Dar would like for us to promote social cohesion and forget isolation as I mentioned earlier. He urges us to talk to people and see what they want for themselves, and not what we want for them.

Overall, how can we be happy when there is so much despair and greed out there? What we need to remember is that “happiness breeds pro sociality and therefore peace”. As we come together to tackle extreme poverty, we must consider the well being of those we're talking about. Like Dar said, what makes us happy is not necessarily what makes others happy, which is why it's important that everyone has the opportunity to voice their opinion. In promoting well being, we have a real shot at promoting peace and development.


Joline Faujour