The gist:

We’ve been scratching in the wrong place by trying to maximize gross domestic product instead of gross national happiness.

The details:

Although the United States and Canada have traditionally used financial indicators such as GDP, the Dow Jones, and consumer confidence to measure society’s well-being, these indicators mostly tell us how much we’re spending, not whether we’re living rich and satisfying lives. In fact, new research confirms the old adage: money doesn’t buy happiness. Consider, for example, that as North Americans average incomes have soared over the last 50 years, life satisfaction has remained virtually flat—even as Americans’ mental health has plummeted.

In short, we’ve been scratching in the wrong place. We’ve been trying to maximize gross domestic product instead of gross national happiness.

Happiness research is a field populated by economists, psychologists, and other social scientists who are trying to figure out empirically sound ways to measure people’s sense of satisfaction with their lives and communities. Among their findings:

  • In a ranking of life satisfaction among 10 groups, the Pennsylvania Amish were found to be as happy as members of the wealthiest sector of the United States.
  • Depression rates in the United States have climbed perhaps tenfold in a span of 50 years, and the incidence of anxiety disorders has also skyrocketed.
  • Beyond a certain basic level of income—enough to pay the bills—having more money does little to increase happiness. Friendships and strong social connections are much more important to long-term happiness than financial riches.

Measuring well-being—and maximizing it through policy shifts—would benefit society as a whole, not just individuals. Research suggests that happy workers are more productive, and happy people go on to earn more money, have stronger immune resistance to cold and flu viruses, suffer fewer fatal accidents, and live longer.

Happiness research has profound, far-reaching implications. A measure of human quality of life, or “subjective well-being,” could put into proper perspective such flawed indicators as the Dow and the consumer confidence index. And even more importantly, measuring human happiness would help us assess whether we’re truly creating a world in which our children and grandchildren can thrive.

March 7, 2006