In 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution which recognised happiness as a “fundamental human goal.” The following year the International Day of Happiness was born and from 2013 onwards it’s been celebrated every year on the 20th March. Unsurprisingly it’s got us all talking about how we can be happier, individually and as a society.
This year the UK has been ranked 19th with countries such as the US, Germany, Ireland and Israel ranking higher. The author of the World Happiness Report, Jeffrey Sachs commented that “The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach.”
The report highlights that much more research is needed to understand the interplay of factors that determine the social foundations of happiness and consider alternative ways of improving those foundations. Here at Common Cause Foundation we know that values are crucial to the well-being of society and influence wellbeing, civic engagement and peoples feelings of social alienation.
Values are the guiding principles we hold in life, most people hold compassionate values to be most important, these are values such as broadmindedness, social justice, helpfulness, forgiveness and love. When these values are ‘engaged,’ brought to mind by certain communications or experiences, this tends to affect our attitudes and behaviours in positive pro-social ways. For instance, we are more likely to respond positively to requests for help or donations.
Unfortunately there is a disparity between the values that people themselves prioritise and the values they believe their fellow citizens hold to be most important. Most people believe that others care most about self-enhancement values such as wealth, social status, dominance and popularity. It’s not difficult in the current climate to think of examples of why people may believe this to be true.
When we’re talking about happiness this perceptions gap becomes more than just interesting – it becomes crucial to our understanding of happiness. The more we underestimate the importance that others place on compassionate values, the less inclined we are to volunteer, the less responsible we feel for our communities, and the more socially alienated we are likely to feel. This suggests that this perceptions gap could be in part responsible for our constant search for happiness.
The report concludes that ‘changing the focus from the material to the social foundations of happiness will improve the rate at which lives can be sustainably improved for all, throughout the world and across generations.’
The work of Tim Kasser, professor of psychology at Knox College (Illinois) and a great help in developing the Common Cause work, agrees with this conclusion.
Tim discusses how America’s culture of consumerism undermines our well-being. When people buy into the ever-present marketing messages that “the good life” is “the goods life,” they not only use up Earth’s limited resources, but they are less happy and less inclined toward helping others.
Our social institutions have a part to play in this. Most people said that schools universities, the media, businesses, government and cultural institutions do little to encourage compassionate values. By working to stimulate and engage compassionate values of the communities and audiences they engage with, these institutions can work together to counteract this misconception. Ultimately helping to create a society that is more aware of what they have in common, come to rely on their fellow citizens and be more civically active, connected to their community, less socially isolated and ultimately… happier.
Check out how Common Cause Foundation are working with Manchester Museum and the work that’s already under-way there.
 Maio, G.R., Pakizeh, A., Cheung, W.Y. and Rees, K.J. (2009). Changing, priming, and acting on values: effects via motivational relations in a circular model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97 (4), 699–715; Burgoyne, C.B. and Lea, S.E.G. (2006). Money is material. Science, 314 (5802), 1091–1092; Vohs, K.D., Mead, N.L. and Goode, M.R. (2006). The psychological consequences of money, Science, 314 (5802), 1154–1156.