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Should happiness be society's top priority?

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"While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize - sometimes with astonishment - how happy we had been." ~Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

With the constant influx of negative news and depressing statistics regarding the state of the world, one can only wonder, is it even possible to be happy during these times?

Yes, it is. However, this depends largely upon how “cognitively flexible” you are and how well you are able to reframe events in your life.

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor, University of California, Riverside, it is possible to demystify and reframe universal assumptions about happiness, such as:

  • We can't be happy without a successful marriage.
  • We can't be happy unless we have well-adjusted children.
  • We can't be happy because we don't have enough money.
  • We can't be happy because we are keenly aware of our youth slipping away.
  • We can't be happy if we have health problems.

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to change what you are thinking about, how you are thinking about it and even what you think about it – in other words, the ability to change your mind.

According to a survey conducted in the United Kingdom, individuals are leaning into cognitive flexibility by asking which is more important, national happiness or national wealth.

A YouGov poll commissioned by Action for Happiness revealed that the majority of British people (87%) would choose happiness for their society rather than money (chosen by only 8%). These findings were largely consistent across all UK regions, classes and age groups.

When asked to choose the three most important factors for personal happiness, ‘relationships with my partner/family’ came out on top (80%) with ‘my health’ in second place (71%) and ‘money’ third (42%). ‘My appearance’ and ‘my possessions’ were the least selected factors (both 4%).

Action for Happiness director Dr. Mark Williamson says, “The results indicate the need for a step change in attitude. The economy dominates our political and social discussions, but this survey shows that happiness is more important to people.”

“The vast majority of people would prefer Britain to be happier rather than richer. So we need to spend less time focusing on the size of the economy and more time focusing on how to help people live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.”

Additionally, the survey revealed the three factors respondents felt were most likely to improve overall happiness in the UK. ‘More equality between rich and poor’ was the most selected answer (45%), ‘improved health services’ the second (39%) and ‘less crime’ the third (37%). ‘Improved school standards’ and ‘improved transport and infrastructure’ were the least selected options (both 16%).

Action for Happiness co-founder Lord Richard Layard said more attention must be paid to what it is that UK residents really want: “Our national priorities are clearly out of touch with what really matters to people. Our top priority should be people’s overall happiness and well-being. Above all, we should be giving much more attention to mental health, supporting positive family and community relationships and creating a more trusting society.”

The survey was commissioned to coincide with the United Nation’s second International Day of Happiness, which took place on March 20th and was intended to redefine ideals of social happiness.

Although we have come to the point where our lives are supposed to be valued by nothing but the earnings for our time, it remains encouraging to see individuals, regardless of country, taking the time to continue a much needed and relevant conversation on how we can change our perspective on what truly matters in life.

“By living with values, we stand to gain maybe not the world – which is not ours to gain in the first place – but a good life in it: the happiness that comes from living better – creatively, and not destructively; the growth that we really need, of knowledge and wisdom rather than cancerous doubt and expanding waistlines; the “enough” that a good life requires and which is the foundation on which to build up not just more, but better.”

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