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Happiness and Psychological Well-Being

Happiness and Psychological Well-Being: Building Human Capital to Benefit Individuals and Society – By George Burns

Happy people are healthy people. Happy people live longer and enjoy a greater quality of life. They function at a higher level, utilizing their personal strengths, skills, and abilities to contribute to their own well-being as well as that of others and society. They are more likely to be compassionate and, therefore, to contribute to the moral fiber of society in diversely beneficial ways. They are less prone to experience depression and, if they do, tend to manage it better and more quickly. They are less likely to experience anxiety, stress, or anger. As a result, happy people engage in fewer acts of violence or antisocial behaviors. They enjoy stronger and more-lasting relationships, thus facilitating society’s social capital. In all, they contribute to society in economic, social, moral, spiritual, and psychological terms. Compared to unhappy or depressed people, the happier ones are less of a burden to health services, social welfare agencies, or police and justice systems and so are less of a burden to the economy.1 In other words, building greater levels of individual happiness not only benefits a particular person but also leads to the healthy, happy functioning of society as a whole.

Given this, in conjunction with the worldwide escalation in rates of depression, is there any better reason for communities, states, and nations to be addressing the question, How can we create an environment that will best facilitate the happiness of our citizens? But to address that question, we perhaps need to ask some preceding ones: What are the factors that contribute to an individual’s—and, in turn, to society’s—happiness? How can society create a conducive context for the development of happiness?

Fortunately, in the last decade or so, burgeoning research in the field of positive psychology has taught us much about the state of happiness. Most research prior to this, at least in the Western world, had focused on psychological abnormalities, dysfunction, and idiosyncrasies—despite happiness being the next most important life goal for most people once our physical needs for food, shelter, and health have been met. So what have we learned from this research?

First, as a contributor to happiness, research shows that relationships top the scale. Researchers in one study asked, What contributes to the top ten percent of happy people being happy? What are the keys to happiness for these “very happy” people? The answer was clear: the single-most important variable was that “very happy” people had good social relationships with other people.2 Other research supports this, claiming that “relationships are an important, and perhaps the most important, source of life satisfaction and emotional well-being.”

Second on the list of what most contributes to happiness is a sense of spirituality. In fact, a sense of spirituality strongly correlates to a life well-lived. This relationship between happiness and taking a “big picture” view of life is born out in research across gender, age, religion, and nationality.4Spiritual strivings are clearly linked with higher levels of subjective well-being, particularly in regard to greater positive affect and higher satisfaction with both life and marriage. Drawing from such data, my colleague Helen Street and I wrote in our book, Standing without Shoes, that “numerous researchers have found that those of us with strong spiritual beliefs are happier and better protected against depression than those who have no particular sense of spirituality. Similarly it seems that people cope better with major adversity in their lives and major physical illness if they have a sense of established spirituality.”5

In another area, researchers have found that when we use our strengths, skills, resources, and abilities, we feel in touch with our “true selves”—we experience a sense of energy and function at optimal levels. The acknowledgment and use of one’s strengths are a significant predictor of both psychological and subjective well-being, which in turn contributes to the optimal functioning of society.6 One study of positive psychotherapy conducted in a clinically depressed population found that identifying one’s signature strengths and finding ways to use them led to clinically significant and sustained decreases in depression.7
While the pursuit of happiness is both personal and subjective, and ultimately an individual responsibility, if the state wants its citizens to be functioning well and contributing to the well-being of society, then it needs to create a conducive atmosphere in which individuals can pursue happiness, which leads to the next question: How can communities, societies, and governments create such an atmosphere?

Some Suggestions
In regard to relationships, spirituality, and the identification and use of strengths, the path to developing happiness first needs to incorporate policies and practices that (a) respect, value, and encourage positive, healthy, and mutually respectful relationships; (b) promote a strong sense of family values and ties; (c) allow the freedom for citizens to develop healthy, happy relationships; and (d) encourage the maintenance of those relationships.
Second, concerning spirituality, it befits governing bodies to create an environment in which individuals are (a) free to follow their individual spiritual paths; (b) free to hold those beliefs without fear of retribution; and (c) allowed to engage freely in spiritual practices, assuming that those beliefs are beneficial to both individuals and society.
Third, a healthy, well-functioning society—along with a healthy, well-functioning individual—is one in which citizens’ contributions are based on their personal strengths. To receive the benefits of this, society needs to provide opportunities for citizens to (a) discover their strengths; (b) develop and train those strengths; and (c) apply such strengths effectively.
Happy people contribute much to society—to both the social fabric of society and its effective functioning—and they are less of a drain on its resources. It is therefore in the interests of countries and communities to examine the research on what facilitates happiness and to provide a context in which these factors can develop. Not only will individual citizens be healthy, happier, and more productive, but so will the community and the world as a whole.