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Getting our priorities right

12 Apr 2011 | Mark Williamson

Today sees the launch of Action for Happiness - a new mass movement for social change founded by three pioneering thinkers, Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon. It is based on one simple idea - that if we want a happier society, we've got to approach our own lives in a way that prioritises the things that really matter, including the happiness of those around us.

With families and communities across the UK facing difficult economic times, uncertain job security and savage spending cuts, it may seem counter-intuitive to talk about happiness. But on the contrary, now more than ever we need to help people build their emotional resilience and create a culture where we are less preoccupied with material wealth and more focused on each other's wellbeing; where people from all walks of life come together to make positive changes in their personal lives, homes, schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods.

Over the last 50 years we've made great progress in terms of living standards and material wealth, reaching a point that previous generations could only have dreamed of - and perhaps one that future generations will look back at longingly. The engine for much of this progress has been economic growth. But if we stop to think about it, most of us recognise that material and financial wealth are just a means to an end, not the end in themselves. We care about them because they are seen as an indicator of how well our lives are going.

But the shocking fact is that, despite massive material progress, people in Britain are no happier than they were over five decades ago. Over that same period our society has become increasingly competitive and selfish, with a culture that encourages us to pursue wealth, appearance, status and possessions above all else. In the 1960s, 60% of adults in Britain said they believed "most people can be trusted". Today the figure is around 30%. Our growing focus on self-centred materialism has also contributed to wider social problems. We've seen huge increases in anxiety and depression in young people, greater inequality, more family breakdown, longer working hours, growing environmental problems and crippling levels of debt.

But it doesn't have to be like this. The good news is that by focusing our time and energy instead on things that have been shown to consistently bring happiness, we can live rich, rewarding lives. These things include loving families, close friendships, good self-awareness, strong community ties, doing things for others, keeping active, and having some kind of greater purpose to our lives. If we could increase our levels of happiness to those enjoyed in Denmark, Britain would have 2.5 million fewer people suffering from unhappiness and 5 million more people who are very happy.

These ideas are not new and we instinctively know their importance. But this "wisdom of the ages" is now also backed up by a significant body of research which confirms that our relationships and mental health have a much greater impact on our overall wellbeing than our beauty, possessions or income. The evidence linking an upbeat outlook to increased longevity is actually stronger than the evidence linking obesity to reduced longevity. Our happiness in turn influences the happiness of people we know.

Action for Happiness is based on this new science of happiness and the evidence that we can affect our happiness. We have identified 50 practical actions that people can take in their everyday lives that not only help boost their own happiness but contribute to building better, more positive environments in their families, relationships, workplaces and communities. These include simple things like finding things to be grateful for each day, however small; trying out something new or different; and looking for the good in others. They also include skills to be more "mindful" in our thinking.

When people do good, they feel good. By choosing to live in a way that prioritises the things that really matter we can create a vital shift in societal values. So let's stop aiming for lives filled with riches and focus instead on helping people lead richer lives.

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