07 Apr

Happiness, Health and Human Rights

Posted By polity_admin_user

Pharrell Williams, American musician and producer, speaking at the United Nations! Whatever for, I wondered? It was all in the name of International Happiness Day 2015 (United Nations, 2015). We often focus on physical and pathogenic aspects of health enshrined in the biomedical model, but we could be in the middle of a paradigm shift away from emphasis of biomedical aspects, towards more salutogenic aspects of health (Chapters One and Seven of our book). This paradigm highlights the importance of creating and maintaining good health, in addition to prevention and alleviation of disease.

A great deal of research has been undertaken trying to explain why some people and nations are happier than others (BBC News, 2015). Approximately 50% of the variation of happiness, academically known as subjective well-being (Diener et al., 1999), is thought to be influenced by genes (Lykken and Tellegen 1996). This information has come from studying genetically identical twins who have been raised apart. A further 10% of variation in subjective well-being is thought to be related to other characteristics largely outside our control such as environment and income. More recently Headey, Muffels and Wagner (2010) have argued that the remaining 40% comes from personal and economic choices.

Unpicking the influences of happiness is important, as it shapes if and how we can make societies happier. For many this is their ultimate goal in life. Indeed this idea has existed for millennia; Aristotle, writing over 2300 years ago, stated, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Our current global preoccupation is economic gain. This cannot be ignored, as people do live without sufficient income to access the basic requirements for life. But we know that after a specified income of approximately £10,000 per annum, subjective well-being plateaus and does not confer any further happiness. This has many implications and the happiness debate has become a real and meaningful global policy agenda.

In the UK, local authority has a statutory duty of well-being known as the well-being power (Department for Department for Communities and Local Government, 2009). The power enables eligible councils to do anything which they consider is likely to achieve the promotion or improvement of the economic, social or environmental well-being of their area. Bhutan, a leading light in the implementation of the happiness agenda, has applied an assessment of happiness for many of its policy decisions. Maybe we should be judging our governments based on how happy our societies are, rather than how rich they are? Should our policies be assessed for how happy they make us?

On reflection, maybe Pharrell Williams had a point when he said, “Happiness is your birth right.” I think myself that it is a human right.


Action for Happiness (nd) Home page [Internet] available at http://www.actionforhappiness.org/ (accessed 20th March 2015).

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (2004), ed. Hugh Treddenick. London: Penguin.

BBC News (2015) “Pharrell Williams addresses UN on happiness.” [Internet] available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-31997779 (accessed 20th March 2015)

Department for Department for Communities and Local Government (2009) “Power to promote well-being of the area: Statutory guidance for local councils.” London, Department for Communities and Local Government.

Diener E, Suh EM, Lucas RE, Smith HL (1999) “Subjective Well-Being: Three Decades of Progress.” Psychol Bull 125:276–302.

Headey, B, Muffels, R and Wagner, G (2010) “Long-running German panel survey shows that personal and economic choices, not just genes, matter for happiness.” PNAS 107 (42) 7922–17926.

Lykken D, and Tellegen A (1996) “Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon.” Psychol Sci 7: 186–189.

United Nations (2015) International Day of Happiness [Internet] available at http://www.un.org/en/events/happinessday/ (accessed 20th March 2015)

Diane Lowcock