What’s happiness got to do with it?

A reaction to the election of Donald Trump

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What’s happiness got to do with it? A reaction to the election of Donald Trump

Reflecting on both the recent election of Donald Trump in America and the vote for Brexit in the UK, The Guardian Journalist Zoe Williams described 2016 as “a year of anger and hate on the ballot,” whilst being interviewed on BBC Radio 4.

Like many of us I woke to news of the election and was dumfounded. What on earth was going on? Why were so many people so unhappy, so disconnected and so invested in the ‘them and us’ narrative?

It is only relatively recently that happiness has been taken seriously by academics, politicians and policy makers. 2012 saw publication of the first ever World Happiness Report, commissioned by the UN. The report “reflects a new worldwide demand for more attention to happiness and absence of misery as criteria for government policy. It reviews the state of happiness in the world today and shows how the new science of happiness explains personal and national variations in happiness”.

Committed to proposing evidenced based policies that increase happiness and wellbeing, the Government commissioned The UKs ‘What Works Centre for Wellbeing’ in 2014 which built on the ONS Measuring National Wellbeing Programme and the Commission on Wellbeing and Policy

There are now Ministers for Happiness in , , and the UAE and In the UK, has trialed the first ‘Happy City Index’ a partnership project between the New Economic Foundation and .

So, what does all this have to do with the latest election results? Earlier this year much of the was stunned by the Brexit vote. A campaign based on fear, anti-immigration and‘us versus them’ rhetoric. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing published an interesting article not long after, with the snappy title “What well-being inequalities tell us about the EU referendum result”. In it they highlight the following interesting findings:

  • High wellbeing inequality was a strong predictor of an area voting to leave.
  • Wellbeing inequality is driven by unemployment rates and ‘governance’ (how people view the quality of society, its functioning and its institutions. This includes voice, accountability, satisfaction with government & the economy, trust in institutions or the control of corruption.)
  • Areas with high average wellbeing had higher turnout.

Whilst it is early days in the study and research around world happiness, these findings are a clear indication of the impact of happiness inequality on a societies voting decisions. It will be important to conduct a similar study in , but for the time being it is not too much of a leap to suppose that there will be similar findings. In fact, the 2012 World Happiness Report stated that:

“…the world’s economic superpower, the , has achieved striking economic and technological progress over the past half century without gains in the self-reported happiness of the citizenry. Instead, uncertainties and anxieties are high, social and economic inequalities have widened considerably, social trust is in decline, and confidence in government is at an all-time low. Perhaps for these reasons, life satisfaction has remained nearly constant during decades of rising Gross National Product (GNP) per capita.”

If we want to live in an inclusive world, where difference is celebrated as well as respected, where individuals feel connected and that they have a voice, where then our focus needs to turn urgently to creating a happier world and reducing wellbeing inequalities. This is a massive undertaking, and the complexities are still being unpacked by researchers and economists, but there are some clear indications of where we can direct our attention:


The government needs to ensure that charities and third sector organisations working towards the common good are supported and funded in a way that allows them to continue and grow the positive work they do for our communities. Supported by the Dalai Lama, Action for Happiness, a global movement of near 80,000 individuals, is a wonderful example of a charity creating a community dedicated to creating change and improving wellbeing for all. Community and religious leaders and organisations must come together to show solidarity and mutual respect, setting an example for us all. Community divisions and issues must have a space to be heard and worked through. People must feel they have a voice.


This key priority for all governments needs even more focus. Unemployment is bad for the economy as well as the individual, with the risks of mental health issues increasing the longer someone remains jobless. More than this, jobs need to be of a high quality, as stable as possible, and provide environments where staff have the opportunity to feel valued, to be contributing to wider aims, and to be learning and developing.


has one of the highest ranked school systems in the world. In this clip from his latest documentary, Academy award winning film maker and author Michael Moore visits the country and interviews Krista Kiuru, Minister of Education, asking how they have achieved this. He is floored by the response. “They don’t have homework” she says “they should have more time to be kids, to be youngsters, to enjoy their life”. A Maths teacher tells a stunned Michael: “We try to teach them to be happy, to respect others and respect themselves”. With the rising mental health issues reported by children and young people, perhaps it is time for governments to take seriously the impact of our current exam factory education system on the happiness of children and young people, and realise that less pressure, less testing and more playing can actually increase academic performance.

As for individual schools and educational establishments, they have a massive opportunity to contribute to the happiness and wellbeing of their students. From creating a sense of community based on universal values to teaching lessons on emotional intelligence, empathy and mindfulness, to holding events based on co-operation and collaboration rather than constant competition, to dedicating time for connecting and volunteering with local community projects, to having a whole school daily gratitude practice. The opportunities are endless for innovative and unique work in this area.


Robert Waldinger is a Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst and Zen Priest. He is also the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. In his TED talk ‘What makes a good life: Lessons from the longest study on happiness’ he concludes that the most important factor in having a happy life is investing in our relationships.

As individuals we can all work on our relationships. This starts with the self (by building self esteem, self acceptance and self confidence). We can then turn to our family and friends, deepening our connections by creating more opportunities for face to face time as well as simply letting them know we are thinking of them. Prioritise them. Pull them close. This makes for the happy life.

I will end this post with a quote from American architect, systems theorist, author, designer and inventor, Buckminister Fuller:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”

About Zoe

A Consultant and Coach specialising in Mindfulness and Positive Psychology with 17 years experienced in delivering training. Zoe is an Expert Blogger for Psychologies Magazine and Founder of the Colchester Happiness Project. Zoe loves to work with forward thinking organisations and individuals who are committed to thriving.

Zoe Flint

Life Coach, Hypnotherapist and Founder of the Colchester Happiness Project, ZoeFlint.com