Governments’ failure to make happiness a top priority is likely a key factor fueling populism, new global study shows

13 September 2019

The current political, social and economic system is not working in increasing people’s happiness, a major international survey has shown. 

The Global Happiness and Political Attitudes Survey – conducted in 15 countries across 6 continents – shows that ordinary people expect their government to put happiness at the heart of its policies. This could indicate a sharp departure from conventional wisdom that economic prosperity is the key to ensuring a satisfied electorate.

It shows that around the world, the perceived failure of elected leaders to focus on happiness is a common theme among populist citizens, and governments that do not put happiness first are at risk of being swept away by the populist wave. 

The research was initiated and directed by Ukrainian businessman and philanthropist, Victor Pinchuk, ahead of this year’s Yalta European Strategy (YES) Annual Meeting in Kyiv, where governance for happiness – will be discussed by world leaders and prominent thinkers. 

Among the key findings of the report, the authors show that:

  • 57.6% of respondents across the world consider happiness and health to be the most important factors in their lives, more so than more material factors like income and career success.

  • 85.4% of respondents around world expect government to take a proactive role in increasing the happiness of its citizens.

  • Although the USA and Western European countries are among the happiest in the world, they are also the most pessimistic about the happiness of future generations.

  • Populist sentiment is widespread. The data suggest that around 22% of the population is strongly populist.

  • Happier citizens are much more likely to approve of their national leader and, ultimately, vote to re-elect governing parties. While unhappy people are much more likely to hold strongly populist beliefs, suggesting that low well-being may play a role in the rise of populism. 

Victor Pinchuk, who commissioned the report, said: “Happiness offers a radical political story, one that focuses attention onto the real and concrete issues of people’s lives. It is a compelling new narrative, and a much-needed way to bring people back together in order to fight for a better future.”

The full report (available on YES website) was unveiled at the YES Annual Meeting. The topic of happiness was discussed by leaders and scholars, including the President of the world’s happiest country – Finland. Leading scholars on the topic also gave their view:  

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress: "For almost a quarter of a millennium, democracies have been grounded in the principle that “All people have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among them.” Yet our understanding of what fosters happiness, and how governments can secure the right to pursue it, remains rudimentary. This report sheds light on these questions, and its results will make essential contributions to debates on the future of democracy for years to come.”

Richard Layard, Professor of Economics, London School of Economics: “If politicians want to be re-elected, here is the answer: they should target the happiness of the people.”

Niall Ferguson, Senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and the Center for European Studies, Harvard: "This is a path-breaking report that sheds fascinating light on the role of "subjective well-being" and “life satisfaction” in politics around the world.”

Fareed Zakaria, Host of Fareed Zakaria GPS and CNN: “This is a fascinating and important project. The most significant finding, for me, is that people want their governments to act in ways that tangibly improve their well-being and happiness. At a time when so many leaders are practicing the politics of emotionalism and symbolism, this is a refreshing corrective.”

Further details: 

The report was commissioned by Victor Pinchuk Foundation and conducted by Schoen Consulting and George Ward of MIT

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David Rubenstein
David Rubenstein
Co-Founder and Co-Executive Chairman, The Carlyle Group, 16th YES Annual Meeting, 2019
«If you do things that can make the country a better place, you’re more likely to achieve personal happiness than through anything else you’re likely to do in the short term.»