It may be a cultural cliché to say that money can’t buy happiness. But it’s also the conclusion psychologists Ed Diener and Martin E.P. Seligman reached after an exhaustive scientific review.

Diener and Seligman analyzed over 150 studies on happiness, life satisfaction, and various other signs of well-being, and pub¬lished their findings in the July issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest. They determined that traditional economic indicators of wealth, such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and average per capita income, don’t accurately reflect mental health and happiness within industrialized nations. For instance, although the GDP has risen dramatically over the past several decades in the United States, life satisfaction has not risen in tandem. In fact, there has been an equally dramatic increase in depres¬sion over the same time period. Americans are now 10 times more likely to experience clinical depression or anxiety than they were 50 years ago.

“Economics currently plays a central role in policy decisions because it is assumed that money increases well-being,” write Diener and Seligman. “But money is an inexact surrogate for well-being.” They note that more wealth does increase well-being if it helps people meet basic needs that they couldn’t meet before. But this correlation between wealth and well-being disappears as a society becomes more prosperous.

Because economic markers alone are a poor approximation of well-being, Diener and Seligman call for a different system of indicators to follow national and personal well-being over time. Such a system would track the factors that previous research has shown to be crucial to well-being. These include low divorce rates, high rates of membership in voluntary organizations, high governmental effectiveness and stability, and high levels of work satisfaction. Such a sys¬tem, they hope, would provide governments, organizations, and individuals with a road map for the true pursuit of happiness.

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