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Politicians told to focus on wellbeing

Media release April 23, 2008

Leading psychologist tells politicians to focus on wellbeing, not wealth

It is time for politicians to start focusing on the politics of wellbeing rather than the politics of wealth, one of the world’s leading psychologists told an audience in Auckland last night (April 22).

Professor Martin Seligman, the pioneer of positive psychology, told an audience of 150 people attending a lecture at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, sponsored by Human Resource consultancy the Foresight Institute, that creating wealth was no longer enough.

Despite countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States being wealthier than ever before, they were all experiencing epidemics of depression, he said. New Zealand scored particularly badly in world rankings of wellbeing, usually placed at around 22 or 23, compared with Australia, which was usually placed around 8.

“Why is there so much pessimism and depression and lack of wellbeing?” he asked. “Given the prosperity of your nation, and given what’s happened in the past century, why is there so much depression? Depression is probably 20 times more common than it was 50 years ago.

The big question for nations and for politicians was to ask why morale was so low, given the statistics on increased financial wealth.

Professor Seligman said study after study showed that once people were above the minimum level of wealth needed for physical comfort, increased wealth did not lead to lasting happiness.

“The politics of wellbeing become very important,” he said. “The job of politicians is not just to increase the objective statistics [of wealth] but to increase wellbeing.

“Part of the answer is that we have squandered our wealth on things that habituate.”

According to Professor Seligman, material possessions increased happiness only momentarily – once people became used to them, the positive effect disappeared.

Instead, nations and politicians should be using wealth to strengthen “the positive emotions” – things such as optimism, a sense of community, engagement and meaning, which brought lasting happiness and increased individual and national wellbeing.

Jamie Ford, director of the Foresight Institute, said Professor Seligman’s message was particularly important for New Zealand as it approached the next general election.

“In applying Professor Seligman’s work in organizations, and working with individuals, over the past 15 years, Foresight has discovered that pessimistic thinking is endemic in New Zealand,” he said.

“That pessimism is holding New Zealand back, not just from achieving, but also from being happier.

“No matter how wealthy we become, unless we also learn to think more positively, become more engaged and find more meaning in all aspects of our lives, we won’t be any happier or feel better off as a country.”

Mr Ford said that by applying Professor Seligman’s methods for increasing optimism and happiness, New Zealanders would not only become more productive and wealthier but, more importantly, would gain more lasting happiness out of every aspect of their lives.

“If politicians started focusing on how to turn around the national pessimism, they would find they had to put much less effort into focusing on wealth creation.”

Professor Seligman is the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. His books have been translated into more than 16 languages and his work has been featured on the front page of the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, and the Reader's Digest.

He has written more than 20 books and 170 articles on motivation and personality, including Learned Optimism, What You Can Change & What You Can't, The Optimistic Child, and Learned Helplessness.

Professor Seligman has received two Distinguished Scientific Contribution awards from the American Psychological Association, the Laurel Award of the American Association for Applied Psychology and Prevention, and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Society for Research in Psychopathology. He has also received awards from the American Psychological Society for contribution to basic science and for the application of psychological knowledge.

In 1996 Professor Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association by the largest vote in modern history.

He is in New Zealand to deliver his public lecture in Auckland, a private seminar to Fletcher Building and Air New Zealand executives, and a public seminar through the Leadership Development Centre in Wellington.

ENDS


The Foresight Institute is an HR consultancy, which focuses on building mental toughness and resilience.

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