The Sociolinguistics of Happiness

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I was honored to be asked to speak at this year’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) U.S. Conference in Vermont, the first State to adopt the use of a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) with legislative authorization to supplement the traditional Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  The focus was on the topics of happiness and well-being with a policy focal point that emphasized on measuring what matters.

More than 100 participants including political and government leaders, representatives of governments, international organizations, media and businesses, as well as leading economists, scholars, academics and spiritual leaders participated in the event.  This conference now reaching its fifth year was inspired by the High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm held at the United Nations in 2012.

Well-being, Wellness, Happiness, Quality of Life or Standard of Living?

One of the topics that repeatedly presented itself during discussions throughout the conference was the pragmatics of happiness.  Putting aside the confusion of the alphabet soup of metrics (GDP, GPI, GNH, GCH), how can we all navigate through the sociolinguistics of happiness so that we can each become effective communicators where we use the appropriate language given a particular setting?

As with anything, knowing your audience is first and foremost the priority in being an effective communicator when engaging in a conversation about happiness.  When speaking with an economist, happiness is likely not the choice of words used in their day-to-day and will often lead to ambiguity.  The closest synonym would be “Standard of Living”, an indicator used by economists to gauge economic recession and recovery.

In order to bridge that gap between happiness and standard of living, one may want to consider the language using “Quality of Life”.  This is just one example of how we may need to alter our language to cater to our audience so that we can begin to have the next phase of dialogue about our true intention, happiness.

Similarly, with companies and organizations alike, the phrase that resonates closest to happiness is “Health & Wellness”, with programs being offered through the workplace to employees for premium discounts, cash rewards, gym memberships and other incentives to promote health and fitness.  By emphasizing the wellness programs that companies/organizations may already have in place to encourage healthier lifestyle behaviors that reduce health care spending, the transition into the discussion of well-being may be the most effective use of language.

With the thoughtful consideration of the sociolinguistics of happiness, it’s my belief that we can spread and inspire more happiness in the world, one company, campus, community and city at a time.

About Mika

Mika Kim is a social entrepreneur and founder of a social enterprise that focus on social innovation.  In 2014, Mika launched a year-long Happiness Initiative campaign in Los Angeles to pursue the never attempted before effort to measure the quality of life of the residences, property/business owners and community stakeholders of Los Angeles.  She is excited to join the movement alongside the DH team to blog about her latest thoughts and discoveries on happiness.  Follow Mika via her company, Place of the Future, on Twitter @PlaceFuture and Facebook /PlaceoftheFuture.

About the Author

Mika Kim


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