20/03/2014 04:47 GMT | Updated 19/05/2014 06:59 BST

Happiness Matters More Than Wealth, Say Majority of People

How should we measure our progress as a society? When you watch the news or listen to political discussions, it's clear that economic growth is currently the main priority.

Politicians are constantly telling us how vital it is to get the economy growing as rapidly as possible. Their implicit assumption is that what the nation needs and wants, above all, is the best possible economic situation. But is this true?

This week Action for Happiness has published the results from a nationally-representative YouGov poll of adults in the UK. It asked people which they would choose as the priority for their society, the greatest overall wealth or the greatest overall happiness and wellbeing?

Encouragingly, the poll found that the vast majority (87%) of people would prefer a happier country to a richer one - and this finding was consistent across all social classes and regions. At one level, this should be no surprise - we all want to be happy and we want our loved ones to be happy too. But at another level, considering how important this clearly is to us, it's remarkable how little we talk about it.

Every discussion of national priorities should start with the question "What effect will this have on people's wellbeing?". Of course the economic impacts are an important part of this - but the economy is just the means to an end, not the end in itself.

The survey also asked people to choose the top three factors that contribute most to their personal happiness and wellbeing. Only four in 10 people (42%) chose their money and financial situation, far fewer than said their health (71%) or their relationships (80%). Hardly anyone chose their possessions or appearance - a refreshing contrast to the adverts which constantly tell us that happiness comes from how we look and what we own.

Lastly, the survey also asked people to select the changes they thought would do most to increase national happiness and wellbeing. As you'd expect, themes like 'improved health services' and 'less crime' scored highly. But the most popular response was an increase in equality between rich and poor. When it comes to the economy, people care less about how big the cake is and more about how fairly the cake is distributed.

Interestingly, the change which people thought mattered least for national wellbeing was 'improved transport and infrastructure'. And yet here we are about to spend £50 billion on building a new high speed rail link! This is a classic case of decisions being based on their economic merits rather than their potential benefits for people's wellbeing.

Today is in fact a very significant day for all of us who care about giving more priority to wellbeing. Firstly, it's the United Nations International Day of Happiness and people all around the world are joining together to Reclaim Happiness back from the fake images in adverts and the media.

But today also sees the launch of a vitally important new Legatum Institute report from the Commission for Wellbeing and Policy. Chaired by former Cabinet Secretary Lord O'Donnell, the Commission's report proposes a radical reform of public policy-making to focus on wellbeing, not simply growth. It also identifies key policy areas where greater action is essential - like investment in mental health services and more support for parents.

For too long, we've defined progress mainly in economic and material terms. It's now time for a new vision for the 'good society' - where we put wellbeing ahead of wealth and focus more on the things that really matter.