Can love trump money in the contested U.S. Presidential Race

Trump and Biden
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The Beatles sang that “money can’t buy you love.” But can love- and the brain- sway the current, hotly contested, United States election?

This question is particularly palpable given the spontaneous loud chants “We Love You” by thousands of Trump supporters at rallies around the country. The candidate answers, “I love you, too.” At the same time, Presidential candidate Joe Biden campaigns for the "soul of America."

Both candidates for the highest office in the land, Democrat former Vice President Joe Biden and incumbent Republican President Donald Trump promote divergent views on taxes and economic growth. But could they put more emphasis in the last hours on an appeal to the heart – and the brain – as much as to the pocketbook.

The United States constitution has played a big part in the current Presidential battle for the highest office in the land. That debate has skewed towards court packing and winning partisan appointments of conservatives or liberals. Included in the conversation - as in the title of the Fox TV show, “Life, Liberty and Levyn” - is a reference to words in the document’s introduction to our inalienable rights to “life and liberty.”

Something is missing.

What’s left out is the third inalienable right: the pursuit of happiness.

While casting the ballot likely hangs significantly on issues related to the pandemic, the economy and unemployment rate, and safety and security, research shows that emotions and the brain matter.

Brain science is an increasing focus of many clinical and research fields of neurology and neuropsychology. The amygdala – considered part of the limbic system and commonly referred to as the “pleasure center of the brain” — performs a primary role in processing cognitive functions (memory and decision-making) as well as emotional responses (fear, anxiety, and aggression).

A link has been found between cognitive style and identification as conservative versus liberal. In a study of recorded structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans from 90 healthy young adults (61% female) who self-reported their political attitudes confidentially, greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala in contrast to greater liberalism associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the frontal cortex commonly associated with error detection and conflict processes, and also social exclusion.

The researchers see their results as consistent with other findings that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views, in contrast to individuals with a large amygdala being more sensitive to fear and disgust, and more inclined to integrate conservative views into their belief system.

This information can energize a base and influence others.

Look to history. A clue to the appeal of the psychological concept of happiness occurred during the first presidential debate in 2012 when a focus group’s ratings spiked after candidate Mitt Romney (though he lost his bid for the office badly) referred to the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The importance of emotional well-being has already gained attention on the international stage.

Happiness gained great ground on the international stage at a groundbreaking high-level meeting at the United Nations in April 2012, which I attended, when representatives from governments and varied sectors of society – economists,, academicians, NGOs, and community and interfaith leaders – came together to support the value of measuring a nation’s development not just by wealth but also by well-being. Hosted by the Royal Government of Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country whose King initiated a Gross National Happiness Index in 1976, the meeting punctuated that GDP is not enough.

The United Arab Emirates took over Bhutan’s lead, under Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. The ruler of the Emirate of Dubai established a Ministry of Happiness and Well-being in the government, reflected in his book, “Reflections on Happiness and Positivity.” The UAE is still now building The Global Happiness Coalition of supportive governments, launched at the World Government Summit 2018 in Dubai, that includes Slovenia, Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, Mexico, and Portugal.

Notably, the United Nations adopted a resolution establishing the annual celebration on March 20 of the International Day of Happiness, events which I have co-organized and spoken at.

The U.S. federal government has not been among these voices. While the National Institute of Aging focuses on well-being metrics to guide policy, the future of elder care and Social Security are both currently in danger and hotly debated in this election.

States, however, are slowly catching on. With its General Progress Indicator (GPI), Maryland is the first state to operationalize and incorporate well-being indexes into measuring development. The GPI includes social factors like the cost of commuting and lost leisure time, and the value of housework and volunteer work. Sean McGuire from Maryland’s Office for a Sustainable Future in Annapolis had told me, “Our GPI works, and other states have consulted with us about how to tailor such a measure to their needs.”

Vermont took heed. Policy recommendations resulting are intended to inform funding decisions regarding services to ensure the well-being of Vermont’s vulnerable children and families. The University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics links health, well-being, mental heath and happiness to nature, climate change, and resilient communities.

Citizens are also taking action. Activists and experts -- teachers, doctors, NGO founders, lawyers, psychologists and entrepreneurs -- have attended many gatherings, in models like that in Seattle for the “Happiness, Compassion & Sustainability Conference” co-sponsored by the Happiness Initiative.

Before the United States election two cycles ago, I joined two Vermont women walking nearly 600 miles across seven states to Washington, D.C., to promote happiness as an alternative measure of how well we’re doing. “Happiness Walkers” Linda Wheatley and Paula Francis, co-founders of Gross National Happiness USA (, asked people along the route what makes them happy. Most answered, “family” and “other people.” When I joined them on the walk, a waitress told me, “Watching my daughter’s eyes light up at Christmas”; a man said “doing karate in my wheelchair”; and a guy at a roadside garage shooed me away while yelling back, “Money.”

In my own surveys about what attracts men and women to a partner, honesty and caring top the list. Money is mentioned as an aside, often with a smirk, which people explain reflects reality but superficial values.

Small businesses – now suffering so severely in these pandemic lockdowns, once cashed in on the appeal of the word “happiness,” using it to sell flowers, gifts and even while advertising soup.

Critics maintain that happiness cannot be measured, but psychological research and conclusions in the annual “World Happiness Report”, co-edited by three world-renowned economists, show otherwise. Also, the Happy Planet Index rates countries on citizen well-being as well as life expectancy and ecological footprint (Nordic countries and Costa Rica have rated high). Many other scales address overlapping concepts like quality of life, satisfaction and well-being. The World Health Organization Quality of Life-BREF asks, “How much do you enjoy life?” The GNH Happiness Survey asks respondents to evaluate statements like, “So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.”

Psychologists like myself have been advocating with governments at the United Nations about the important role of well-being and empowerment in the eradication of poverty – the topic of one of the events I co-organized and moderated at the UN Commission for Social Development.

Numerous articles in the journal, “Health and Well-being,” published by the International Association of Applied Psychology, an NGO I represent at the United Nations, as well as research in publications on the topic of “Humanitarian Work Psychology,” prove the relationship between unemployment and well-being.

Such research often builds on the results of a classic study, referred to as the “Hawthorne Effect” whereby workers’ productivity increased when lights in the workplace were turned either up or down, leading to one interpretation that motivation is affected by workers’ perception of employer’s concern for their welfare. While some have critiqued the study’s conclusion, many still bank on its message.

On this election day -- that many agree will change the course of the country like none other, and while door knocker and callers make their final appeal and Joe Biden is still visiting small groups of people in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania -- these ideas can be heeded.

The Beatles may have been wrong: love is NOT "all you need" but it can form bonds and help heal our nation going foward.

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