How much importance do we attach to our happiness?

Today is #InternationalDayOfHappiness, championed by the United Nations’ General Assembly. It’s certainly an opportunity to pause for thought about what we value in life. When we think about our life goals, how strongly does happiness feature as an aim in itself rather than a bi-product of other achievements? And to what extent are we prepared to sacrifice our happiness in pursuit of other ventures? 

The value of wellbeing, life satisfaction and happiness are widely acknowledge and with the UN championing International Day of Happiness, it’s also high profile. But at a national policy level it seems we still have some way to go to balance our traditional reliance on economic measures with societal and environmental considerations. There’s a strong argument that the long-term health of an economy is dependent on the health and happiness of the individuals within it. 

How much value do we put on happiness as a society? Is it seen by the majority of the population as a basic right or as a privilege?

The traditional measure of country or industry economic performance is gross domestic product (GDP) – we use it to measure quarterly economic growth and hence the success or failure of economic policy. If we think about the adage of ‘what gets measured gets managed’ - the way we measure things can reflect and determine the value we put on them. So is this measure alone sufficient to assess the economic health of a country?

Back in the 1970s, Bhutan was the first country to question the traditional reliance on GDP, and decided to look at  a broader measure of national success and progress. They subsequently adopted the goal of increasing their country’s gross national happiness over gross national product. More recently, Sarkozy commissioned Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to look the appropriateness of GDP as a measure of how well a nation is performing.

Many arguments focus on whether, by relying on GDP alone, we may be producing wealth - but is this based on sustainable foundations? Could that measure in isolation lead us to focus on short-term gains with potential detriment to other areas of society? From a wellbeing perspective, increases in GDP are not necessarily synonymous with greater happiness of a country’s citizens. Economic gain can of course benefit citizens, but there is also the possibility for rapid growth to undermine wellbeing. And from an environmentalist point of view, it’s possible to grow the economy with negative effects on the environment.

In 2010 David Cameron advocated the importance of societal wellbeing, with the implication that we need to focus not just on GDP, but supplement it with indicators on general wellbeing, looking at data sets on life satisfaction and happiness.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced in October last year that they would publish other indicators of economic wellbeing alongside the central measure of GDP. An ONS paper published in April 2014 states that GDP is ‘the central and indispensable measure of economic activity’ but also considers how this measure alone is not sufficient.  The paper proposes 7 additional indicators, including disposable income of households. Separately it reports on measures of national wellbeing but it still seems that as a nation we still depend on GDP as our benchmark indicator.

Ultimately, although signals suggest we’re moving in the right direction, how much has actually changed in the way we report economic success and growth? Reliance on GDP alone as the indicator of national success certainly reinforces the mantra that money makes the world go round. So is ‘there’s more to life than money’ really still just a rhetoric? Do we need to more overtly champion the importance of happiness and wellbeing for societal and economic prosperity?

At an organisational level we know employee wellbeing and happiness at work is strongly related to productivity and business sustainability. CIPD survey research found that only a fifth measure the impact of their wellbeing activity on organisation performance. However, those that do are significantly more likely to increase their wellbeing spend the following year.

Organisations therefore need to consider the degree to which they measure or report on wellbeing as a KPI; if this is really important for the value of your business, think seriously about how you can report on it to the wider world?

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