At least, those are the results according to the criteria measured by the Happy Planet Index. The index is a measure of three factors, life expectancy, experienced well being, and ecological footprint. Western nations tend to do very well on the first two measures, but suck at the third. The index is looking for balance: being happy without raping and pillaging the earth. Here in North America, we still have a ways to go in that department.
In another study -- the 2015 UN’s World Happiness Report -- a different weighting of factors treated the Western world a little better. When we tip the balance towards individual happiness and away from the environment and sustainability, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Canada topped the rankings. Apparently, snow is good for the soul. At the bottom of the list were Benin, Afghanistan, Togo, Syria and Burundi (it’s hard to believe anywhere scored worse than Syria. Mental note: Stroke Burundi off my travel bucket list).
In 1971, the 4th Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was so enamored with the idea of happiness as a goal that he introduced a new measure of a nation’s worth: Gross National Happiness. He believed that the Western world’s obsession with materialism represented by Gross National Product shouldn’t be the sole measure of progress. Things like sustainable development, care for the environment, good governance and preservation of culture deserved to be measured as well. In the 45 years since the idea of Gross National Happiness was first floated by his Royal Dragonship, it’s been slow to take, but perhaps its time has come. By the way, in the UN survey, Bhutan was in the middle of the pack for happiness, ranking 84th out of 157 countries.
Happiness should be important to companies as well. There’s even an investment fund that invests exclusively in companies with happy employees. But happiness can be an elusive goal, especially when we try to wrestle it to the ground in the way of a hard performance metric in a corporate environment. What exactly are we measuring when we measure happiness? And whose happiness are we measuring? Our customers? Our shareholders? Our employees? All of the above?
Let’s single out employees. Companies like Zappos and Southwest Airlines have tried to make employee happiness a metric that matters. But what makes an employee happy? Perhaps we can find a clue in a recent survey from Ypulse that asked Millennials which companies they’d most like to work at. The top 10 answers were:
7. U.S. government
8. Myself/my own company
It’s an interesting list. It’s not the list you’d expect from a generation that simply wants to get rich quick. You don’t work at a hospital or the FBI if you want to make big bucks. This is a list that comes from people who want to make a difference. They want meaning. In the words of Steve Jobs, they “want to put a ding in the universe.”
I get that. I recently discovered just how hard happiness is to pin down. After selling my company, I was fortunate enough to achieve financial independence and retire at 51. I should have been deliriously happy, right? Well, I wasn’t suicidal by any means, but I would say my level of happiness actually decreased after I tried retirement. I was at the other end of my career path from Millennials, but meaning remained just as important to me.
In a study of retirement satisfaction published in the Journal of Financial Counselling and Planning, Sarah Arsebedo and Martin Seay found that psychologist Martin Seligman’s positive psychological attributes, referred to as PERMA (positive emotions, engagement, [family] relationships, meaning and accomplishment) -- don’t go away when we retire. These things are necessary to happiness. For men in particular -- and increasingly so with women -- we rely on our jobs to provide many of these. This was certainly true for me.
It’s good we’re paying more attention to happiness. But it’s also important that we understand what we’re talking about when we refer to happiness. It has little to do with monetary measures of success. Whether we’re talking nations, corporations or employees, it turns out that happiness means a sense of interconnectedness, contribution and personal values. It means living beyond ourselves and leaving some footprint that won’t fade when we no longer walk this earth.
Ultimately, it means doing stuff that matters.