The happiness factor

(The first of two parts)

Remember the old saying in business, “You get what you measure?”

There are powerful implications in our society for exploring what is being created by what we are measuring.

Spend some time today looking – really looking – at the people around you. What do you observe? Can you see how most adults are stressed, frustrated, worried, over-scheduled and in personal conflict about what others think? Notice the amount of smiling, laughter, relaxation, creativity or personal connection you observe and personally experience. Unless you are in a daycare center or an unusual workplace, the scale will tip heavy on the stress side.

Our current economic crisis is as much a symptom of this stress as a cause of it. The laws of physics demand that all systems return to equilibrium. The very concerns people are stressed about – security, status, belonging – are part of that correction. For many, that means returning to a much simpler lifestyle.

A friend was recently sharing the power of a recent four-week visit to orphanages in Bangladesh. Her biggest surprise? In one of the poorest countries on the planet, the people she encountered at the orphanages were the happiest of any she has ever met in her world travels. She described them as “glowing, lit up, willing to do whatever is asked and grateful for whatever is given.”

This anecdote illustrates a powerful concept: What do they measure success by at these orphanages in Bangladesh? Is our culture, with its privilege, material wealth and comfort, measuring success with the right yardstick? Why do studies show American’s wealth has tripled on average since 1950, but happiness has not increased?

Gross domestic product (GDP) or gross domestic income (GDI) is a basic measure of a country’s overall economic performance. It is the market value of all final goods and services made within the borders of a country in a year. Here is the World Bank’s ranking of GDP for 2008:

1. United States

2. Japan

3. China

4. Germany

5 France

6. United Kingdom

61. Bangladesh

In the United States, the value of goods and services grew 15-fold between 1947 and 2008. Even accounting for inflation, the U.S. can count itself bountiful in massively successful growth. At the same time, happiness as measured by worker productivity and satisfaction is at an all-time low. But there are some easy ways to create more happiness at work – things you can do right now at no cost, from Chief Happiness Officer by Alexander Kjerulf: 

• Praise – praising people takes no time and costs no money
• Listen – give your employees a chance to speak and listen to them
• Tell the good stories – start every department or group meeting with sharing good stories 

 By defining ourselves primarily by how much we earn, spend, and own, what becomes of pursuits of aesthetic pleasures that have nothing to do with those definitions? Activities like reading poetry. Taking a painting class. Sitting on the porch shooting the breeze with a neighbor with no thought of “how long do I have?” Playing in the park. Cooking a real meal. Taking real vacations without email. The answer is these activities become a set of “work-life balance” choices fraught with strange tension, rather than a natural part of our life.

Too often, non-industrialized nations and lesser countries are viewed as “under-privileged” and we feel concern about how to help them become more competitive in a global marketplace. We concern ourselves with how to keep up with China’s insatiable appetite for consumer goods with its commensurate growth in GDP (which experts predict will be the largest economy in the world by 2050).

The reality is that money equals power. It will always be an important element of the scorecard for defining success and progress. But as my friend who visited Bangladesh can testify, money is not an essential ingredient of happiness – attitude is. This explains also why Americans happiness has not increased while wealth – and access to unbelievable resources – has.

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Categories: Management & Leadership