The Search for Happiness in 2017

What lessons can we learn from Bhutan in finding happiness at work and in life?

With executive orders flying, protests raging and social media feeds screaming, it’s not been the happiest start to a year.  An ongoing refugee crisis, slipping commitments to tackle climate change, rising inequality and economic uncertainty. It’s all getting a bit much isn’t it?  Where on earth can we look to find happiness?

The Kingdom of Bhutan sits between India and China in the Eastern Himalayas.  Despite a population of just 750,000, it has been the subject of interest for many bigger countries because of its decision in 1972 to put happiness at the centre of national and civic life.  I was privileged to hear the Crown Princess of Bhutan, HRH Princess Kezang Choden Wangchuck, tell her country’s story at Sustainable Brands Bangkok  last October.  When her father ascended to the throne in 1972, at the age of just 16, he decided to walk from village to village, talking to his people, and asking them what they wanted from life.  They told him, as we might today, that what they wanted most of all was happiness. He took this to heart and the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) was born.   This is now enshrined in the Gross National Happiness Index, based on 33 indicators to create incentives for government, NGOs and businesses to increase GNH.

Other governments and organisations  have looked at whether GNH could serve instead of or in addition to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of a country’s health.  President Sarkozy of France started an initiative in 2008 calling for the inclusion of happiness and well-being in the criteria for national policies, later described as gross domestic happiness (GDH); South Korea launched a Happiness Index in 2012; and the UK launched its well-being and happiness statistics in 2014. Also in 2014, Michael Porter of Harvard Business School, the father of Creating Shared Value, started the Social Progress Index.

They – and all who hanker after happiness – are following in the footsteps of the ancients, including Aristotle: “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”   But to find happiness, we need to know where it comes from.  GNH offers one guide, summarising happiness as coming from living in harmony with oneself, with others, and with nature.  What lessons then can we learn from Bhutan’s example and apply to our own lives, including at work?

  1. Harmony with oneself. Viktor Frankl, the holocaust survivor, wrote in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ that “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy.”  For him, that reason lay in meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”   The hunt for ‘purpose’ at work, about which so much is written and talked today, is a response to this.  Millennials are well-documented in wanting to have purpose at work, most recently in Simon Sinek’s latest internet-busting, and not uncontroversial, interview, but it’s there in all of us. The Gallup Q12 has surveyed 5.4 million people over the last 20 years to measure how engaged employees are at work. The results have proved a direct correlation between employee engagement and business performance: higher employee engagement results in better performance; lower employee engagement results in worse performance.   Yet Gallup’s ‘State of the Global Workplace’ for 2011/12 showed that just 13% of workers were engaged at work .  One of the questions used to measure engagement at work asks employees to rate whether ‘The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.’  A sense of meaning – a sense of harmony with oneself – has a direct effect on employee engagement and business performance.
  2. Harmony with others. Most of us recognise the impact of social connections on our feelings of happiness.  Our relationships with our family, friends, colleagues and others affect how we feel.  The desire for validation through social media shows how deep and prevalent this urge is.  This drive can be seen in the growing desire for work to be meaningful beyond salary and status, as indicated in the Q12 survey and also in Deloitte’s 2017 Millennial Survey. It found that millennials provided with opportunities at work to contribute to charities and good causes ‘show a greater level of loyalty, have a more positive opinion of business behaviour, and are less pessimistic about the general social situation.’
  3. Harmony with nature. Again, we recognise this desire in our own urge for connection to nature at weekends and holidays, in the images and relics of nature we use to decorate our homes, and the pools of nature we create outside them.  We instinctively know the sense of inner peace and happiness nature can bring.  Art in all its forms has long played to this yearning, from Virgil to Van Gogh, Wordsworth to Walt Disney.  Planet Earth II attracted more viewers than the X Factor final in the UK before Christmas.   Our connection to the natural world helps improve our sense of happiness.  When the Bhutanese government debated joining the World Trade Organisation, they initially voted in favour.  But applying their happiness criteria to the decision-making process forced them to reconsider. They reflected on the impact joining the WTO would have on their natural environment, and then voted unanimously against joining.  Environmental campaigners recognise this innate desire for harmony with nature and use images from nature to support the case for action on climate change and to encourage more sustainable behaviour.  Support our cause and you will feel a greater harmony with nature.

The world of work is changing, and at a faster rate than any of us has experienced. New technologies, the free and instant availability of information, Artificial Intelligence and automation are exerting profound pressures for change on all workplaces.  At the same time, young people – Millennials and Gen Z – want more from work as countless surveys show.  They want to feel good about the work they’re doing; they want to make a positive impact on the lives of others; they don’t want to cause damage to the planet.

But is this asking more?  Or is it asking different? Are people who want to feel that their work is meaningful, that they are helping others and that they are aren’t trashing the planet, simply judging that their own happiness can best be served by trying to find harmony in these three areas at work – with themselves; with others; and with nature?   And are they instinctively realising that this moment, when the world of work is changing so much, is the perfect moment to drive this change of emphasis at work.

Indeed, aren’t organisations that can help their employees live to these principles at work, likely to benefit economically?  As Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and former Chief Economist at the World Bank pointed out, “GDP is not a good measure of economic performance [because] it is not a good measure of well-being.”

Happiness lies not in hygge (however lovely and cosy), but in finding harmony with oneself, with others and with nature.  Workplaces that can help their employees achieve this will have not only a happier workforce but a more productive one.  The sustainability agenda – to tackle social inequalities and reduce environmental impacts – offers one such path to happiness.