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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Are You Happy?

I have noticed more reports than usual about happiness and wellbeing in recent months. Carol Graham’s excellent piece in the Washington Post in January basically concludes that happiness is linked to stable relationships, stable health and enough (but not too much) income.

Gallup’s Happiness poll identified that “Americans' happiest days of 2009 were on or close to holidays, consistent with previous mood index scores showing that days with more-than-normal time dedicated to socializing with family and friends enhance people's happiness and enjoyment.”

The recently published 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman concludes that fundamental ‘circumstantial changes’ (moving house, getting a pay rise), result in only short term happiness as we quickly adapt to the new lifestyle, whereas ‘intentional change’, in which he includes what seem to me to be less significant activities, such as joining a new club or starting a new hobby, results in prolonged happiness. He also identifies that acquiring new things does not generally equate with increased happiness.

It is well recognized that two of the key challenges for sustainability are consumerism and the requirements for continual and short term growth in financial markets. But if these things do not lead to happiness, why do we strive for them to such a great extent?

I can think of a couple of reasons. One is that economic growth is very measurable and we all like things that are measurable. Another (perhaps related) is that GDP is such a prevalent metric for development. In fact at BT we have linked our Climate Stabilization Intensity Target for carbon reduction to our contribution to GDP to allow for both economic development and carbon reduction.

Graham’s article in the post takes the concept further and talks about the ‘economics of happiness’ identifying how governments are starting to look for metrics much broader than GDP to measure development. It is worth a read.

As a nation dedicated to the pursuit of happiness I think it would be well worth looking closer at the findings of these and other studies and understanding what really makes people (amongst them employees, customers and shareholders) happy. I suspect the findings could change some of the basic principles on which we measure success and allow us to build new foundations that better support sustainability.

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