Is there anything controversial about wanting people to be happy? My guess is you would struggle to find anyone objecting to it. Yet we, as a society, appear to be shy of promoting it. Where does it feature in the manifesto of any political party? And why is it that, although everybody knows happiness is one of those things money can’t buy, the main measure we use to gauge how well society is doing is firmly based on the health of its economy – as measured, conventionally, by Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? The wellbeing of the population is not factored in, despite incontrovertible evidence that the healthier and happier a workforce is, the more productive it will be. Isn’t it time we reconsidered our national priorities so that wellbeing becomes top of the list? As Thomas Jefferson said, “The care of human life and happiness… is the first and only legitimate object of good government”.
Of course, we might upset a few economists by attempting to knock them off their perch, prompting them to come back with the argument that wellbeing is too ‘fuzzy’ a notion to measure and is, therefore, impractical in application. But this is a myth. It is possible to design and conduct sociological studies that measure non-tangible factors. And as for GDP, while it has become an internationally accepted indicator of the size of an economy, not all economists agree that it is a true measurement of its long or short-term health.
Fortunately, many employers now recognise that looking after the welfare of their employees is a critical part of ensuring higher productivity and, though this may be the driving factor for the most cynical of bosses, the more widespread it becomes the more closely it is woven into the way of doing business. Thus, employee wellbeing should be the central focus for the ‘S’ in assessing the ESG (environment, social and governance) performance of a company, thereby reflecting the responsibility that it has to protect and enhance society and the environment, while delivering the profits its shareholders reasonably expect.
It follows that if individuals value their own wellbeing and their employers recognise and encourage this as an everyday requirement of life, then Thomas Jefferson’s point is made. So, why don’t democratically elected governments similarly prioritise wellbeing? Could it be that they fear their voters will only respond positively to financial incentives – “It’s the economy, stupid!”, as Bill Clinton put it? Yes, wealth is necessary to eliminate hunger and poverty, but if it is not achieved sustainably it damages the planet, and if it is not shared more evenly it damages society.
I am hopeful that the groundswell of recognition that wellbeing is a very real and essential part of mental and physical health, starting with the individual and transmitting upwards through society, is now building into a movement that will gain mainstream impact. The World Happiness Summit – an organised event that explores the practicalities of societal wellbeing – has proposed the following course of action: as well as measuring levels of stress and ill-health, we can monitor the wellbeing of our populations.
Is there really anything controversial about wanting everyone to be happy?
Rachel Ward Lilley is a business and educational psychologist. She has worked for many years advising SMEs and her current work relates to issues of resilience, communication, personal development, team building and motivation. Over the past 12 years Rachel has extended her work into the educational field. Find out more here.
Image by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash