What Can Leaders Learn from the World Happiness Report?
by N. Karl Haden, Ph.D., AAL President
So much for “melancholy Danes.”1 For the third time since the publication of the first World Happiness Report in 2012, Denmark is ranked as the happiest country in the world. Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway followed, with the United States ranking 13th in overall happiness.2 The 2016 report is an update in anticipation of the World Happiness Report 2017. Led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a global initiative of the United Nations, these studies aim to establish a scientific, empirically verifiable basis to measure humans’ subjective accounts of their well-being. Most of the differences in happiness among countries and regions result from six key variables: (1) GDP per capita; (2) healthy years of life expectancy; (3) social support (e.g., having someone to count on in times of trouble); (4) trust (as absence of corruption in government and business); (5) perceived freedom to make life decisions; and (6) generosity (e.g., donations to charity). According to the editors of the 2016 update, “increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy.” A fundamental premise of these ongoing studies is that “subjective well-being provides a broader and more inclusive measure of the quality of life than does income.”2
In a chapter entitled Secular Ethics, Richard Layard, Director of the Well-Being Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Center for Economic Performance, describes three propositions that comprise the “greatest happiness principle.” They are as follows:
1. Human progress should be assessed by the extent to which individuals are enjoying their lives. Enjoyment is defined by the prevalence of happiness and the absence of misery.
2. The objective of governments should be to create the conditions for the greatest possible happiness and the least possible misery.
3. Likewise, every individual has an obligation to create the greatest amount of human happiness in the world and the least misery.
The greatest happiness principle calls for us to care not only about our own wellbeing, but also about the wellbeing of others. Layard states that human nature is both selfish and altruistic. Moreover, he argues that we need an ethical system to promote the altruist within us over the egotist. Historically, ethical codes of conduct have come from various sources, most especially religious traditions. Layard maintains that, “In an ever more secular society we urgently need non-religious organisations which promote ethical living in a way that provides inspiration, uplift, joy and mutual support—through regular meetings of like-minded people.” Such organizations need not be anti-religious; they simply need to provide a structure that will allow for the actualization of the greatest happiness principle.
While there are numerous organizations that can provide such inspiration, uplift, joy, and mutual support, I would like to propose that the workplace provides the greatest opportunity to create these conditions. For the majority of employed people, the workplace is where they spend most of their time. In a sense, workplaces create their ethical codes of conduct. Workplaces have cultures, characterized by values (whether explicit or implicit), and policies. For most people, the type of work they do, those with whom they work, and the rewards of work (monetary and otherwise) are fundamental to their sense of wellbeing and happiness.
What can leaders learn from the World Happiness Report? Income matters to employees, but other factors are more important to fostering a sense of wellbeing. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink uses decades of research to argue that the secret to high performance and satisfaction is the human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to improve ourselves and our world.3 Pink and others found that monetary rewards work best when the task is simple and straightforward. However, once even rudimentary cognitive skills are involved, larger rewards actually led to poorer performance. Pink found that granting people autonomy and self-direction actually improves engagement with the task and others. He argues that for most people, mastery is also a motivation: we by nature want to get better at what we do. Lastly, people are motivated by purpose—they want to know that what they do matters. I call this type of work meaningful work; and it matters not only in terms of motivation, but also to one’s sense of wellbeing—one’s happiness.
A basic question for leaders is whether the culture of the departments, units, schools, and organizations they lead values autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Policies should foster self-direction. Vision, mission, and values must be discussed, debated, implemented, and lived. The leader’s attitudes and behavior should be consistent with espoused values of individual worth. The leader cannot possibly ensure that a given employee feels happy all of the time, or that the employee has all of his or her desires met. However, the leader does have a responsibility to create a meaningful workplace. If we return to Layard’s three propositions comprising the greatest happiness principle and apply them to our organizations, the leadership challenge might take the form of these questions:
1. What am I doing to ensure that people enjoy working here?
2. How do I create the conditions (culture, opportunities, etc.) in which people can grow, thrive, and make meaningful contributions?
3. How can our organization maximize its purpose to make the community and the world a better place?
I would offer that happiness and wellbeing are not only “a proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy,” but should also serve as a measure of the work environment and the societal goal of our schools and businesses.
1. Shakespeare, W. Hamlet. Simon & Schuster; New Folger Edition, 2003.
2. Helliwell J, Layard R., Sachs J. World Happiness Report 2016, Update (Vol. I). New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2016.
3. Pink, D. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.