In 2011, The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling on all its member countries to look beyond economic performance as a driver of public policy, turning instead to something more intangible: happiness. At the time, it must have seemed novel. Since the Gross Domestic Product was introduced in 1934 by economist Simon Kuznets, the GDP has been the bellwether for politicians, economists and news anchors alike to predict a country’s success or failure, along with unemployment and inflation. Not happiness.
Countries measure GDP, businesses measure profit. This is how we determine success. Right?
Increasingly, no. This April, the third edition of the World Happiness Report was published – a report born from the United Nation’s 2011 resolution and published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) – demonstrating again that even moderate well-being and happiness are critical indicators of a country’s success and progress and produces tangible benefits. Many countries (and not just Bhutan) have begun to measure their own versions of “Gross National Happiness.”
“For my nation today GNH [Gross National Happiness] is the bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth.” – Buthan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck
I’ve been reflecting on the insights this report shared and what lessons business leaders can and should take away.
1. Define a purpose bigger than profit. Fundamentally, the report’s publishers believe that the “aspiration of society is the flourishing of its members” – not simply to be the biggest economy or the fastest producers. Businesses should do the same. Do you see your company’s purpose as something bigger than, or balanced with, profit? Certainly, without profit, businesses fail. But with purpose enabled by profit, they can work to achieve something greater for the greater good.
2. Exist in Society, Not Outside of It. Researchers found that the quality of an individual’s social relationships was one of the strongest predictors of well-being. In fact, neuroscientists find that the same part of the brain that experiences physical pain is activated when people isolated from other human beings. Human beings want to be with one another, and belong. Does your company exist within society, and leverage these natural social connections? Have you aligned yourself with, and connected with, people who share your beliefs?
3. Do good to do well. The study also demonstrated that behaviors (like altruism) that increase social bonds also reliably increase well-being. Have you defined and funded a philanthropic strategy aligned with your larger purpose, or are you simply donating money to random (albeit good) organizations who request help? By developing a philanthropic strategy with a clear point of view tied to your purpose, you will better engage your social community and have a greater chance of making a sustainable impact.
4. Fuel the loop. Researchers also found – perhaps not unsurprisingly – that this kind of altruistic, pro-social behavior not only increases well-being, but also results in more pro-social behavior. Additionally, it is shown to contribute to bettering an individual’s health and increasing life expectancy. These improved health outcomes in turn can also contribute to greater well-being. It’s one big self-sustaining positive-impact loop. Don’t you want your business to be part of it?
“Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth” – Pharrell Williams
By participating in purpose-driven work, engaging people through your work, and funding philanthropic activities that are connected to your purpose, I believe you not only will increase happiness in the short-term, but can realize long-term benefits of both happiness and profitability. In this way, happiness and human well-being do not overtake economic objectives, but are balanced with it as measurement and a goal.
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Haley Boehning is a principal at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.