Measuring sustainable happiness through the Happy Planet Index
Newspaper section: Bangkok Post, Outlook
Writer: Thiti Owlarn
It is safe to say that, at one level or another, we all want to be happy. But what is happiness, and what makes us happy? What do we have to do in order to become a happier person? Philosophers have pondered these questions since the beginning of civilisation, yet more often than not the answers are too abstract and general for us to make use of in our everyday lives. Happiness is the supreme human good, some say. Happiness is illusionary and ephemeral, say others. These remarks may indeed be true and insightful, but how they are supposed to have a bearing on our lives is not always clear. For those of us who are more pragmatic, there is still a need to come up with a more concrete way of thinking about happiness.
It is for this reason that Nic Marks, the renowned author of Happy Planet Index and National Accounts of Well-being, led a workshop on well-being recently at Chulalongkorn University. Based on the research he and his colleagues did for the New Economic Foundation (NEF), the workshop was a way for Marks to present professionals living in Thailand with a new, more practical way of thinking about happiness - or "well-being" as Marks prefers to call it - so that they not only know better how to improve the quality of their lives, but also that of others.
The workshop began with Marks explaining the root factors that can affect a person's happiness or well-being. He divided them into two groups, which he called "enabling conditions" and "psychological resources". "Enabling conditions involve things like opportunities, social norms and culture," he explained. "Basically it's to do with your environment, or where you are. Psychological resources are things like resilience, confidence and self-esteem. It has to do with who you are. Together they help to determine whether a person is functioning well and having a good experience of life."
This means that a large part of a person's happiness is actually shaped by the environment, as well as dispositions developed in youth. But of course, these factors are not what a person has control over, since we do not determine where we grow up and what personal traits we have. So what can we do in order to improve our happiness?
At this point, Marks began asking people to talk a little about what they have done in the past week that contributed to their well-being. The majority of the workshop participants ended up talking about the way they have connected with people in their community. Marks pointed out that this is quite normal, since building up a strong relationship with others is one of the most important factors in making people feel happy.
"To connect with people - whether it's friends, family, neighbours or co-workers - that's an extremely important factor for well-being," said Marks. "In fact, psychological studies show that it is the strongest factor."
Connecting with people is not the only way of improving well-being. The NEF lists four other ways a person may improve his or her well-being: being active, taking notice, learning and giving (see graphic). The list may appear short and simple, but a lot of effort has gone into the making of it: Marks and his co-workers reviewed the works of over 400 scientists from around the world in order to come up with these five items.
"In 2008, the UK government asked us to review the current works of scientists and academics in order to come up with a list of things people can do to improve their well-being," he explained. "These five things - connecting, being active, taking notice, learning and giving - were what we eventually came up with."
After a short break, Marks went on to talk about the importance of well-being at the workplace. According to him, well-being does not have to be something we seek for its own worth - it can also be a means for increasing the efficiency of a business.
"Research shows that high-performing business units make more positive utterances than negative ones," he said. "To bring out the best in people, it is important to use encouraging words and have a positive attitude at the workplace."
Marks backed up these words with a series of slides showing the statistical relationship between the productivity of a business unit and how positive an atmosphere its meeting sessions tend to have. The graphs show a clear positive correlation between the two, especially for higher-level jobs that require more creativity and independent thinking.
He believes the reason for this increase in efficiency has to do with the way positive emotions help to improve our minds. He cited psychologist Barbara Friedrickson, who has done a lot of research on the effects of positive emotions on the human mind.
"According to Friedrickson, positive emotions help to broaden our horizons," said Marks. "When we are filled with positive emotions, we tend to pay more attention to things and become more creative, more open to making new relationships, more flexible to our surroundings."
Besides improving the efficiency of workers, research shows that well-being at the workplace can also help reduce maintenance costs. This is because a firm often has to spend a lot of resources in order to replace absent workers, sick workers and workers who quit their jobs. Well-being can help cut down these costs, said Marks, because a better work environment helps reduce absentees - people are less likely to fall ill or not show up for their jobs when they are happy. This might seem like a trivial thing, but according to Marks' statistics, well-being can really be the difference between a firm earning profits and a firm suffering losses.
Towards the end of the workshop, Marks shifted the discussion to talk about how well-being relates to global issues. He believes that the way we look at well-being can help transform society if the well-being of nations, people and planet can replace, or at least supplement, economic productivity as the "narrative" for global changes and challenges.
"We often think too much in terms of GDP. But GDP does not measure everything. It does not measure how the climate is changing, and it does not measure income inequality."
In order to help bring about this change of narrative, Marks and his colleagues at NEF designed and published the now famous Happy Planet Index in 1996. The goal of the index was to discourage people from thinking purely in terms of economic productivity, while encouraging them to think more about how effectively wealth is being used to increase our happiness. Accordingly, the index ranks countries in order of how efficiently they use resources to make its citizens happy, taking both the environment and people's well-being into consideration along with economic productivity. It turns out that the richer countries tend to rank rather badly on the Happy Planet Index, because they consume a lot more resources without necessarily making their people happier.
This ranking has upset a lot of people, especially some US conservatives sceptical about the need to conserve the environment, but Marks does not mind upsetting a few individuals if that is what it takes to bring the environment and people's well-being to the attention of the world. "We need to start changing," he said. "We need to start lowering our energy use and focus more on improving the social structures that improve people's well-being."
The workshop ended with a general discussion of the topics as they apply to Thailand. Most of the participants agreed on the need for Thais to take well-being more seriously, especially as Thailand is rapidly becoming a developed nation.
Although the workshop covered several topics surrounding well-being, its main goal was to teach us how to better organise our lives, businesses and society. Thinking about happiness, it appears, no longer has to lie within the abstract realm of philosophy. Thanks to the works of Nic Marks and the New Economic Foundation, thinking about happiness can offer us useful insights to guide our actions and improve sustainability and connectedness.