In the late 1700s the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham declared that the only thing that means anything in the end is increasing happiness in the world. The loftiest goal must be to give “happiness to the largest number of people.” We must strive for happiness while we are alive, and this is not only a personal commitment. The government, markets, and the research community should also make happiness the greatest goal, so that we can live happier lives.
Bentham’s ideas, however, did not lead to a revolution; in the 1800s and 1900s governments, companies and researchers focused instead on welfare and economic goals. Many countries built up welfare systems, invested in schools and healthcare, and measured their success in growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Companies measured their success in growth and profits, with the goal of serving the interests of their owners rather than their employees’ wellbeing.
In the past decades, however, the pendulum seems to have swung and Bentham’s ideas have experienced a renaissance. One explanation is that despite achievements in improving welfare, better economies, fewer illnesses, less hunger and war, and longer lifespans, we don’t seem to be measurably happier than our ancestors. How can it be, for example, that the citizens of Costa Rica, with a per capita GDP of 12.5 thousand US dollars, are happier than citizens of Singapore, who have a per capita GDP of 50 thousand US dollars?
Now, more researchers, economists and politicians are demanding that GDP be complemented by GNH: Gross National Happiness. The former British Prime Minister David Cameron is one of many people who have advocated for this. He said that, “It is time that we acknowledge that there is more to life than money. We can no longer focus only on GDP; we must focus on general wellbeing.”1 Cameron’s statement can be seen as a symbol of a new modern economic sensibility, in the form of an emerging happynomics where wellbeing, quality of life and happiness are the new superordinate measures of success.
A business leader should be asking the same question. How can it be that we aren’t getting happier at our workplaces despite improved working conditions, better benefits, and increased freedom? It is no longer only employees that should find their own happiness. Leaders of companies must also create conditions for their employees to become happier. For many companies this has become a central business strategy that pays off from an economic perspective. A review of 225 academic studies of the relationship between happiness and work performance showed that satisfied employees are 31 percent more productive and generate 37 percent more revenues than their less satisfied coworkers.2
Have fun, do good and the money will come. | Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group
Similarly, it has been shown to be very expensive to have unhappy employees. For example, Gallup estimates that the American economy experiences costs upward of 0.5 trillion US dollars per year in the form of lost productivity when employees are dissatisfied.3 This is of great importance for individuals as well. According to Associate Professor Christie Scollon with the Psychology faculty at Western Washington University in the US, research shows that happy people earn more money, are healthier, fall ill less frequently and are more creative at solving problems.4
We can say that degrees of happiness are reflected economically in several ways. In the transparent society that we live in today, it is a big advantage to offer an attractive workplace when hunting for talent. Who doesn’t want to work for a company where the employees are happy and satisfied?
The American career site CareerBliss has been publishing an index for the past several years that lists and ranks the companies with the most satisfied employees.5 In their most recent survey, CareerBliss collected and analyzed responses from 41,000 employees from different companies in the USA. They measured ten different indicators that create satisfaction at the workplace. At the top of the list are companies like Nike, Adobe, Starbucks, Apple, Pfizer, American Express and Microsoft, but also a number of smaller less-known companies. Number one on the list is the real estate agent Keller Williams. Thus, you don’t have to be the most famous brand to have the most satisfied employees.
Some companies, in their efforts to measure employee satisfaction, have tried to measure employees’ feelings in real time to be able to quickly implement corrective measures. How is our staff feeling today? Can we help to improve their wellbeing? The Chinese electronics company Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric has gone as far as to measure their employees’ brain activity using a cap supplied with sensors to search for signs of deviations, such as anger, nervousness or stress. If the sensors go off, a manager can quickly help the employee to solve their problem by, for example, offering them a few days off, sending them to a rehabilitation program, or moving them to a less stressful position in the company. One can debate whether “emotional monitoring” is the right way to go. So far, the technology isn’t sufficiently precise and the ethical dilemma remains: how can we help employees to increase their wellbeing without imposing on their personal integrity?
The question of how we create satisfaction at the workplace will most likely grow in the coming decade. It will not only be about company leaders that want to be more competitive or researchers that want to find explanations. The question will be at least as relevant for politicians around the world who are responsible for their country’s citizens. Even research has shifted its interest toward the satisfaction concept. According to Professor Martin Seligman, research in psychology has too long focused on problem-related behaviors such as anxiety, depression and phobias.6 Today, extensive research is also being carried out on so-called “positive psychology,” or happiness research, where the focus is on wellbeing and what makes people resilient against dissatisfaction, rather than psychological problems.
1 Stratton, A. (2010, 14 November) David Cameron aims to make happiness the new GDP. The Guardian. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/nov/14/david-cameron-wellbeing-inquiry
2 Forbes (2010) In pictures: 10 of Americas happiest companies. Forbes. Downloaded 2020-04-24 from https://www.forbes.com/2010/10/26/happiness-business-productivity-forbes-woman-leadership-best-companies_slide.html#243bdc59361e
3 Asplund J. & Blacksmith N. (2011). The Secret of Higher Performance. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/147383/secret-higher-performance.aspx
4 Bradshaw, D. (2013). The pursuit of happiness in the workplace. Financial Times. Downloaded from: https://www.ft.com/content/6b1fd178-81cf-11e2-ae78-00144feabdc0
5 Careerbliss (2018). CareerBliss 50 Happiest Companies in America for 2018. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from https://www.careerbliss.com/facts-and-figures/careerbliss-50-happiest-companies-in-america-for-2018