Though it may be difficult to measure, the idea that happiness should be part of our national dialogue and purpose is not new. As I mentioned in the introduction, the “pursuit of happiness” is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as one of the unalienable rights we are endowed with by our Creator. Efforts in various countries, including France, the United Kingdom and the United States, to measure the actual well-being of their citizens were the subject of a piece by The Washington Post’s Peter Whoriskey.
As he noted, the idea of a broader measure of a country’s success beyond economic indicators was memorably articulated by Robert F. Kennedy in 1968: “Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product . . . if we judge America by that . . . counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. . . . Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
In France in 2008, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy launched an initiative headed by economists and Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen “to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.”
David Cameron, now Great Britain’s prime minister, made the same point at a Google Zeitgeist Europe conference in 2006. “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB — general well- being. Well-being can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships.” Four years later, he announced that a national well- being survey would be conducted by the Office for National Statistics. “To those who say that all this sounds like a distraction from the serious business of government,” he said, “I say finding out what will really improve lives and acting on it is the serious business of government.”
The idea of measuring our well-being is gaining ground. The European Union runs a “European Quality of Life Survey.” The Paris-headquartered Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has a “Better Life Index”; it declared Australia the world’s happiest industrialized country in 2011, 2012, and 2013. And the United Nations commissioned a “World Happiness Report,” which found that Scandinavian countries were the happiest, and that the least happy countries were in Africa. The director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Jeffrey Sachs, who edits the UN report, said: “There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterize their well- being.” And in 2011, the National Academies convened a panel that includes Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman to come up with a way to measure “subjective well-being.”
In fact, the idea of measuring our well-being is so widespread that last year The Economist declared that “the happiness industry” was “one of the more surprising industries to have taken off during the current period of economic downturn.”
I completely support any effort to show that we’re more than just our marginal contribution to our bank accounts, the bottom line of our employers, or the gross national product of our countries. But to truly measure our state of happiness and well- being, it’s important to look at the whole picture.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, the Office for National Statistics based its conclusions entirely on a survey in which they asked around 165,000 people over the age of sixteen a few questions about how satisfied they were with their lives on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 being “not at all” and 10 being “completely”). Based on this methodology, the Office for National Statistics found that happiness in the United Kingdom had climbed from 7.41 in April 2012 to 7.45 in March 2013. But is a .04 increase really a meaningful difference — one solid enough to conclude that happiness in Britain is on the rise — as some papers trumpeted?
Moreover, if you are unhappy, answering survey questions about how satisfied you are with your life might not be high on your to-do list — and indeed, about half of the people approached refused to participate. This is just one illustration of the danger of drawing too many conclusions from too little data.
It’s pretty easy to find real data for the United Kingdom that completely contradict the results of the happiness index. In 2011, there were more than forty-five million prescriptions written for antidepressants, up 9 percent from the previous year, and the National Health Service spent more than £270 million on antidepressants, a 23 percent increase from 2010.
So while the idea behind conducting happiness surveys is worthwhile, it should be broadened to include as much data as possible. A more comprehensive happiness index would include not only data such as the use of antidepressants and sleeping pills but also alcoholism rates; suicide rates; the incidence of illnesses linked to stress, including diabetes and high blood pressure; health care spending for stress- related illnesses; the percentage of employers offering wellness programs and fl exible work schedules; and the number of workdays lost to stress.
Nonetheless, it is significant that so many leaders finally recognize that the well-being of their citizens depends on more than just a country’s quarterly growth rate (as important as that is), especially if this leads to policy changes — from job creation to family leave — that reduce stress and improve well- being.
At the personal level, there are three simple steps each one of us can take that can have dramatic effects on our well- being: 1. Unless you are one of the wise few who already gets all the rest you need, you have an opportunity to immediately improve your health, creativity, productivity, and sense of well- being. Start by getting just thirty minutes more sleep than you are getting now. The easiest way is to go to bed earlier, but you could also take a short nap during the day — or a combination of both. 2. Move your body: Walk, run, stretch, do yoga, dance. Just move. Anytime. 3. Introduce five minutes of meditation into your day. Eventually, you can build up to fifteen or twenty minutes a day (or more), but even just a few minutes will open the door to creating a new habit — and all the many proven benefits it brings.
And here are some simple steps to get you started meditating: 1. Choose a reasonably quiet place to begin your practice, and select a time when you will not be interrupted. 2. Relax your body. If you would like to close your eyes, do so. Allow yourself to take deep, comfortable breaths, gently noticing the rhythm of your inhalation and exhalation. 3. Let your breathing be full, bring your attention to the air coming in your nostrils, filling up your abdomen, and then releasing. Gently and without effort, observe your breath flowing in and out. 4. When thoughts come in, simply observe them and gently nudge your attention back to the breath. Meditation is not about stopping thoughts, but recognizing that we are more than our thoughts and our feelings. You can imagine the thoughts as clouds passing through the sky. If you find yourself judging your thoughts or feelings, simply bring yourself back to the awareness of the breath. 5. Some people find it helpful to have a special or sacred word or phrase that they use to bring their awareness back to the breath. Examples include “om,” “hu,” “peace,” “thank you,” “grace,” “love,” and “calm.” You can think of that word each time you inhale, or use it as your reminder word if your mind starts to wander. 6. It is really important not to make your meditation practice one more thing you stress about. In fact, reducing stress is one of the major benefits of meditation together with increased intuition, creativity, compassion, and peace.
For more support and guidance, there are many meditation tools in Appendix B to help you start or deepen your practice.
Excerpt from Thrive pp. 107–113
Originally published at journal.thriveglobal.com