A happier society is both desirable and possible
15 Dec 2011 | Mark Williamson
There's a paradox at the heart of modern life. Despite decades
of economic growth and material progress, surveys consistently show
that we're no happier now than we were sixty years ago.
 This startling fact was behind our launch of Action for
Happiness in April this year. We're building a movement of
people and organisations committed to taking action to build a
People are increasingly feeling that our current version of
capitalism has failed to deliver fair outcomes and fulfilling
lives. The severity of the economic crisis and the Occupy protests across the world are
contributing to a growing sense that we've got a system with its
priorities wrong. People feel that their lives are increasingly in
the service of the economy, rather than the other way around. But
economic growth is just the means to an end, not the end in itself;
it matters only insofar as it contributes to social progress and
With families and communities now facing difficult times, job
insecurity and cuts, it may seem counter-intuitive to talk about
happiness. But now more than ever we need to help people build
their emotional resilience and create a culture where we're less
preoccupied with wealth and more focused on each other's
So what practical steps can we take to create a happier society?
By this I mean one where many more people are flourishing and many
fewer are struggling with unhappiness, whether due to depression,
isolation, inequality or anything else. In this article I will
highlight four vital areas where we can take action to improve
well-being: government policy, workplaces, schools and our own
personal lives. Importantly, these actions are all backed up by a
growing body of research evidence - from fields as diverse as
psychology, neuroscience and economics - into the real causes of
happiness and unhappiness.
A new focus for policy making
In terms of political change we, above all, need to measure
societal well-being and prioritise the things that increase it.
Fortunately, there are some encouraging signs of progress.
Following the findings from the international commission set
by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, an increasing array of governments are
planning to introduce new measurements of wellbeing to complement
existing financial indicators of progress such as GDP. In the UK,
the Office for National Statistics is now asking new wellbeing questions to 200,000 households
and is drawing up a new set of objective and subjective measures to
get a much broader and better sense of real social progress.
But measurement alone is not enough. This new wellbeing data
must translate into concrete action in terms of policy development
and evaluation. Encouragingly the head of the civil service, Sir
Gus O'Donnell, is asking departments across government to consider
the impact of their policies on wellbeing. And the
"Green Book" used by Treasury to assess the impact of policy
changes is being updated - so new initiatives will now have to
consider the potential impact on wellbeing, alongside existing
considerations like the impact on growth and employment.
This provides an opportunity to rethink some extremely important
issues. For example, our economy was landed in its present mess
largely because it was hoped that deregulation of banks would
produce higher long-term growth. That was an argument based on the
wrong priorities and has led to extremely damaging consequences for
our wellbeing. We must learn to use the new well-being data to
avoid repeating these kinds of mistakes.
We have also seen progress at an international level for the
first time. In June this year the UN endorsed a resolution calling for all countries to place a
greater emphasis on the happiness of their people. This will set in
train a UN process which could see ideas on measuring and improving
wellbeing, such as those now being developed in the UK, adopted in
other countries right around the world.
Improving our workplaces
It is a sad truth that there are millions of people across the
UK struggling with stress and uncertainty at work. We spend nearly
half our waking hours at work and yet more than half of Britain's
employees are unhappy there.  This of course has serious
consequences for organisations too, with anxiety and stress alone
estimated to cost the UK economy £26 billion each year. 
The potential benefits of creating happier workplaces are huge.
Increasing evidence shows that happier employees are not only
healthier and less likely to be absent, they're also more creative,
dependable, motivated and productive.  Fortune magazine
recently commissioned research in the US looking at the stock
market performance of the 100 Best Workplaces (which are selected
based on surveys of how employees feel about working there). These
companies had an average annual return of 10%, massively
outperforming the benchmark S&P 500 index, which returned an
average of just 3.8% over the same period. 
There are lots of practical ways organisations can create
happier workplaces and reap these benefits. These include measuring
staff well-being and resilience, improving work/life balance and
using enhanced approaches to recruitment, training and people
management. But most important of all is creating a culture where
people are genuinely trusted and valued. We all know instinctively
that people work best when they feel positive about themselves -
and leading companies recognise the importance of a happy, engaged
workforce. Yet far too many organisations are still stuck in a
dog-eat-dog culture built on big egos, constant pressure and a lack
of trust. This has to change.
Re-focusing our schools
In 2007, UNICEF put the well-being of children in the UK firmly
on the agenda. Compared with 20 other OECD countries, including
substantially poorer countries, the UK came bottom overall in the
league table.  Recent decades have seen a substantial
increase in the proportions of children and young people suffering
emotional difficulties and exhibiting difficult behaviour. 20% of
children experience mental health issues in a given year and these
problems often affect other areas of their life, including
relationships and academic performance. There is also a strong
correlation with mental health problems later on in adult life.
Schools experience the day-to-day reality of these issues and
are also vital in combating them. However, although teachers care
deeply about the well-being of children in their schools, the
school system often fails to encourage sufficient focus on
psychological and emotional well-being, instead placing far greater
emphasis on academic attainment. As a result we're missing the
chance to equip children with the vital capabilities and values
they need to thrive and deal with the ups and downs of life.
Getting this right is a huge opportunity to improve national
well-being both now and for generations to come.
Although a child's home life has the biggest overall impact on
their well-being, schools also play a very important role in
promoting good emotional, social and psychological health. The most
successful approaches are those that address the ethos and culture
of the whole school and employ a universal approach to promoting
good mental health rather than focussing on illness. Recently, some
UK schools have been trialling innovative evidence-based approaches
to increase well-being, such as the UK Resilience Programme (UKRP)
and Mindfulness in Schools. Although further research and
development is still required, early evaluation of these approaches
is promising.  We urgently need a greater focus on
improving well-being in schools and a recognition that it's not an
"either/or" choice between wellbeing and attainment - kids that are
flourishing do better academically too.
Making a difference ourselves
Although systemic change is vital, this isn't sufficient to
create a happier society. An equally important shift rests with us
as individuals and the actions we take in the families, communities
and organisations which we're part of. But can individuals really
make a difference? Yes I believe we undoubtedly can and I'll
explain three important reasons why.
Firstly, the evidence shows that it's possible for us to become
happier. Although factors outside our control, like our genes and
external circumstances, do affect how happy we are, a very
significant proportion of what determines our happiness relates to
our intentional activities and conscious choices.
 Positive psychology research has identified a range of
interventions that can not only boost our happiness and resilience,
but can actually lead to lasting, positive changes in our thinking
patterns and the physical structure of our brains.
Secondly, our emotions are contagious across social networks. So
when we're happy and make positive connections with others around
us, we affect their happiness too. An extensive longitudinal study
has shown that our happiness influences people across three degrees
of separation (e.g. your friend's wife's colleague). So when we
take a positive approach to our relationships with our colleagues
and neighbours we indirectly affect the happiness of people we've
never even met. 
Thirdly, we're hard-wired to care about each other.
 Doing things to make others happier is part of our nature
and this has played a vital role in our evolution as a species.
Charles Darwin recognised this in 1871 when he wrote: "Those
communities which include the greatest number of the most
sympathetic members… flourish best". By doing things to help others
we not only strengthen our communities, we also boost our own
well-being and encourage others to behave more altruistically
So what can we actually do? Action for Happiness has identified
50 practical, evidence-based actions that people can take in their
everyday lives that not only help boost their own happiness but
contribute to building better, more positive environments in their
families, relationships, workplaces and communities. These include
simple things like finding things to be grateful for each day;
improving our relationships; learning to be more "mindful"; and
connecting with our neighbours.
Building the movement
Since the launch Action for Happiness back in April 2011 we've
made steady progress in raising happiness up the agenda. Our
messages have been seen by tens of millions of people in the UK,
we've had over 300,000 visitors to our website, brought together a
social media community of 20,000 people and signed up 18,000
members to the cause. We've had engagement from people in over 100
different countries and have spoken at live events, seminars and
workshops to at least 5,000 people. With our partners we're now
developing targeted initiatives to promote wellbeing in local
community groups, schools and workplaces.
Although the tide is gradually turning, many people continue to
question whether happiness really matters. In some cases this is
just a question of terminology, as others prefer to talk of
flourishing, contentment, fulfilment or satisfaction. But in other
cases, people still struggle to accept the importance of people's
subjective feelings; surely, they say, objective measures like
health should take priority? Perhaps the strongest counter to this
argument is the extensive objective evidence, now based on hundreds
of independent studies, showing that people who are happier
experience lower levels of disease and live longer than their less
happy counterparts. 
Creating a happier society is not just desirable, it's possible.
Yes, we need some big changes in our politics, workplaces, schools
and beyond - but there are significant potential benefits from
getting this right: more satisfied voters, more resilient children
and more engaged employees. So we have clear incentives to push for
these systemic changes. But we can also each contribute to the
much-needed shift in values which is already underway, by choosing
to live in a way that prioritises the happiness of those around us.
So let's stop aiming for lives filled with riches and focus instead
on helping people lead richer, happier lives.
Join Action for
Happiness today and take our pledge to help create more
happiness in the world around you.
is Director of Action for Happiness
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