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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. [1] 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 happier society.

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 wellbeing.

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 wellbeing.

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. [2] 

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. [3] This of course has serious consequences for organisations too, with anxiety and stress alone estimated to cost the UK economy £26 billion each year. [4]

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. [5] 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. [6] 

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. [7] 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. [8]

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. [9][10]  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. [11] 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. [12]

Thirdly, we're hard-wired to care about each other. [13] 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 too.

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. [14] 

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.


Mark Williamson is Director of Action for Happiness


[1] Layard, R. (2011), Happiness: Lessons from a new Science (2nd ed), Penguin

[2] Matheson, J. (2011), Measuring what matters: Reflections on the National Debate on Measuring National Well-being, Office for National Statistics

[3] Mercer (2011), What's Working survey

[4] MIND (2011), Taking care of business: Employers' guide to mentally healthy workplaces

[5] Lyubomirsky, S., King, L (2005), Does Happiness Lead to Success?

[6] Russell Investment Group for Fortune Magazine (2011), How does trust affect the bottom line?

[7] UNICEF (2007), An overview of child well-being in rich countries, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Report Card 7

[8] Mental Health Foundation (2005), Lifetime Impacts, Childhood and Adolescent Mental Health: understanding the lifetime impacts, Mental Health Foundation/Office of Health Economics

[9] Challen, A.R., Machin, S.J., Noden, P. and West, A. (2011),UK Resilience Programme Evaluation: Final Report: DFE, Research Report DFE-RB097

[10] Huppert, F.A. & Johnson, D.M. (2010), A controlled trial of mindfulness training in schools: The importance of practice for an impact on well-being, Journal of Positive Psychology

[11] Sheldon, K.M., Lyubomirsky, S. (2007), Is It Possible to Become Happier? (And If So, How?), Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 129-145.

[12] Fowler, J.H., Christakis, N.A. (2008), Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years, British Medical Journal

[13] Rilling, J. et al. (2002), A neural basis for social cooperation. Neuron 35

[14] Diener, E., & Chan, M. (2011) Happy people live longer: Subjective well-being contributes to health and longevity. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.


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