Happiness and Your Company

A new vision of what it means to be prosperous and to flourish as individuals and societies is taking hold in parts of the business world. It's inspired by the coming together of disparate disciplines including positive psychology, welfare economics, hedonomics, neuroscience, and marketing, For a long time there have been counter-intuitive signs leading Nobel prize winners like Amartya Sen, Jospeh Stigliz and Dan Kahneman, to question the meaning of prosperity. Since Robert Kennedy's 1968 speech questioning GNP as a measure, evidence such as the Happy Planet Index and Genuine Progress Indicator are helping challenge assumptions about the link between wealth, growth and wellbeing and prosperity. These indicators show for instance, that despite continuing exponential economic growth since the 1970s, in the rich world, life-satisfaction has flat-lined. Work by academics and think tanks shows that, above a level of income we have all in the rich world long since achieved, only 7% of our wellbeing comes from income. The key things which increase wellbeing are connection to friends, family and community; giving back and volunteering; being physically active; having life goals and continuing to learn; and taking notice and being engaged. These are what the New Economics Foundation think tank calls the "five ways to wellbeing," and they are now becoming central to UK Government policy. Combined with this is the increasing realization for many that we are living off the capital and the interest of planet earth and are at or near the limits of safety in terms of the pressure of the macro-economy on the planet. A consensus is building that continued growth of the macro-economy risks pushing us into unstoppable climate change and the peaking of many of the finite resources our way of life depend on. Other evidence is emerging from economics work by Professors Tim Jackson and Peter Victor suggesting we do not actually need growth to deliver the kinds of things we expect from a successful economy. Others are showing that in fact we may indeed be at the end of growth, whether we like it or not. As a result of these forces, a new economics is emerging that questions the meaning of prosperity and posits that instead of focusing on growing wealth we ought instead to focus on growing wellbeing. Such thinking comes at a time when a significant segment of society (those sometimes described as "Cultural Creatives", an estimated 33% of the U.S. population), are once again tuning in to Thoreau's thinking in Walden that "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without." Politicians, interestingly many from the new right, are tuning in to these new cultural norms and framing their new politics in terms of wellbeing and community rather than wealth and individualism. President Sarkozy asked Joseph Stiglitz to lead a policy review on these issues and, after his own review, Prime Minister David Cameron has set his Office of National Statistics the task of measuring and developing policy around wellbeing. As well as numerous speeches on the subject of wellbeing, Cameron recently called on business "to work on improving quality of life and wellbeing." These signals from governments, as well as pressures from NGOs and think tanks and these shifting societal norms are putting pressure on companies to develop more authentic, post-consumerist businesses which place wellbeing at their hearts. Brands like Coca-Cola have long flirted with the language of happiness. Others like IKEA, Nesquik, Dunkin Donuts and BMW have also more recently started tuning their brands into 'happiness'. There has been little indication until now that companies are really trying to understand the complexity and richness of the research on wellbeing, flourishing, positive psychology and welfare economics. But things seem to be changing. Recently a client of mine and one of the UK's leading CEOs, Ian Cheshire of Kingfisher B&Q, spoke about the need for a new capitalism which prioritizes wellbeing over growth. Cheshire is just one of a number of CEOs in the UK and elsewhere who are working hard behind the scenes to understand how they can evolve their business models so that their products, services and brands support maximum flourishing for their customers, workers and society at large. Companies from SSE to Virgin are experimenting in mapping aspects of wellbeing against their products, services, and brand attributes, and considering how research into happiness — for example, studies that spending money on experiences makes people happier than buying material objects — could (and should) alter their strategies. The holy grail for these companies has become the "wellbeing dividend" where sustainability efforts can be shown to increase rather than damage customer and societal quality of life and wellbeing. In its Sustainable Living Plan, for example, Unilever committed to "improve the wellbeing of one million people." Having made that promise, the company must now work out what it must do to deliver on it. The movement seems poised for the next step: turning theory into practice through experimentation and innovation.
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