Ask people what makes them happy and you'll get a lot of different responses. Shoes, chocolate, travel, a fast car, beer, money, surfing, fishing, music, friends, family, warm woolen mittens... A Doctor Who marathon on Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX), anyone?
Arguably, we're born into the pursuit of happiness, and there are countless books instructing us on how to be happy and scads of advertisers selling us things they say will make us happy. Research shows that money brings happiness -- to a point. But happiness researchers say once we have enough money to provide a certain level of necessities, higher incomes fail to make us happier.
From the first-ever World Happiness Report released at the recent United Nations conference on happiness: "For most individuals in the high-income world, the basic deprivations have been vanquished. There is enough food, shelter, basic amenities (such as clean water and sanitation), and clothing to meet daily needs. In fact, there is a huge surfeit of amenities above basic needs. Poor people would swap with rich people in a heartbeat. Yet all is not well. The conditions of affluence have created their own set of traps."
Some of those "traps" include addiction, mental illness, disease and adverse effects on the environment, such as climate change. Research shows the things that truly make us happy aren't material goodies, but friends, family, community, health, education, and a better balance of work and leisure... all those things that collectively contribute to our sense of well-being.
Last summer, the United Nations took the extraordinary step of asserting that Gross Domestic Product was an inadequate measure of a nation's success. In a resolution passed in August, the UN General Assembly noted that GDP "was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people in a country."
The resolution further noted that "unsustainable patterns of production and consumption can impede sustainable development," and that there is a "need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being" of all people. The resolution was introduced by the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, whose prime minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley, suggested that "gross national happiness" (GNH), based on indicators such as health and living standards, is a better measurement of national prosperity than one based on economic productivity alone.
Thinley thinks it is the responsibility of governments and politicians worldwide, since they have been elected and made responsible for improving the well-being of the people they represent, to create conditions to enable citizens to achieve what they want most in life -- and that is happiness.
Happiness supporters note that GNH emphasizes happier nations, not just richer ones -- and that happier nations are more likely to create sustainable world economies. This kind of happy-talk has been gaining traction, with local and world governments exploring GNH. The French government started publishing its own happiness indicator in 2009, Britain's Office for National Statistics has a program for measuring national well-being, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is drawing up guidelines so its members (mostly the industrialized rich countries) can produce "well-being data." And some cities, including Seattle, recently started their own happiness initiatives.
While a focus on well-being may sound to some like tree hugger territory, there is at least one conservative happiness advocate, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Brooks speaks regularly on the topic and even wrote a book about it, Gross National Happiness.
As you might expect, Brooks's definition of well-being puts more emphasis on religion, marriage, and independence of government, which highlights the difficulty in measuring happiness. How do we agree on what it takes to get happy in the first place?
But I wonder: If a happier nation became the focus, how might that affect the financial markets? Would a happier nation have a positive effect on markets? Or would a focus on happiness inversely affect markets?
One thing seems certain: In a happier nation, there would be less consumption, which would seem to be a drag on most retail stocks.
John Helliwell, professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, one of the editors of the World Happiness Report, suggests that maybe we'd invest in companies for reasons other than sales and profit. His argument: Perhaps companies that start to take well-being research more seriously, and think more about how to build trust and friendly relations among staff and customers, would perform better financially as well, and the stock market might notice.
There hasn't been a lot of research, if any, into GNH's potential effect on financial markets, since the idea behind GNH is that happiness should be measured apart from economic and financial well-being. But maybe happiness and thriving financial markets aren't mutually exclusive.
In addition, the BBC also notes that Bhutan was the last nation in the world to introduce television in 1999. Recently it banned a number of channels including international wrestling and MTV, which they felt did little to promote happiness. It also plastic bags and tobacco on the grounds that they make the country less happy.
But keep in mind one thing: "Bhutan has been able to adopt radical policies partly because it is a remote kingdom and partly because it is an absolute monarchy."
If we're being serious here about Bhutan, I think a simple serious explanation for their contentment is expectation. Western culture is fraught with unrealistic expectations -- French people want to live on vacation all the time, Americans all want to become billionaires and/or Idols, English people want their soccer teams to win each weekend, etc. etc. When those expectations meet reality we're all destined for a life of misery.
The UN resolution about the happiness index was created by the prime minister of Bhutan. Forest-laden Bhutan, sandwiched between China and India, has a population of 725,000. More than a quarter of Bhutan's population lives on less than $1.25 a day, and 70 percent of the population is without electricity.
Yet look at this image of a Bhutanese farmer. And it's not unique. Google Bhutan and you'll find dozens of images of people who seem very happy. So what is it? Certainly not money. Maybe a sense of contentment?
@Sherri, I know what you mean about happiness being overrated. Sometimes the only thing that happens when one is questing for it is that they become more miserable! I think it might be what @Noreen identified--the gap between expectations and reality.
I've concluded that the only way to eliminate that gap is to live in the moment as much as possible. In fact, isn't that one of the goals of Buddhism?
I have lost three parents (mother, father and step-father) to sudden, gone-in-the-blink-of-an-eye accidents and health crises, and those losses have changed how I think about life. These days, I try to emulate my dog--happy and peaceful whatever the circumstances. She has love, she has food, she has walks and she has tummy rubs...oh yes, and NO worries about tomorrow.
If today were our last day on earth, would we really spend it Fed watching?
It's especially hard to quantify given those cultural variations. If someone in a modest home who works very hard physically to maintain his or her family is "happy" in one country, would that same person be happy under similar conditions in another? Or do we measure our "happiness" against the perceived happiness of our friends and families? In other words, are we unhappy when other people who seem to work only as much or less than we do have more?
@StreetSmart, you are right the pilgrams were not happy about the status quo. That was the reason these people left the Old World and came to this land. The pursuit of happiness is their source of happiness. As Steve Jobs once said: the journey is the reward.
It was really interesting to read about the facts you have given about happiness. I was surprised to read about the gratefulness diary, this is something that sounds very simple but seems to have profound results. I agree with the notion that money does not buy happiness.
I have been part of research studies aimed at measuring satisfaction but I wonder how happiness can be measured?
The blogs and comments posted on Investor Uprising do not reflect the views of Investor Uprising, PRNewswire, or its sponsors. Investor Uprising, PRNewswire, and its sponsors do not assume responsibility for any comments, claims, or opinions made by authors and bloggers. They are no substitute for your own research and should not be relied upon for trading or any other purpose.