Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Happy State: Part 1 of 10

Everyone who complains about the happiness movement has one thing in common: the fear of a nanny state. (Well, maybe two, the other that happiness can’t be measured, but that is a complaint out of ignorance, because not only is happiness being measured, there are even guidelines on how to do it. See this short video for a survey of these and other examples.) So let’s focus on the nanny-state complaint.

This usually complaint arises when one first learns what the happiness movement is. It is composed of small group of committed people and organizations working for a new economic paradigm. Our aim is for governments to be guided by wider measures of wellbeing. We aspire for governments to put at the forefront the protection all beings rights to the pursuit of happiness. The singular focus and dependance on monetary measures will end, and the gap between the rich and poor will mend.

Proponents of the happiness movement don’t say that the economy does not matter, just that the economy is not the only thing that matters. And what’s more, that economic equality is at least as important as economic growth. We in the happiness movement say that governments can govern for happiness, and that happiness policies can and will be the work of government. This ideal triggers critics into crying against a nanny state.

First you might ask, what is a nanny state? A nanny state is akin to Big Brother. Imagine that each and every part of your life were controlled by government. The American Heritage Dictionary has a nice definition: “A government perceived as having excessive interest in or control over the welfare of its citizens…”

One of the problems in addressing this accusation is there is not yet an example we can point to that demonstrates a state guided by happiness and wellbeing. Or is there?

Since 2008, the country of Bhutan has been using happiness metrics and passing happiness policies. They call it Gross National Happiness. In the United Kingdom, happiness and wellbeing are measured by the Office of National Statistics and used by various governmental offices (check out Appendix A for examples).

But most importantly, governments all over the world, from neighborhoods to nations, have been passing laws and promulgating policies that protect our rights to pursue happiness for a long time. From this we can draw ideas on what a happy state will look like.

Over the course of the next 12 months, my organization, the Happiness Alliance, is publishing a series of tools that identify exactly what policies a government could pass to protect our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.
We call these courageous policies and aim to show as examples where these policies have been promulgated, and give resources explaining their viability for where they have not.

One such policy is Basic Guaranteed Income. It may sound crazy, but it actually was tried to some success inManitoba, Canada, and Canada is scheduled to experiment with it again in Ontario. is an organization that offers research, updates and resources for community organizers and policy makers curious or wanting to be active in this goal.

Another policy that our happiness data indicates would lead to a happy state is a national vacation law. It turns out the United States is the only industrial nation not to have this laws on a national scale. Moreover, we are one of only a handful of that does not promulgate laws for paid family leave.

These are two of many different policies that governments could put in place that would protect our right to pursue happiness. Whether these policies would lead to a nanny state would be dependent on many factors, but we can look to similar past objections to social security, national environmental protection laws and public school, knowing now the great benefit of policies that lead to happiness and that they did not create the Big Brother/nanny state. Homeland security, now that is another story. In the next post in this series, I will write about safety, trust and community; and how policies promoting these relate to happiness.
Reposted from Medium, written by Laura Musikanski

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Updated: Our Beta Open Letter to Happiness Ministers

Hello Reader, Happiness Friend, and Fellow Happiness Movement Revolutionary!

September 22: We are updating our letter as we recognize that we are writing to two different audiences with very different circumstances and goals.  See our updates below!


Earlier this year officials from the office of the newly appointed Happiness Minister of the United Arab Emirates reached out to us. We were happy to share our knowledge and resources. Shortly after
Read the World Happiness Report at
a Happiness Minister position was created for the state of Madhya Pradesh, India.

We (the board of the Happiness Alliance and those of us working on the ground in this very grassroots volunteer organization) decided to write an open letter to these two happiness ministers and to all future happiness ministers. Part of our hope is that every state, nation and union will appoint happiness ministers.

Our deep belief is that the purpose of government and the purpose of our economy is the happiness and well-being of all beings. We ground this belief in the revolutionary words embedded in the Declaration of Independence that the purpose of government is to protect our inalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

To this, we feel that the job of happiness ministers today and in the future is to bring our governments and economies back to their original purpose.

And so, we ask you, dear reader, to tell us what you think of our open letter, and if you choose, to join with us in further crafting it and in ultimately sending it to today's happiness ministers and to those of our future.
_______       _______      _______      _______      _______      _______      _______      _______    

Open Letter to Governments:

This is a call encouraging the formation of happiness, wellbeing and sustainability cabinet level position in each level of your government. We ask that you create a Secretary of Happiness and Wellbeing for each state in your country and a Commissioner of Happiness for each local government.  We ask that these positions be tasked with measuring happiness, well-being and sustainability using survey and objective data collection; analyze the data, work with civilians and governmental agencies to identify policies and programs and implement such. 

We ask you to look to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission and the appointment of Happiness Ministers by the United States Emirates and the state of Madhya Pradesh in India for inspiration. 

We ask you to join the beyond GDP or happiness movement. The happiness movement harkens to the once revolutionary concept in the US Declaration of Independence that the purpose of government is to protect each person’s inalienable right to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”  The following events are the foundation for the happiness movement:

In 2009, the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (or the Stiglitz Report) called on governments to go “beyond  GDP” indicators to  measure “economic performance and social progress.' 

In 2011, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the organization that measures nation’s competing GDPs, issued its Better Life Index and then in 2013, issued Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Wellbeing in an effort to help governments go beyond merely monetary and economic growth measures as the primary metrics that guide policy decisions.

That same year, the United Nations issued resolution
65/309. Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development inviting governments to develop “measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development with a view to guiding their public policies.”

The next year, in 2012, the Secretary General of the United Nations with the Prime Minister of Bhutan, held a High Level Meeting Well-being and Happiness: Towards a New Economic Paradigm.

We ask your government to take a bold and necessary step in the happiness and beyond GDP movement.

We feel a fundamental goal of the happiness movement is to shift our values, individual and collective, from viewing wealth and material acquisition as the primary indicator of success and well-being to values that include the parameters of life satisfaction, environmental sustainability, culture, social support, community, material well-being, job satisfaction, education, time-balance, good governance, as well as physical and psychological health. Following Bhutan’s lead, these are the “domains of happiness.”  Although each country, community, individual will have somewhat different needs and approaches for improving satisfaction with life and sense of well-being, we agree with Bhutan and our research into the domains find that indeed, these domains reflect an over-arching commonality for all of us.  

We have been providing tools to communities and governments, including a subjective happiness survey for individuals (translated into many languages, and with full data analysis capability); training modules; access to research papers in the field; and tool kits for improving both personal happiness levels of individuals and community-wide well-being.  We would be pleased to share our knowledge, resources, including a happiness index, and experience with you.

Our Letter to Ministers of Happiness:

On behalf of the Happiness Alliance we are pleased to send you congratulations on obtaining the office of Happiness Minister, a rare but very welcome title in this unsettled and challenged world.  We welcome a collaborative relationship in the coming years to effectively assess happiness and design strategies to enhance it.

Since 2010, The Happiness Alliance, based in Seattle, WA, U.S.A, has been exploring strategies for increasing the happiness of individuals, communities, and nations. We have worked with policy makers, community organizers, educators and spiritual leaders, among others to make meaningful contributions to the happiness movement for a new economic paradigm. In 2012, we were pleased to participate in the United Nation’s High Level Meeting Well-being and Happiness: Towards a New Economic Paradigm convened by Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and Prime Minister Thinley of Bhutan. 

Our experience in the happiness movement, backed up by prominent research findings in the field, has taught us that happiness and well-being policy coupled with relevant data, both subjective and objective, that measure satisfaction with life and affect alongside the domains of happiness are core elements of happiness.

We call on you to use subjective and objective happiness metrics to gauge the degree of suffering and well-being among your people, implement policies, and again use these metrics to assess progress. Our data leads us to suggest a few illustrative examples of happiness policies:
  • Environment:  mitigation of climate change and water scarcity, sustainable growth, clean air and water, green spaces within communities and cities.
  • Education: training for future needs in the IT and green energy sector, sustainable farming, and also “soft skills” such as compassion, gratitude, community involvement, care-giving, sharing, resilience and coping techniques.
  • Economic security:  universal basic income, minimum wage statutes, progressive income tax.
  • Quality of governance:  human rights, corruption reduction, open and honest dialog between those governing and those governed.
  • Health and health care:  affordable universal coverage, more help for mentally ill, nutritional improvements.
  • Community wellness:  child care, social opportunities, integration, parks, neighborhood safety and  pleasant surroundings, care for the aged and disabled.

There are difficult and complex tasks ahead for all of us. Again, the Happiness Alliance hopes to establish a dialogue with you and is ready to provide assistance in any way possible.  Please explore our website at

Monday, June 20, 2016

Happiness Ministries - What Do You Think Their Job Is?

Have you noticed? The appointment of Happiness Ministries is spreading.

Inspired  by Bhutan and the work we are doing (we know this from letters of inquiry), the United Arab Emirates appointed a Minister of Happiness earlier this year. Now a state in India, Madhya Pradesh is appointing theirs.

So what do you think a Minister of Happiness should do?  We will be composing an open letter to these new and future Ministers of Happiness to be published in July.

In 2015, we were invited to participate in the OECD fifth world forum: Transforming Policy, Changing Lives and we collected ideas from policy experts. We will be using these, as well as information we gathered when participating in the UN High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness and over the course of the last six years working in communities

Send you ideas for what a Happiness Minister's job is to info@happycounts for our open letter.

The team at the Happiness Alliance.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Smell the roses - three things you can do RIGHT NOW for your happiness.

In case you have not noticed, the roses are in bloom.  It's already June, and summer vacation for the kids is just around the corner.

Remember when you were a kid? Remember the long summer days that seemed to stretch into forever? Whether or not you had a happy childhood, remember those little moments when you caught a glimpse of something that felt eternal?

Yesterday I dedicated the day to my partner, who was close to burnout from 18 months of intense work on a project that is two days from closing.  I'd been helping along the way when I could, but he had been carrying the load, and it was crushing him.  Part of my care for him was to take him to the rose garden with the instructions to look at beautiful things.  I fed him a home-made truffle my friend Andre had given me to sweeten the deal.

We got home and I fed him dinner, and then he crawled into bed for a nap that merged into an early bedtime. I went to dance, a free-form dance where I could spend a couple of hours dancing by myself in the crowd of dancers.  The next day he woke up his usual bright eyed and bushy tailed-self.  It was nice to see his smile.

And so, here are three things I learned & experienced yesterday that you can do for your happiness:

1) Do something for somebody else.   Three ideas:

Buy a friend a coffee or go for walk and spend your time really listening.  Don't give advice unless asked, and even if asked, instead say "this is what I am hearing..." or "what comes up for me is..." or "Well, if you were going to tell yourself something or advise yourself, what would you say?"

Give your partner a body massage, asking them for feedback and doing your very best to respond to their requests. Start with the head, work down to the feet. Some people like deep tissue, and for some that hurts and they need soft brushing motion. If you have never given a massage, learn how on you-tube (punch in instructions for swedish, shiatsu or thai massage and you'll find lots of ways to learn) or best yet, get a massage from a massage therapist to learn from experience.

Give a colleague or member of your community a gift, or make a donation to a cause that you really believe in on behalf of a friend, family member or colleague at work. Given them a card with the information about the donation.

2) Appreciate yourself. Take at least 15 minutes and try for more time to go over all the good things you have done in your life. If you are a list maker, make a list of all the good things about you. If lists don't appeal to you, doodle on a large piece of paper.  No one needs to see it, so just go to town. If this is hard to do, pretend you are someone else - someone who loves you beyond measure and sees and appreciates you.

3) Smell the roses.  Slow down for a few moments and look for the beauty in whatever is around you. If you can, go to where there are roses, and get lost in the splendor of a rose. Research tells us that spending time in nature makes us happy and that even if we spend time looking at picture of nature, we can get happier. So here are some roses for you.

 Post by Laura Musikanski, ED of the Happiness Alliance

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Once Upon A Time - on happiness and time balance

How much of your time do you spend doing things you enjoy?  Are you satisfied with your work-life balance?  (Note: if you work or volunteer at more than one job, you should answer about the job you spend the longest time working at.)
These are two of the questions you will be asked if you take the Gross National Happiness Index, a tool people have been using to change their lives and transform our economy. (You can take the survey at  We have been asking people these questions since 2010, and gathered data from over 55,000 people. 
We’ve been asking people other questions too, about how their lives are in terms of their financial situation, family, community, health, environment, work, government, culture, and general life satisfaction.   It turns out time balance is one of the areas in life where people suffer the most, across the board.   
Gross National Happiness Domains
What Our Happiness Data Says about Time
When you take the Gross National Happiness Index, you get a score on a scale of 0-100.  A score of 100 would mean that everything is terrific.  In Bhutan, the country that created the concept of Gross National Happiness, the idea of sufficiently thresholds is being explored.  Scores above 67% are “extensively happy” and above 77% are “deeply happy.” People who score below this are “not yet happy.” In the United Kingdom, where the government is also measuring happiness to guide public policy, happiness thresholds are also being established.  A score of 73% meets the threshold for life satisfaction.
In the United States, our scores for the area of time balance put us in the “not yet happy” category: 49%. This score is lower than any other domain of happiness. The picture gets worse when we look closer. When asked the question “How much of your time do you spend doing things you enjoy?” the average score is 48%. The possible answers are “none of my time,” “not much of my time,” “some of my time,” “most of my time,” and  “all of my time.”
How Much of Your Time Do You Spend Doing Things You Enjoy?
When we dig down to see how we do over the span of our lives, the data paints a pretty grim picture. Thirty to forty-four years olds  have it the worse. Their scores are only 40%. But as we age, things do not get much better until 85 years old, and even then our scores go up to only 59%. 
What is happening that we are spending so much of our lives doing things that are not enjoyable?  Is work to blame?
All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy
It might be. Our score for the domain of work is 59, also below what Bhutan and the United Kingdom would call a sufficiently threshold. When we single out the question “Are you satisfied with your work-life balance?” the scores drop eight points, to 51. If you are twenty-five or in your thirties, you probably score the lowest at 45 and 46. And things do not get much better until retirement age, at 65.
Are You Satisfied with Your Work-Life Balance?
Does this mean we are an unhappy lot? Not exactly.  When asked the question “How happy did you feel yesterday” our average scores are 72. The question “How satisfied are you with your life?” gives us an average score of 71.  But for both of these questions, people below 55 are scoring below the sufficiency level of the United Kingdom. If it’s any consolation, everyone except the 12-17 year olds and the 25-29 year olds come up to sufficiently thread holds as determined by Bhutan.   
How Happy Do Your Feel? 
How Satisfied Are You  with Your Life?
Should we be satisfied with these scores? 
I think not.
The Happiness Movement
The Happiness Movement is calling for a new economic paradigm, where our governments, our companies, and our personal lives share the common goal of the wellbeing and sustainability of people and our planet.  It is a movement that was germinated over 40 years ago in Bhutan, and sprouted on April 3-5, 2012, at a High Level Meeting Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm held at the United Nations. At that meeting, the first World Happiness Report was issued and an invitation was extended to countries, companies and communities to transform our economy from one driven by profit, consumption, money to guided by happiness and well-being. 
Part of that transformation is a new measure for our economy. Measurements are important because, as Professor Kasser identified in his research, measurements tell us what to value.  When we started using money as our measure, we stopped valuing our own happiness, each other and our environment.  Right now the measurement all countries except Bhutan use to decide how well we are doing is the Gross Domestic Product (the sum of all goods and services produced by a country in a year). Bhutan developed Gross National Happiness Index as a replacement measure that encompasses economic factors and includes all the other things that really make us happy, including time-balance. The Happiness Alliance adapted the measure (“de-Bhutanized” it) and is spreading it to communities to bring the happiness movement to the grassroots.
What Time Balance Has To Do With Happiness Movement
            Since the beginning of the Gross National Happiness Index, time balance has weighed equally with other measures when measuring happiness and well-being. By including time-balance and the other domains of wellbeing, the Gross National Happiness Index is unique among other happiness and well-being metrics. 
            But measurements are not enough. While Kasser’s research tells us that when we adopt happiness and well-being measures to guide our policies, we will value our own happiness and the well-being of others and the planet sufficiently to change our behavior, we are not there yet. Instead, what we have today are ideas, a few examples and some research findings that point the way to a happier life and society by better managing our time.
Three Happy Endings
Stories are a time-honored way of clarifying, learning, sharing and creating the future we want.  Part of the struggle with any new movement is that the stories are still new, not dissipated, or even not yet formed. Here are three stories: a bed-time story, a work in progress and a never-ending story.  
A Bed Time Story
            Lisa thought of herself as a survivor. One thing was for sure: she was a hard worker.  She had grown up in a tough household, and learned at an early age how to care for her parents and herself. Recently an empty nester, she had taken in extra shifts so she could help her son with his tuition.  Her partner had gone from an occasional glass of wine to a bottle every night, sometimes two on the weekends, leaving Lisa carrying an ever-increasing load at home. She had trained herself to get by on very little sleep in college, and then less with a new job, even less with a child, and still less with a growing practice. At fifty-six, sleep deprivation was a way of life. She heard about the Gross National Happiness Index on a radio show on the way home from work, and took it that evening. She scored lowest in time-balance scores, but then so did everyone else. The thing was, Lisa scored a 20 in time-balance. Her scores in a few of the other domains were low too.  In the area of social support, which asks questions about how lonely, loved, and cared for you feel, her scores were also really low, and so were her scores for psychological wellbeing, which asks about feelings of optimism, positivity and purpose.  The scores were jarring. They left her feeling a bit hopeless and scared.  That night she cried herself to sleep.
            She dreamt she standing under a tree when a very large bird came, picked her up and flew her a long distance. The bird deposited her in a huge down-lined nest and in her dream she felt completely at peace. Lisa had read a lot about Jungian dream analysis, and understood that while the dream had many aspects of meaning, one was that she needed sleep. Having spent a life not sleeping more than 5 or 6 hours a night, she did not know what it meant to get enough sleep. 
            She decided to start with creating sleep haven. After failing to make her sleep nest in the bedroom with her partner, she took over her son’s room.  She called this room off-limits to everyone else.  This caused a shift in her relationship, and she explained that she was not leaving, but trying something new for herself. She went through her budget and was able to cut down expenses, then cut down on work, and make way for sleep. She took some days off to sleep. After a few months, she found she had taught herself how to sleep. She took as stay-cation. Her first ever. She slept. For the first time in memory, she experienced what it felt like not to feel tired.  Her mind felt clearer. Her body felt better. She started making small and subtle but powerful changes in her own life. With her sleep bank restored, she bought herself watercolor paints, a hobby she had given up after high school. She tuned her son’s room into an artist studio for herself and with her lighter schedule at work, she found deep enjoyment in painting.  She had found ways to take care of herself, and found her happiness.
Do you know how much sleep you need? How about your child or parent? According to the National Sleep Foundation, it changes by age:
Hours Sleep
0-3 mos.
4-11 mos.
1-2 yr.
3-5 yr.
6-13 yr.
14-17 yr.
18-64 yr.
65 + yr.

While you can recover from a week or so of sleep deprivation in a weekend, science does not have exact figures on how long it takes to recover from long term sleep deprivation. Instead, Dr. Epstein prescribes a sleepy vacation  prescribes a sleepy vacation: go somewhere close, restful and where there are few distractions that would draw you out of bed, or stay at home. Schedule nothing or as little as possible. Don’t set the alarm. Limit naps to before noon. Go to sleep when you get tired. When you wake up in the morning feeling refreshed, you have caught up on your sleep. Then the trick is to keep your sleep stock full when you go off your sleepy vacation.
Work In Progress
Jason had been laid off one and a half years ago. His unemployment had run out, and so had his savings. He was preparing to put his house on the market and move into a friend’s basement mother-in-law. Part of him wanted to find a job, and part of him had no desire to work for someone else ever again.  He did not want to trade his life for work. He took the Gross National Happiness Index when a friend told him about it, and while he scored high in time balance and many of the domains, he score quite low in terms of his financial well-being. In truth, he was scared and stressed about his finances. 
Selling his house would give him some time, but was not a lasting solution. He was thirty-five, and still had lots of life to live. The last year and a half he had focused on finding work, but with half a heart. He knew that giving up his house would change things for him, and he had a nagging sense of feeling like a looser.  He decided to flip things around. He was moving into a house bustling gamers. His last job had bee nas a UI (user interface) designer.  He decided to follow his bliss.  He loved gaming, he loved writing, he loved imaging UI platforms. He would create concepts for games, constructs for the UI, and let the rest happen. He took the plunge and invested in himself. He used the money from his house to start his own business doing what he loved. He created a work environment that was nirvana to him. He determined his working hours and working style. Within a year, he hired his first employee, who was given the option to determine her own working schedule as well.  His business was small but sustained him in many ways.
Researcher David Rock identified what he calls the SCARF Model for a happy work place. It is based on brain science and reveals that one way to meet our need for autonomy is allowing people to determine their own working hours, desks, and work-flow. Another practice that helps meet our need for relatedness (feeling connected and cared for) is taking the time to build relationships and bond at work, whether in meetings by sharing stories or through buddy systems, mentor programs and small action learning groups. 
A Never Ending Story
            The last story in this post is your time balance and happiness story. It's a bit of a trick, because the moral of this story is that your time – and your life – is yours, and in making decisions about your life, you make decisions about your happiness. 
            Today’s dominant economic paradigm says that the more money you make, the happier you will be. Even though research proves this to be untrue, we continue to buy into this myth.  Whether you believe the science or not, intrinsically you know that your life is worth more than money. So the real questions are, are you happy?  Is the life you are living the right life for you? Is your time being spent on the things you love? What is the story of your life?
Once Upon A Happy Time in A Far Away Land
            In a nation where happiness and well-being are the goals of the economy and  are the metrics by which we measure our national, economic and personal success will we experience time balance?  Ultimately it will be up to us. The way to create the future we want is to live the stories that lay the path forward.  So if you have read this far, I encourage, urge and ask you to create, share and tell your story of time balance, happiness and wellbeing so others in your life can see how it is done.

Post by Laura Musikanski, Executive Director of Happiness Alliance at

Happiness Expedia

Do you work for Expedia? Then read this and take the Gross National Happiness Index for your group. (Quick hack for when you take the survey: go to SIGN UP from the sign in page). We will use your group's scores during a one hour talk on May 23. (Contact Ram for details about our talk).  

Wondering is the Gross National Happiness Index about? 

  • The Happiness Movement bringing to the forefront the importance of happiness in our lives, our society and for our economy.
  • The  Beyond GDP Movement to expand the measures our governments and institutions use to measure success. 
  • The Positive Psychology Movement to expand and change our understanding of what makes us happy and how we can be happy. 

At our table on Earth Day and our talk on May 23 we will explore the connections  between personal happiness, societal well-being and planetary sustainability.
If you work at Expedia, click here to take the survey. If not, use this link!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Debunking Happiness - the Importance of Being Sad.

This is the second of a series posts for 2016 that explain the work I have been doing in the happiness movement. The first post "What's Gross About Happiness?" explains the Gross National Happiness Index. This second post looks at the interplay between sadness and happiness.  At the end of the year, these posts will be compiled into an e-book. 

Ponder this.
Have you ever deeply pondered what happiness really is? When asked the question, at first what automatically spring to mind  is probably a smiley face maybe, a cherished memory, favorite food, a reward or even maybe a state of ease and contentment, but if you allow yourself the time to think
deeper, your initial, automatic thought, will probably seem trivial and even a bit silly compared to what you come up with. So, try it. Take a few minutes now, or, if you read on, some lazy morning or a quiet afternoon, and really think about what happiness is.

You may be surprised at the complexity of this question, and what your mind comes up with if you give it time to deeply ponder.  Carl Jung said “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” The Dalai Lama instructs us, in his book The Art of Happiness to “examine the factors that normally give rise to feelings of discontent and mental unhappiness.”

Two Sad Stories

Two stories are indelibly stuck in my head when I think about this question. In the first story, I was giving one of my first talks about the happiness movement to a group of students at a local performance arts college, the Cornish College of the Arts. I like to take risks when I speak. I asked the students to say “popcorn style” (meaning anyone can shout out what they have to say as it comes up), in one word, what happiness means to them. After about 20 of the expected and popular words – family, love, a pet, dancing- a young woman shouted out “sadness.” Silence fell. I filled it with a definition of happiness that encompassed all feelings, but to this day, regret that we did not take more time teasing out what that young woman had to say.  I learned from my mistake.

A few months later, I was invited to speak at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at the University. I chose a different question to ask the audience.  It was a question we used to have in
our Gross National Happiness Index (but since got cut because of the demand to shorten the survey). I still love the question.  The question is: How long do you expect to live? 60? 70? 80?

Then I started at 60, asking people to raise their hands. A few did. a voice in the back emerged. “Younger.” 55? I asked. The voice was bolder. “Younger.”  “45”.  It felt like the air was knocked out of my lungs. I had just passed by 45 birthday by one year. I could feel the audience. A group taken aback.   I stood in front of them and panic came up and with it an urge to roll over the moment of our talk. Not this time.

I asked the speaker if he would tell us his name and if he would be comfortable with us all (there were about 250 or 300 people) taking a moment of silence for him. He said yes. David Stewart.  We sat in silence for him, sending love and hope.  When it was over, I was still not sure what to do. Then someone from the audience said “why not let him talk.”  I looked into her face for guidance and knowledge. It was not she specifically I was looking to, but the face of humanity. Yes, why not?  It was the right thing to do. It was, as is said, a sweet comeuppance.

Vandana Shiva had been in the audience, but by this time she had left, her entourage in tow. David took the microphone easily. His doctors told him he had three years to live. He had two small children.  He told us why he was at the conference at this time in his life. She missed a magnificent and instructive talk on the meaning of life.  He died a year later, at 41. 

How to Be Sad
If you have read this far, you have probably figured out that happiness is not all rainbows and unicorns, unending bliss and contentment. Not if you are living in the real world, at least.  Being truly happy includes feeling sad, angry, distressed, panicky, upset, and all the other feelings you would not ordinarily seek out or want your self or your loved ones to continually experience. But you need to have those feelings to truly be happy.

When Brené Brown gave her TED talk on vulnerability she said “You cannot selectively numb (the bad feelings)…when we numb those (feelings), we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.” 

In other words, you gotta take the bad with the good. If you want to be happy – be sad.

In the comment section in the  Gross National Happiness Index, it is evident that there is lots of sadness in people. A few comments people have left are:

“I was designed to enable the fulfillment of another persons dream and not only is that soul crushingly depressing, it pisses me off.”

“I just need to figure out something to do about why I am always feeling down all the time.”

“I have been in this state of depression and being anxious about money for most of my life, and yet I have lots of money, and a good stable job that they will never fire me from.”

“Sadness and lack of joy overshadows all of the many positives I have achieved and have in life.”

There are lots of positive comments too, but the ones about depression, being down, and other difficult feelings made an impression on me and my board of directors. That is why, in 2014, my board decided the Happiness Alliance should focus on sadness, depression and grief for the year. We wanted to talk about the hard stuff that no matter how much you put on a happy face on it, focus on the silver lining or try to fake it ‘til you make it, you just don’t feel truly happy.

Lots of people say they do not want to take the Gross National Happiness Index survey because they fear they are too unhappy. I understand that. When we first put out the survey, I dragged my heels before taking it. The truth was I was quite unhappy, and I felt embarrassed to see my scores when I was working on happiness.  When I did finally take it, it was not so bad. It helped me see my situation in a different context. But what our survey did not do was give people truthful help for really tough emotions, something beyond getting good exercise, sleep and swapping out bad habit for good ones. Those lessons (and there are many) are valid and important, but not much help when you’re stuck in an emotional mire. 

The first two tools we issued were Feeling Sad, Feeling Happy, a discourse on how to deal with hard feelings that starts with a validation of all feelings. It quickly got 300 hits, and then continued to gain popularity. That was followed by a tool for identifying feelings, How Are You Feeling, and the first of a series on grief, Happiness for When You Are Depressed. Tools for the stages of grief followed: Denial and Bargaining & Anger (these can be found on the Happiness Alliance website at 

All of these tools for happiness can be boiled down to three simple statements:
·      Your feelings are important.
·      If you don’t feel like your feelings are important, you end up feeling like you are not important.
·      Talk about your feelings – and find someone (like a therapist, doctor or good friend) to talk with.

It’s a little bit strange to focus on misery when you are working in a happiness movement, and some people objected. One person felt the focus on unhappiness was unhelpful and wanted information that focused on happiness. She was at the stage when she was ready to move out of depression by focusing on the positive, which is a very different place from someone who has not yet processed their difficult feelings. 

In my job as the executive director of the Happiness Alliance, I tried to steer her to our tools that were designed for this, like the Personal Happiness Handbook, our most popular took, and Happiness Paths, but she objected that the tools might be seen as a replacement to much needed therapy. 

There is a lot about the happiness movement – or any movement for that matter - that is open to misunderstanding. I felt a bit sad and disappointed about the exchange with that person. That the person who reached out was so very unhappy about the message that its important to have all your feelings, including the unhappy ones, left me feeling unhappy to. The irony is this person was expressing the negative feelings that it is helpful to express.  

So I talked about this with my board members.  We knew we were doing something no other happiness organization had done by taking unhappiness head on, and decided that even though some people were not going to like it, it was still important enough to do.

Like I said earlier, there is a lot about any movement that is open to misunderstanding. That is because there is a lot to learn about any new field.

How to be sad in order to be happy is one of the things we need to learn.

What Happiness is Not

The truth is, there is such thing as being too happy.  One common complaint is that people who are completely happy lack ambition, and there is some truth to this.

Let’s say you define happiness as pleasure. Then let’s say you decide to spend your life energy on
pleasure. What is your pleasure? If you read Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner you will remember the passage when he experimented with hash in Amsterdam. He contemplated a life spent in the hash den.  He decided that kind of happiness led to no happiness at all.

No doubt, you can imagine a similar scenario. Maybe you even know someone who has dedicated their life to chasing happiness through a pleasurable substance or activity, or you did this for a while. You’ve probably also seen the damage that does to their own wellbeing and the happiness of their loved one. So we know that constantly seeking pleasure, and avoiding unhappiness with pleasure, does not make us happy.

The Wrong Kind of Sad

Anyone suffering from manic-depression will tell you that the manic phase of the dysfunction is wonderful. Foods taste better. People look lovely. You’re super productive and optimism
rules.  But you pay with the flip side. And the depths of depression that you sink to are debilitating.  Manic happiness and debilitating depression are not the kind of happiness and sadness that lead to happiness and well-being.  It’s the wrong kind of sadness. But debilitating depression can be brought on for other reasons. An overwhelming shock when you do not have the resources or support to deal with it can bring on depression. Sometimes an insignificant event will trigger depression when a bigger event in your past was never processed.  Whatever the case, if you are suffering from depression and do not have the resources or support to work through it, then often talk therapy combined with medication prescribed by your doctor can play an important role in finding a path to happiness.

More Ways Not to be Happy

Pollyannaism is another happiness trap. If you can only see the bright side, you probably lack some basic survival skills. If all humans were like that, we probably would not have survived as a species. The Dalai Lama is sometimes quoted as giving the example of a person seeing a grizzly bear in the woods. The foolishly happy person will assume it's a big teddy bear, and poses no threat. A sane person would not be happy about seeing that bear, and keep way.

We are programmed with the tendency to search for danger in an unknown situation. Our naturaldisposition is to see the dark side of things. There is a reason for this. A hundred or
ten thousand years ago, it made a lot more sense to assume the dark shadowy figure lurking up the path is a threat and proceed with caution – or turn and run – than to blithely go along a dangerous alley assuming everything is awesome. You know this on an instinctual level. And if you have a friend who is a Pollyanna, you probably find her annoying mostly because she seems incapable of taking care of herself in the face of obvious – at least to you - danger. 

Besides being annoying, a person who is too happy may also lack imagination, motivation and may not be very good at whatever it is they do.

What Happiness Is

There is no definitive answer to the question of what happiness is.  There are working definitions, and these are informed by the values and goals of the person making the definition.  For my board, me, and this project, our goals are the sustainability, resilience and wellbeing of all beings on our planet. This means we define happiness multi-dimensionally.  With the Gross National Happiness Index we looked at dimensions of happiness, and by doing this, we link a person’s happiness to others and to the environment. Here are some examples of the kinds of questions the survey asks:

     To what extent to you feel your life is worthwhile?
     Are you optimistic about your future?
     Do you have enough money to buy what you want?
     How satisfied are you with your work?
     What is the state of your health, ranging from poor to excellent?
     How much of your time do you spend doing things you enjoy?
     How safe do your feel in your city?
     Do people in your life care about you?
     Do you have a sense of belonging to your local community?
     Are you satisfied with the opportunities to develop your skills through informal education?
     How healthy is your environment?
     How satisfied are you with the job being done by local government officials?

The intent is that, by pondering all these different aspects of happiness, a person will see how the wellbeing of others, the state of the conditions in their life and their own feelings and sense of the worthiness of their life all fit together.  It’s a big goal, and not at all easy to explain in a sound bite. Instead, we chunk it – divide it into small bits and take small steps. One of those is re-defining happiness to include sadness.

Posted with love, Laura Musikanski