There is a common and dangerous misunderstanding in the happiness movement. It is that happiness measurements should be culturally relevant. This misunderstanding bypasses the foundation of the happiness movement in which all beings deserve to be happy, no matter their culture, context or current conditions, and whereby our happiness is inextricably tied to common human needs for fully self-actualizing, feeling a sense of purpose, living in integrity, and being a fully loving, healthy, caring being.
Measurements are important, and it's important that we get them right.
The happiness movement is changing the purpose of our government from economic growth to growing our well-being; of businesses from purely profit to people and planetary welfare; and of our personal lives from defining success by whomever is the wealthiest and most famous, to whether you are truely happy. One of the mechanisms by which to make this transformation is the measurements we use. Measurements are important because our cultural values are a reflection of them. The popular terms "you get what you measure" and "you care about what you measure" demonstrate this. Today, all governments, with one exception, use gross domestic product or GDP (the sum of all goods and services produced in a year); businesses, with a growing number of exceptions, use profit and people, with more and more exceptions, use income, wealth and fame.
While someday we may no longer live in a measurement driven world, shifting what we measure from merely monetary measures to wider measures of well-being is a step towards transformation. Until recently, we understood that GDP, profit, and wealth bring happiness. When we started using these measures, we were warned it did not. Kuznets the inventor of GDP, said "The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income."
Recently, the academic community, from social scientists to economists, have unearthed what really makes us happy. It turns out that factors such as community, social support, mental and physical health, safety, trustworthy government, and healthy ecosystems are more highly correlated to happiness than wealth. This is not to say money does not matter, just that it is neither the only, nor primary, measure to use for our happiness.
It's no wonder we got it wrong all these years.
Human happiness has only recently come into consideration. While our planet is 4.5 billion years old, we've been on it a tiny fraction of that time. If you stepped back in time about 100,000 years or so ago, you would recognize fellow humans around you, but you would not recognize the life style. Human life, until very recently has been short and brutal. Our average life-span was 30 years until just the last century or so.
We only started using measurements to guide our society after WWII, and it was not until well after that that we started comparing countries GDP. Historically speaking, we are just getting started in using metrics to guide society. And look at how far we have come in such a short amount of time. With our singular focus on economic metrics, we have changed the face of our planet. Imagine the shock if you were living on our earth 100,000 years ago and were ported into our urban environment today. This would be true even for the average person living 250 years ago, at the advent of the industrial revolution. Measurements matter. That is why it is so important that we get it right when measuring happiness and well-being.
Short term v. long term
For most of our time as humans, we have not had much time to devote to long-term thinking. This is one reason it is so hard for us to re-engineer our society towards the long-term. We are designed to put immediate risks and rewards first. But this design feature has become our design flaw. We are burdened by what allowed us to stay alive in the past in a world where we living for the long-term. This burden of our short-term versus long term thinking is in direct conflict with our ability to realize our full potential as human beings, individually and societally. Our very recent understanding of what human needs are, and how they differ from other animals, exposes this conflict.
Maslow and Max Neef opened the discussion of what human needs are in the 1950s. Because of their work, we have come to understand what it means to be human in a quantifiable way not previously possible. Common across these theories of needs, there are certain needs that all living beings share. Sustenance. Shelter. Safety. A mouse and a man need these equally. These are sometimes referred to basic needs, but it might be better to refer to them as needs shared by all beings. Human needs, on the other hand, differ.
Like many other beings, we need love and care, but unlike most all other beings - at least to our knowledge - we need to be able to fully self-actualize, to become fully integrated, to know our purpose in this life beyond that of eating and contributing to procreation.
We all have our basic and human needs in common, regardless of culture, nationality, religion, background, status, skin tone, economic status, gender or any other feature we use to differentiate ourselves.
And this is where the happiness movement can make such a difference, or fail miserably.
Everyone deserves to be happy.
Happiness research tells us that not just income, but also trust, generosity, social support, health and a sense of freedom are foundational factors leading to greater satisfaction with life. Happiness measurement tools encompass these findings. The domains that are measured in a happiness metric are included because when you are doing well in those areas of life (domains), it is more likely that you will be happier and have a deeper sense of life satisfaction.
|Happiness Index domains|
Pretty much every happiness and well-being (also called "Beyond GDP") measurement tool goes beyond standard of living and includes some or all of the domains of community, social support, mental and physical health, government, safety and trust, environment, work, time balance, education and art and culture. These domains line up well with our understanding of human needs.
|Institutions measuring happiness with survey instruments|
The danger zone.
Last February, in Dubai, a social scientist at the Dialogue for Global Happiness' happiness measurement working group proposed an idea. All the domains of happiness would be pooled. People in each nation on our planet would be asked to choose five from the pool that are most important to them. From this selection, each nation would form its own happiness measurement tool, with each nation's tool reflecting the five commonly valued domains. This way, argued the scientist, the scores are comparable across nations and relevant to each nation
The problem with this approach is that it bypasses all the recent findings from happiness science and our understanding of human needs. In this proposal, in the United States, where money is king, the five domains chosen could well be material well-being/standard of living, work, safety, education, and social support (family), leaving behind good government, community, the environment, arts and culture and psychological as well as physical health. In Costa Rica, the environment, community, art and culture, psychological and physical health and social support may be counted, but the economy, governance, work, safety and education may fall by the wayside. Neither of these scenarios makes for a happy healthy life. Both of these scenarios ignore the fact that all humans share needs, and that all humans, regardless of cultural beliefs or bias, deserve to have an opportunity to meet those needs.
|World Happiness Report Data on Countries|
Happiness is not culturally relevant but happiness interventions are.
Human needs transcend cultures, borders and time. Cultures change over time, across borders and because of the adoption by dominant institutions of metrics. A citizen of Syria has the same needs as a citizen of Switzerland, although one may find themselves in the situation where all needs are being easily met, the other may find themselves in the opposite situation. This does not mean that the person in one country and culture has different needs.
|Culturally appropriate happiness interventions|
Common needs does not mean that we meet our needs in exactly the same way. Each culture, country and community dictates different solutions for people's happiness, just as each person finds their own unique recipe for their happiness. This is already happening in the happiness movement, at a local level. In the state of Sao Paulo in Brazil, one community met safety needs by putting in a soccer park for kids, the other by working with a company to put in biodigesters to ensure clean drinking water. In the Seattle, one immigrant community held a cultural event to address distrust between police in the neighborhood, another held monthly block parties to clean up the streets and take them back from gangs.
Our Happy Dream, Our Happiness Vision.
It is crucial to the happiness movement that we do not confuse culturally relevant interventions with measurement tools. It is my belief that one way we keep these two concepts disentangled is through understanding what human needs are, developing, on an individual and societal level, what it means to be fully actualized, fully integrated, full of a sense of purpose and meaning, and a fully loving, healthy, thriving being. This is the happiness we all deserve. This is the happiness we measure.
By Laura Musikanski, ED of Happiness Alliance