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How to Solve the Happiness Crisis

Saturday Spark #10

By Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder & CEO

This week, I learned that we have a “Happiness Crisis” on our hands, especially here in the US. At a conference for 600+ human resources executives, the keynote speaker shared the latest World Happiness Report, which came out a few weeks ago. Commissioned originally for the UN, the report ranks countries on six factors:  life expectancy, income per capita, social support, trust in institutions, generosity, and freedom to make life choices. The overall US rank has fallen to 19th and our happiness decline over 10 years is the 21st steepest in the world. 

So what’s driving the decline?  The biggest driver was a 16% plummet in trust in institutions. The second was a 6% drop in social cohesion: fewer people feeling like they have someone they can call with a problem. A third factor mentioned is the rise in obesity and substance abuse. However, an entire chapter focused on how we now spend our time, particularly how our kids do, and how that correlates with happiness. In short, use of digital media is way up and everything else, like sleep, reading, spending time with friends is way down. Adolescents who spend more time on electronic devices are less happy, and overall teen psychological wellbeing is significantly worse in Gen Z than Gen Y.

I absorbed this presentation feeling vindication as a parent. I am regularly told I’m the strictest mother in the entire middle school, if not the entire city of Newton (and yes, that news usually comes with an eye roll). While my eighth grader has a phone, it doesn’t have a data plan or social media. Evidently, his sleepover options are limited because we don’t let phones over the first floor. Now his entire baseball team group texts using Snapchat so he’s feeling particularly left out and understandably frustrated. We’re considering a few reasonable exemptions for situations like baseball, but then I read the report and wonder. Is it worth it?

As a business leader, this report is even more troubling. The consequences of lower happiness rates mean people are coming to work angry, worried or sad more frequently. It also means they experience laughter and enjoyment less frequently. Nearly 1 in 5 employees are now working through clinical anxiety and depression and rates are even higher in younger people. Needless to say, unhappiness is bad for business. What does a business leader do with a happiness crisis that is being driven by social, political, and media consumption factors seemingly outside our control? 

The answer may be found in a combination of two other pieces of research. First, the Edelman Trust Barometer found that 75% of people still trust their employer. That makes the employer now the most trusted institution in most people’s lives. Second, the report shows that pro-social behavior, like giving to a charity and volunteering in the community, is proven to increase happiness. Voting increases happiness. Exercise increases happiness. Creating more inclusion and belonging increases happiness. So employer-based programs, focused on citizenship, health, inclusion and pro-social behavior, have a good shot at helping to solve the happiness crisis. 

At WeSpire, we run many of these types of programs for companies, but I’ve rarely seen them justified as part of a strategy to improve employee happiness. Often we hear, “it’s the right thing to do”, but we’ve noticed the right thing to do is often understaffed and underfunded. We therefore do a lot of analytics to prove it’s the SMART thing to do, showing ROI and improvements in employee retention or referral rates. But we’ve never tried proving the impact on happiness. I’m now thinking we should.

In a survey of HR executives prior to the conference, employee learning showed up as their key priority. Employee happiness barely made the list. But for the first time ever, I heard a leading strategy consulting firm tell the human resource leaders of the world’s largest employers that they have the opportunity, and the obligation, to improve their employee’s happiness. To do it, they need to actively encourage and support citizenship, inclusion, sports and exercise, and pro-social programs. They need to see these programs as core to their HR and business strategy. I really hope that they were listening.


Quote of the Week:  During my years caring for patients the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes, it was loneliness. — Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

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What is Saturday Spark:
As the leader of a purpose-driven company, I’m challenged daily to ensure our company is “walking the walk” and that I’m personally leading with purpose and impact at the forefront. The result is that I read, think, and learn a lot about the intersection of purpose, impact and leadership and have a few successes and a lot more “lessons learned.” I realized that my own insights may be helpful to other purpose-driven professionals if I took the time to reflect each week. If you find this inspiring, practical or helpful, I’d be honored if you shared it with your colleagues, your families and your friends.

Read Previous Week’s Spark: My Love-Hate Relationship with Paper Straws

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