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One Man's Definition of Happiness

connection jeremy koch mindfulness money non-profit purposeful living Dec 21, 2011
Nic Marks at TEDGlobal 2010

by Jeremy Koch

photo by TED

The founder of the Center for Well-Being offers a prescription for individual happiness, proposes an index of national well-being, and lays out a policy agenda for enlightened nations.

What if we measured the success of a nation on how happy its citizens are and the degree to which it is working to ensure the happiness of future generations?  Would that be a better measurement than GDP?  That’s the argument made by Nic Marks, the founder of London’s Center for Well-Being.  Marks has spent the better part of his career thinking hard about happiness -- on an individual level, on a national level, and now on a global level -- and he has strong feelings on the subject. 

In The Happiness Manifesto Marks lays out a case that GDP is a highly flawed measurement of national accomplishment because it misses so many non-financial aspects of human well-being.  Instead he presents a case for measuring national happiness as a function of individual well-being, life expectancy, and sustainability -- which ensures that future generations will have access to a safe and healthy environment.

Interestingly, when looked at this way, many of the most successful countries in the world are in Latin America and Asia, where life expectancy is long, indicators of personal well-being are high, and uses of national resources are relatively low.  Western nations suffer in this analysis because their high use of natural resources reduces their index.  Citizens of these countries may be living well now, but their lifestyle comes at least in part at the expense of future generations.  Not surprisingly, African nations come out at the bottom of the list because their life-expectancy and personal well-being are low.  Using Marks’ formula, Costa Rica comes out at the top of the list; the UK is number 74; the US comes in at 114.  It’s an interesting and thought provoking way of looking at the world, even if you don’t fully buy into the final results.

But the most interesting parts of this essay come at the end, when Marks shares his research on the key elements of personal happiness and lays out a set of priorities for how governments can foster happier, healthier nations.

After a review of the considerable body of research done on the question of what makes people happy, the Center for Well-Being has identified five key elements of personal happiness.  While this is no foolproof prescription for eternal happiness, all five items are actions that anyone can take to achieve a greater sense of well-being and personal fulfillment.  

Five Ways to Personal Well-Being

Connect: The evidence that social relationships are the foundation of happiness is irrefutable.  So to improve your sense of well-being, build connections with the people around you – at home, at work, at school, or in your local community.   

Be Active:  Regular physical activity is associated with lower rates of depression and a higher sense of well-being across all age groups.  Exercising makes you feel good – so go for a walk or run; cycle or dance; get outside.

Take Notice:  Research shows that paying attention to our sensations, thoughts, and feelings enhances our lives.  So be curious.  Savor the moment.  Notice the world around you.  Take time to reflect on your experiences.

Keep Learning:  Learning benefits self-confidence and sense of purpose, as well as building competencies.  In addition, setting goals and seeking to accomplish them improves one's sense of well-being.  So try something new; rediscover an old interest; sign up for an adult education course; learn how to fix a bike or how to play an instrument.

Give:  Studies show that volunteering is associated with enhanced sense of meaning in life and that seeing yourself as part of a wider community provides powerful psychic rewards.  So volunteer your time; join a community group; or just do something nice for a friend.

* * *

If one can prescribe some simple steps for individuals, what are the implications for governments?  Marks asserts that it is not the role of government to attempt directly to make people happy, but to create an environment in which people have the greatest opportunity to achieve happiness on their own.  To serve this purpose, he lays out an agenda that covers the economy, the provision of public services, and the places we live in.

Seven Strategies for National Well-Being

Create Good Work A central focus of governments should be on ensuring high levels of meaningful, secure employment for their citizens.

Reform Financial Systems:  Financial systems should integrate social and environmental values and be designed to support the public interest in addition to creating private profits.

Develop Flourishing Schools:  Educational institutions should recognize that children have different needs and abilities and should be designed to allow every child to develop to his or her greatest potential.

Promote Complete Health:  Health systems need to broaden their focus to promote complete health – including physical, mental, and social well-being – not just the absence of disease an infirmity.

Engage with Citizens:  Governments should promote a variety of forms of community engagement, allowing citizens to play an active role in the democratic process as well as participating in the delivery of government services.

Build Good Foundations:  National infrastructure needs to work for the people who use it today as well as for future generations.  Social, economic, and environmental considerations should be balanced with financial return.

Measure What Matters:  Governments should directly measure and be accountable for their citizens’ well-being and should actively monitor the impact of society on the shared environment that will be passed on to future generations.

The Happiness Manifesto is available for Kindle. You can also see a video of Nic Marks’ excellent presentation at TEDGlobal 2010.


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