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The International Day of Happiness and Business

March 20, 2024


Today is the United Nations (UN) sponsored International Day of Happiness. The UN has been celebrating the day since 2013 as a way of recognizing the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world. The theme of this year’s celebration is “Happier Together.” Mark Williamson, CEO at the London-based charity Action for Happiness insists, “Our relationships with others are the single biggest predictor of lifelong health and happiness. At a time of increasing polarization and isolation, the most important thing we can do is find positive ways to overcome our divisions and connect more deeply with each other. This matters now more than ever.” You might be wondering why a business-focused website would write about happiness. Keep reading to find out.


Business and the Pursuit of Happiness


America’s Declaration of Independence insists that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. What does that really mean and why should businesses care? Mark K. Setton, CEO and co-founder at Pursuit of Happiness, observes, “Thomas Jefferson took the phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ from [John] Locke and incorporated it into his famous statement of a peoples’ inalienable right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence.”[1] He goes on to explain:


John Locke (1632-1704) was a major English philosopher, whose political writings in particular helped pave the way for the French and American revolutions. He coined the phrase ‘pursuit of happiness,’ in his book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. … What most people don’t know, however, is that Locke’s concept of happiness was majorly influenced by the Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Epicurus in particular. Far from simply equating ‘happiness’ with ‘pleasure,’ ‘property,’ or the satisfaction of desire, Locke distinguishes between ‘imaginary’ happiness and ‘true happiness.’ Thus, in the passage where he coins the phrase ‘pursuit of happiness,’ Locke writes: ‘The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action.’ In this passage, Locke indicates that the pursuit of happiness is the foundation of liberty since it frees us from attachment to any particular desire we might have at a given moment. So, for example, although my body might present me with a strong urge to indulge in that chocolate brownie, my reason knows that ultimately the brownie is not in my best interest. Why not? Because it will not lead to my ‘true and solid’ happiness which indicates the overall quality or satisfaction with life.”


Businesses should care about the pursuit of happiness because they should be concerned about the overall quality and satisfaction of their employees’ lives. Why? Katie Anderson, Founder and Principal Consultant at Katie Anderson Consulting, explains, “[Happiness is] a workplace quality that’s hard to measure, often misunderstood and essential to building good teams.”[2] She adds, “We know that happy employees are more likely to be committed to their work, contribute their ideas and have a positive impact on others, resulting in greater innovation and customer satisfaction. However, happiness is not about small employee perks or ‘fun’ workplace additions such as ping-pong tables or catered meals. Happiness — a state of emotional well-being, either in the moment or overall — is more foundational to our experience as human beings.” That means employees are happier when they know they are working for an ethical company than they are knowing they can get a free snack in the employee lounge. It’s why many employees seek work at firms supporting an underlying social cause. They know working in such environments will bring the kind of “real happiness” discussed by Locke.


One would think that helping employees pursue happiness would be an easy task. Alas, according to Laurie Santos, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Yale University, humans are surprisingly bad at being happy. She explains, “You might assume that we are creatures that are built to be happy. But the sad thing is that we’re really not wired for happiness. Natural selection honestly doesn’t care how we feel — it really just wants us to survive and reproduce. And that doesn’t necessarily involve being happier.”[3] To help employees become happier, business leaders need to help them rewire natural tendencies into more productive, long-lasting behaviors. Santos calls these efforts “rewirements.” She insists, “All of us can engage with rewiring our own habits in order to change our behaviors and feel better.” She suggests a few ways we can help ourselves and others to rewire behaviors. They are:


• Socially connect. This rewirement goes along with the “Happier Together” theme of this year’s International Day of Happiness. Santos notes, “Every available study of happy people suggests that happy people are more social. They physically spend time around other people and they tend to really prioritize time with their friends and family members.”


• Be kind. Santos explains, “Another behavior that we know really affects our happiness is doing nice things for other people — trying to become a little bit more other-oriented. … We often think that self-care is the path to happiness, but the evidence really suggests that happy people are much more other-oriented. They’re donating more money to charity. They’re spending their time volunteering for others. They give more compliments.”


• Think positively. According to Santos, “Another way that we can rewire our happiness is to change our thought patterns. Do we have a mindset of paying attention to all the negative things, all the hassles in life? Or do we have a mindset that focuses more on the blessings? Lots of evidence suggests that happy people focus on the blessings.”


• Pay attention to the good stuff. “Another thought pattern that we can engage to feel happier,” Santos writes, “is paying attention to the good stuff in life. One of the reasons our good circumstances don’t necessarily lead to happiness is we tend not to notice them.” Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about aesthetics and how they make our lives fuller and richer.


• Be active. Santos concludes, “A final way we can rewire our behavior is to make changes in our body. We often forget that bodies are connected to minds, but they really are. And that means that a really quick way to change how we’re feeling emotionally is simply moving our body a little bit more.”


Concluding Thoughts


Anderson concludes, “Happiness is not a KPI that’s easily tracked, not something that you can find a metric for, or an app to help you determine just how happy your employees are. It’s not something where you can see how long an employee spends on a project to become ‘happy’ or what benefits you can add in order to increase it. You don’t need to create a survey, or questionnaire to determine how happy or fulfilled your employees are with their work at your company. It’s far more straightforward than that. You go to gemba (in Japanese, this means ‘the place something happens’), you go to see your employees where they are and beyond the work they are doing. You connect one-on-one and ask them questions to get to know them — not just because of the business outcomes you need, but to strengthen their feeling and knowledge of you as a leader and as someone who cares. You make yourself available for questions and concerns from your employees and create a culture where active listening is prioritized and learning is shared. You don’t shut yourself off from getting involved or getting to know your team members; you embrace it.” Santos agrees that happiness requires action. She concludes, “The real work is putting the things you learn into practice. When we understand the right things to do and put those things into practice, we really can significantly change our levels of happiness.” According to news reports, America has some work to do. The U.S. is no longer among the top 20 happiest countries on Earth.[4] Enjoy the International Day of Happiness by going forth and doing some good.


[1] Mark K. Setton, “John Locke: The Pursuit of Happiness,” Pursuit of Happiness.
[2] Katie Anderson, “Want Better Results? Focus on Creating Happiness,” IndustryWeek, 30 October 2023.
[3] Laurie Santos, “Why humans are surprisingly bad at being happy,” Big Think, June 2023.
[4] Clare Ansberry, “U.S. No Longer Ranks Among World’s 20 Happiest Countries,” The Wall Street Journal, 19 March 2024.

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