March 20, 2013, marks the first ever International Day of Happiness. This was decreed last year by the United Nations following a meeting on well-being attended by government officials, economists, scholars, and business and spiritual leaders from around the world. It was hosted by Bhutan, a small but visionary country which famously uses Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to index its progress.
The King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar, has described GNH as “the bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth.” He’s talking, of course, about the well-documented connection between well-being and productivity — an interplay that should interest business leaders as much as it does political ones. As this issue of HBR makes clear, happy, engaged employees are good for the organization. Research shows they have better health, are more creative, produce better results, and are willing to go the extra mile. What’s more, happiness is contagious; it creates a virtuous spiral that leads to further engagement.
So how can leaders create happier organizations?
Perhaps the first step is to clarify what we mean by “happy”. Psychologists typically identify happiness by three distinct pathways. The first is the pleasant life, which involves positive experiences including contentment, hope, and sensory enjoyment. This kind of well-being is often referred to as hedonia, based on the Greek term for pleasure. The second is the engaged life, oreudaimonia. The ancient Greeks believed in a “daimon”, or guardian spirit, that would guide you toward your destiny; the word also means genius.
The engaged life thus refers to a person’s ability to deploy his personal genius — to use his unique strengths and talents in a way that engages and absorbs him. The third pathway is the meaningful life, which relates to the desire to be part of something bigger than oneself — to belong and contribute to an institution that has purpose.
All three of these pathways — pleasure, engagement, and meaning — are important. And business leaders can use this knowledge to ask some important questions about their organizations:
Do my employees enjoy their relationships and their environment at work?
Do they laugh?Are my people in the right roles — ones that fit their skill sets and offer appropriate challenge?
Do they get to use their genius?
Do they understand the purpose of the organization?
Do they feel they’re a part of something that matters?
On this first International Day of Happiness, it’s worth pausing to consider what contributes to happiness in your organization — your own happiness, as well as that of the people around you. I hope you will share what you discover.