~ SEPTEMBER 2022 ~
More than three decades ago, folk and jazz artist Bobby McFerrin soared to number one on the charts with his pop hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Happiness, of course, is in the eye and heart of the beholder. But however you may define or measure happiness for yourself, it’s likely something to which you aspire.
There’s no shortage of opinions on happiness:
- “I have chosen to be happy because it’s good for my health.” – Voltaire
- “Happiness is a journey, not a destination.” – Buddha
- “A person needs just three things to be truly happy: Someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” – Tom Bodett
- “If you want to be happy, do not dwell in the past, do not worry about the future, focus on living fully in the present.” – Roy T. Bennett
- “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It’s what you think about it.” – Dale Carnegie
And then there was young Anne Frank, one of the most-discussed Jewish victims of the Holocaust: “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”
All the philosophizing aside, a lot of people haven’t taken Bobby McFerrin’s advice to heart. Unhappiness is not only increasing around the world, it’s rising at unprecedented rates. It’s a phenomenon, in some ways like the supply chain crisis, that affects all of us—often in ways we never imagined.
Jon Clifton, CEO of the Gallup organization, is shedding light on this crucial issue in his new book BLIND SPOT: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It.
In helping leaders and organizations sole their most pressing problems, Gallup is the gold standard in survey research and analytics. By combining more than eight decades of experience with its global reach, Gallup likely knows more about the attitudes and behaviors of employees, customers, students, and citizens than any other organization in the world.
Whether you lead an organization, a team, or focus only on your own health and wellbeing, Clifton offers enlightening, research-based insights.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Why does happiness not seem to be on the radar of most leaders—whether political, business, or otherwise?
Clifton: If you gave world leaders a pop quiz on the state of their economies, stock markets, inflation, or even gas prices, all of them would ace it. But if you asked them about the global state of stress, sadness, or anger, most would fail. Why? Because almost none are systematically tracking how people feel in their countries.
The same goes with private sector leaders. Some measure employee satisfaction, but they measure it poorly—or treat it as a box to check. If you don’t believe me, ask an executive this: “How many of your employees are thriving?”
Duncan: Tell us a bit about Gallup’s global research on happiness. What are the objective and subjective indicators, and how is the research conducted?
Clifton: There are two ways to understand how people’s lives are going. The first is to describe their life objectively—do they have a job? How much money do they make? Are they overweight? All these things are “objective” measures because how much someone weighs or how much someone makes isn’t really a matter of opinion.
The second way to understand a person’s life is from their point of view—how do they feel every day? Do they experience a lot of anger? Do they laugh and smile a lot? Do they experience a lot of sadness?
If you want to know how someone is feeling, all you have to do is ask them. Every year, we conduct interviews in more than140 countries and ask people about how their life is going. In roughly 40 countries, we conduct interviews over the phone and in another 100, we conduct the interviews in person.
It’s remarkable how open and honest people are about how they are feeling. For example, in 2021, 28% of people openly told a stranger (a Gallup interviewer) they experience a lot of sadness.
Duncan: Why is it important to measure both positive and negative emotions?
Clifton: You might think that if a person experiences a lot of positive emotions, they therefore feel very few negative emotions; and if someone feels a lot of negative emotions, they therefore experience very few positive emotions. Turns out, that’s not always true. Humans can experience a lot of emotions or very few emotions at all, which is why you need to measure both.
For example, if you go to the funeral of a beloved grandparent, you may experience pain and sadness. But you also might laugh and smile with family members remembering the good times with the loved one you lost. You may have cried and smiled a lot the same day.
Duncan: In addressing the issue of what constitutes a great life, Gallup focuses on five elements or dimensions: Work, Social, Financial, Physical, Community. Why those five? And where’s the spiritual component?
Clifton: The happiest people in the world almost always have five things in common—they are engaged in their work, their finances are in good shape, they have friends that look out for them, they are physically healthy, and they live in communities where people help each other. It’s really hard not to be happy if all of those are happening in your life.
In my opinion, spirituality influences all of them, depending on each person’s beliefs and culture.
Duncan: You quote Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman as saying that “increasing happiness and reducing misery are very different things” and that rather than focusing on boosting happiness “it is a responsibility of society to try to reduce misery.” How can Gallup’s research help people think differently about addressing the issue of happiness?
Clifton: Dr. Kahneman’s point is that while improving global happiness is an important mission, a higher mission may be improving the life experiences of those who are suffering. They are two very different activities.
Most global research focuses on how people see their life and it is measured by asking people to rate their life on a scale of zero to ten. This probably best measures “contentment” instead of happiness, and it highly correlates with money.
There is a lot more to life—and understanding how much anger, stress, and sadness a person experiences is fundamental to knowing if they have an overall great life. Those negative indicators are what we find are increasing dramatically, which is where leaders need to focus.
Duncan: We have plenty of data on employee engagement. To what extent—and how—is engagement related to happiness?
Clifton: Most people spend 85,000 to 110,000 hours of their life working. The only thing they do more is sleep. So, what happens at work hugely impacts how your overall life is going.
In fact, work is so impactful, that if you are actively disengaged at work, you are more likely to experience stress, worry, and physical pain than someone who is unemployed. You are also less likely to feel well-rested, experience enjoyment, and smile and laugh.
If you can get a job where someone cares about your development, you have the ability to do what you do best, and you have a great relationship with your colleagues—it dramatically decreases the possibility of sadness, anger, or any negative emotions in your life. The same is true with positive emotions – all of them increase when you are engaged at work.
The solution to the world’s rising unhappiness is right in front of everyone’s face—it’s creating better jobs.
Duncan: In the face ofa challenge as profound as a global pandemic, many people report increasingly negative outlooks while others are more positive and hopeful. What factors cause (or enable) people to respond to the same adversity so differently?
Clifton: Covid impacted all of us very differently. For instance, you and I could keep doing our work when the world was shutting down—many physical laborers were out of work. Families with children were vastly more disrupted than those without. People with a compromised family member were under very different self-imposed guidelines.
Duncan: What’s the difference between the way people see their lives (life evaluation) and the way they live their lives (life experiences)?
Clifton: The way people see their life overall compared to how they experience life day to day are very different, so you have to measure both. For example, we find that people with children compared to those without children do not rate their lives differently (on a global scale), but they experience life very differently. The people with children experience more negative and positive emotions than people without children.
Duncan: Loneliness is linked to all sorts of negative issues. What best practices seem to foster friendships and satisfying interactions in the workplace, and what’s the impact on happiness?
Clifton: The best run organizations foster workplace friendships by building the right systems, never forcing relationships, and talking more and emailing less.
Earlier this year, we conducted a survey of the CHRO’s [Chief Human Resource Officers] of the largest companies in the world and asked them what aspects of wellbeing they focus on the most. Dead last? Social wellbeing.
Often, executives are friends with each other, and they don’t think the importance of workplace friendships applies to the rest of the company. But workplace friendships may be even more important on the front lines.
But how can organizations foster those friendships?
First, create formal systems that are based on getting work done. One company found that “buddy systems” for new employees works. If you create eight touch points for new employees with a buddy, employees develop significantly faster. The objective was development, but it produced friendships. In Gallup’s book 12: The Elements of Great Managing, we found that department rotations also create friendships. Different work experiences expose you to new people, which create opportunities to meet new friends.
Also, make subtle changes to the way work gets done. Some organizations that successfully increased friendships just moved people’s offices closer to each other. This will get more difficult as work becomes more remote or hybrid.
Second, don’t force it. Axe-throwing activities or scavenger hunts can feel contrived. In one study, only a quarter of British employees said they looked forward to their Christmas party—the rest wanted a cash bonus instead.
People come together with like-minded people at work because of a shared goal of an organization. The shared problems, late nights, or long travel often produce friendships that last a lifetime.
Third, talk more and email less. Building friendships means talking, seeing, and being with people. Leaders need to set an example by communicating more live and less on e-mail. And, as many are moving to a more virtual world, it means doing less asynchronous work. Emails cause people to misinterpret each other. The solution is to call each other more—especially on Zoom or FaceTime. But the best is to meet up somewhere in person. Email will never live up to face-to-face dialogue.
Duncan: As Simon Sinek has said, “100% of customers are people. 100% of employees are people. If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business.”
What can private sector leaders do to significantly boost their understanding of (and positive impact on) the “people issues” that are so critical?
Clifton: Private sectors leaders need to place more seriousness on the role human nature plays in their business outcomes. What they don’t know is that when dealing with customers, feelings are facts.
Executives often assume that customers are automatons—satisfy them rationally and they will pay for your product or services. Make sure the coffee is hot and that it tastes good; and serve it quickly and at a low price. Yet, those factors aren’t everything.
One high-end bakery lost one of their highest paying customers because they disrespected her. If humans were only rational actors, disrespect wouldn’t matter in the buying process because the products never changed. A customer’s rational thought explains about 30% of their decision-making whereas their emotions explain roughly 70% of their decision-making.
A version of this article originally appeared here on forbes.com