Zoe Tabary | May 25th 2012 | @MgThinking
I’ve recently had to reflect on the ultimate question for a proposal: the meaning of life. Centuries of thinkers have tackled it before me and if I had to pick one, I’d agree with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre that human life doesn’t come with any pre-assigned meaning. If there is a meaning to life, it’s what we invest it with.
So rather than a solution to a problem, I see the meaning of life as what makes each one of us happy. But living in a resource-constrained world may cause us to revaluate what our measures of happiness are. Lately, happiness and quality of life have been the focus of experimentation by governments and economists, who are striving to establish substitutes to GDP to better capture the status of national wellbeing.
But is it worth measuring the nation’s happiness? For businesses, yes. The absence of wellbeing in the workplace is costly. The UK government’s recent Foresight Programme study on mental capital and wellbeing estimated that sickness absence, "presenteeism" (attending work while sick) and labour turnover cost the country about £26bn a year. Employers so far have failed to address the issue. According to research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a British HR body, only a quarter of employees say their organisation encourages staff to talk openly about mental health issues.
With years of recession ahead of them, governments will be looking for measures of success other than economic growth. David Cameron’s “happiness index”, for example, is intended to complement other measures of the state of the UK such as GDP, by asking people every year to rank how content they are with their lives. The OECD’s Better Life index is an interactive tool that lets users compare their lives with those of citizens elsewhere, based on factors such as housing, income, community, education, environment, health, life satisfaction and safety. I worked in Cambodia for a month a while ago, and it struck me how much happier people were than at home [in France], whether they lived in the country’s capital or its poorest villages. Of course, living standards mattered, but more than anything it seemed to be the way people organised their lives in a community that made them happy. A family of ten explained to me that they couldn’t enjoy a meal if it wasn’t shared with friends.
That being said, the surge of alternative measures of wealth and success don’t necessarily mean that the realms of business are as widely discredited as they presently appear, particularly among young people. In a global survey of 18-25 year olds conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit on behalf of Sony, over a third of respondents said they would rather run their own operation in 2025. Another 30% pointed to careers in business as their preferred future occupations.
The shift in the way we measure human progress will have serious implications for the basis on which public policy decisions are formulated. When it comes to gross national happiness, developed countries would be best placed to look at their neighbours. Rich countries aren’t always the best examples.