Monday, October 19, 2009

How Happy Are You?

How happy are you? If you are an American, chances are you are not - or at least not as happy as you were 30 years ago. You're also not as happy as people in many other countries. There are actually several studies regarding happiness published around the world and most agree that Americans are generally not happy people. How can this be? After all, the term American Dream was coined to characterize the U.S. as a nation with limitless potential for a richer and better life than anywhere in the world.

We have the largest GDP of any country in the world; the dollar is generally accepted as the standard global currency (at least for now); we own 2.2 cars and 2.4 televisions sets per household; and we get pizza delivered to our door. Shouldn't all of this make us happy? Apparently not . . .

The surveys and studies on the subject attribute the lack of happiness in the U.S. to a variety of factors; many of them rooted in the workplace. According to the International Labour Organization, Americans work more hours per week and have less vacation time than those in many other industrialized nations. researchers at Siena University in Italy have surmised that this extra work time negatively impacts our social relationships - an important component of happiness. Working overtime and/or spending significant time in traffic commuting to and from work leaves little time for friends and family. In other words, our drive to succeed and stay on top has resulted in a lack of balance in our lives. People are social by nature, and a lack of interaction can lead to unhappiness and depression.

The Fear of Layoffs

Another factor contributing to the lack of happiness is increased stress in the workplace. The fear of layoffs is always present in American business (even during good economic times), which adds pressure from a lack of job security. Add to this a weak system of social programs for the unemployed and an extremely expensive healthcare system, and the result is a feeling that losing one's wealth is a very real possibility.

Workers in Europe are much more protected than American workers. Layoffs in continental Western Europe occur much less often than in the U.S. and when they do happen, require a fairly significant severance to be paid. In the U.S., these types of laws do not exist, and when severance is paid to fired workers, it is often very temporary and fairly insignificant (laws obviously differ from state to state).

To make matters worse, the current downturn has put additional pressure on those who were not laid off to demonstrate increased value in the workplace, leading to more hours and even less time for social relationships.

Remembering Maslow

Virtually every business school around the world includes a something about Maslow's hierarchy of needs in management classes. In general, Maslow theorized that people need to achieve their basic needs (physiological and safety/security) before moving up to the more satisfying needs (love/belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization). he referred to the basic needs as deficiency needs, because not achieving then can result in negative feelings (stress, depression, etc.), while satisfying them does not necessarily create positive feelings. In other words, as long as we are worried about losing our job or financial security, we will never be happy. This situation will also prevent us from striving for the higher level needs, which can lead to increased happiness.

Since we have all been educated on Maslow's theory, I can only assume that many American leaders either do not believe in it or do not see the value in having happy employees. If they did, they would stop the practices that keep people worrying about their jobs and financial security. I have actually worked a CEO who believed that the fear of losing one's job was an effective motivator. This CEO also told me that he was working to cut back on the vacation time the company offered to employees.

It's a Question of Balance

I don't feel we will ever be happy unless our culture undergoes a fundamental shift toward a better work-life balance. I also feel that unless we start valuing and focusing on increasing the level of happiness, U.S. businesses will continue to decline, eroding our standard of living in pure economic terms (leading to a further decline in happiness).

The cost of labor puts U.S. businesses at a distinct disadvantage when competing with companies that have overseas operations. We have seen hundreds of thousands of jobs move offshore for this very reason. How we can compete, however, is by continually improving the products and services we offer, and by finding more efficient methods with which to produce and deliver them. This requires a high level of innovation and motivation throughout our workforce because to succeed, everyone has to contribute ideas for improvement. People will not be creative or motivated to contribute ideas, however, when they are stressed overworked, and worried about their jobs.

Is GDP a Complete Indicator?

There has been a debate among economists regarding whether or not GDP is a sufficient indicator of a nation's success because it does not include a quality of life component. In terms of pure numbers from the IMF for 2008, the U.S. ranks number one in the world, accounting for roughly 24% of the world's GDP, and is almost triple that of Japan, which is ranked second on the list.

We have to ask ourselves, though, if being number one really means anything if we are not happy. Are we better off than The Netherlands, for example, which is ranked 16th in GDP but much higher in the happiness index than the U.S.?

I truly believe that if we don't improve our happiness in this country, it will eventually sink us. We have got to change our lifestyles, which includes improving the workplace, to enable us to become a happier nation.

Improving our level of happiness will be a long process, but we have got to start making it a priority before the situation deteriorates to the point of severely impacting our prosperity and our lives. The components of a plan to increase happiness must include, among other things, improving job security, making the workplace more enjoyable, and improving the work-life balance. We may never totally self-destruct economically because of the sheer size of the U.S. market, but that is no reason to ignore the situation.

I had a conversation with a Swedish citizen recently who, based on what he's witnessed in the news media, characterized Americans as "grumpy people." I have to admit that it was difficult to argue with him.

The Declaration of Independence states that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. This does not mean, however, that it is guaranteed. That part is left up to us.


Anonymous said...

What is happy? Is that a state of mind, a feeling and/or something else

Can happiness be defined?

Anonymous said...

Dude, I don't know how to feel about this blog. First of all, answers to "are you happy?" vary a lot according to the culture of the respondent's culture - positive outlook is also a learned thing, not just a sum of one's envinroment. The relative success and wealth of Americans compared to other nations is also discussed - does that really matter? Compare the Walkman to the iPod - 20 years, a lot of concrete improvement, but relatively the situation remains - Europeans have Nanos, rest of world listens to FM radio. In the fifties some Italians still lived in caves (or homes dug in dirt). You can find happy 3rd world citizens who own a pair of flip flops and a sheet of metal. Poor Americans are dirt rich - scrap that - poor Americans who work in or are laid off from an office are dirt rich. You also have real poor people back there, right, I acknowledge that. But if you have a keyboard to write a blog on, you're in the wealthiest 5% of the human population and you have relatively little to worry about. You have something to eat for the next 6 months and you never have had to cut on thinking about f*cking. That's the hierarchy. If you run out of money, you'll ask for some from your papa. You have never even consider giving up your Grand AM that gets you all that sweet [--insert preferred genitalia--].

Also, I find that reducing the problems to just the work place is problematic at least. Is that really all that has changed? Work sucks and it always has. Ask your father.