International happiness day: why it's a serious global issue


That the UN declared yesterday to be an International Day of Happiness may come as news to many people. Indeed it would be fair to say that many people will think the idea of a special day for global happiness is ridiculous and that the UN has far more important things to concentrate on such as the hostilities in North Korea and Syria.

I’m not going to argue that it should stop doing all its urgent political and humanitarian work but it is also worth remembering that we are all human and that human life is not just about surviving but also about thriving. Indeed, I would argue that human happiness is a serious issue.

It is an important personal issue for us all – who doesn’t want to be happy? Who doesn’t want their children to lead happy lives?

It is a serious issue for our communities – unhappiness is a breeding ground for social discontent with a resultant vicious cycle of crime, conflict and insecurity.

And it is a serious issue for businesses – unhappy workplaces are less productive, have higher levels of sickness absence, are less innovative as well as less fun. Ultimately they are at risk of not being able to adapt in a fast changing world.

But happiness is also a serious 21st century global issue: how on earth are we going to create political, economic and social systems that support nine billion people to live in harmony with each other and the one planet we all share?

If we don’t globally reflect on what a good human life is, then we are in serious trouble. Surely a good human life does not have to be an intensive and materialistic life? That pathway – which is our current one – can only lead to a hellishly hot future, probably with massive structural inequalities (as the powerful control the increasingly limited environmental resources such as water and sources of energy) and not much human happiness.

So we need to talk about happiness. We need to talk about happiness in our families, our schools, our communities, our organisations and indeed politically.

It is these conversations that I have tried to start with most of my work over the last 20 years – though to be honest, I didn’t come to that realisation until much more recently. I thought I was trying to create measurement tools. I still do, but I have come to see that the purpose of these tools is not to be right to three decimal places, but instead to act as a catalyst to starting conversations.

For example, the Happy Planet Index (HPI) is on the surface a global measure of sustainable wellbeing, but it is as much designed to naturally start conversations about how to create the world we all want – a happy healthy and sustainable future.

I am now working actively on how to encourage conversations about happiness in businesses. People spend a lot of time at work and I don’t believe anyone wants to be unhappy in the workplace even if they don’t naturally think of it as our primary source of happiness.

Any vision of a good future includes business and businesses as a central essential element of positive change. So there has to be a conscious effort to align the business needs with both personal needs and societal ones. To help seed these conversations we have created a happiness at work survey that seeks to align positive experiences at work with the performance of the organisation and the social value it generates.

Clearly measurement is not the only way to start conversations and a “day of happiness” campaign has been launched to this end. If the 20 March could become a date in the annual diary where these conversations do take place across the world then I genuinely think the UN will have done us all a service – by starting to take human happiness seriously.


Article written by Nic MARKS (Founder of the Centre for Well-being)