What makes for happier business in the Asian Century?

The Asian miracle has seen living standards rise – but citizens aren’t getting any happier. Companies can help by measuring and improving how people feel about life, writes Richard Hardyment.

Asia’s economies have grown rapidly in recent decades. Millions have been lifted out of poverty. Consumer choice has blossomed. Workplaces are safer. Life expectancy has risen. But according to the latest data, citizens are not getting any happier.

Happiness is the ultimate purpose in life. It is what we live for. As Abraham Maslow famously proposed in the 1940s, after our basic needs are met (food, water, safety), our relationships, self-esteem and sense of belonging become central to how we feel.

Academics call this subjective wellbeing. Happiness is made up of short-term moods (like joy or anger) alongside deeper feelings of how satisfied we feel with life in the round. When asked to rate their satisfaction with life, where 10 represents the “best possible life” and 0 is the worst, scores in Asia have remained stubbornly low despite economic development.

Despite the rising interest in responsible and sustainable business, why has business been quiet about the overall objective of life?

Countries like Indonesia (averaging 5 out of 10) and Hong Kong (5.4) rank near the bottom of the global rankings. Others, like Malaysia (6.3) and Singapore (6.4) do a little bit better. But the most striking thing about the data is the very weak link between economic growth and happiness over time. Despite rising incomes, Singapore, India, Vietnam and Indonesia actually saw subjective wellbeing go backwards in the last decade.

Ever since the 1970s, experts have known that there is a low correlation between money and happiness. The American academic Richard Easterlin found that if you take two individuals at random, the richer is likely to be happier than the poorer. But above a certain pay level, additional income doesn’t make the poorer or richer any more satisfied over time.

The science of happiness has advanced rapidly since. The research has produced a mind-boggling amount of data. And it’s relatively robust, comparable over time and across cultures. Studies have worked out, quite conclusively, which actions do most to raise and reduce life satisfaction. That means that anyone – government, individuals and businesses – can do something about it.

There has been rising interest from governments in new measures of social progress. Bhutan is the poster-child of the movement. In 1972, the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, declared that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in has said: “If a government cannot make the people happy, that government doesn’t deserve to exist”. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has developed its own Measures of Australia’s Progress (MAP) programme.

Yet despite rising political interest, beyond a few employee welfare schemes, there has been a deafening silence from the private sector. Companies have barely scratched the surface of how their products, supply chains, marketing and community activities help and hinder life satisfaction. Despite the rising interest in responsible and sustainable business, why has business been quiet about the overall objective of life?

Responsible business and happiness

There is a massive opportunity for companies to make a difference when it comes to our subjective wellbeing, or happiness. Happier staff are more productive, less sick, more creative and less likely to leave. Happier customers are more loyal. A higher quality of life in local communities and supply chains makes for a more resilient and supportive operating environment. 

Every day, corporations exert an astonishing impact on life. Asia boasts over 4,000 businesses worth at least US$1 billion. These corporations employ millions of people and shape billions of lives through the products and services that they source through supply chains, make in factories, distribute across the world and market to you and me.

Some of the influences on happiness are positive, such as a steady job or a product that improves health. But others are negative, such as human rights abuses, stress in the workplace and soul-destroying advertising. The sum of all these positive and negative impacts is what I call the Wellbeing Footprint—it’s like a profit and loss account of a company’s imprint on life.

The future of business in Asia may not be about whether your organisation is zero-carbon, or ethical, or sustainable. It could well be about whether you are raising life satisfaction.

So what does the science show businesses can do? There are three ways any organisation can make life feel better for more stakeholders. In my new book, The Wellbeing Purpose, I call these the three vital ingredients to wellbeing.

The first is to create jobs. Occupations provide a sense of meaning and purpose, particularly those that offer high degrees of autonomy and flexibility. Having a job creates a massive impact on the happiness of any individual. In fact, it’s so great that practically any job is better than unemployment. This thinking can be applied right across the value chain, particularly creating employment in extensive supply and distribution networks in Asia.

Next, there is health. Our physical and mental wellness has one of the surest influences on how we feel about life. Companies should invest in employee health, including mental health – nutritious food, free healthcare, encouraging exercise and regular health assessments. But often it’s the products sold that have the biggest impact. Looked at through a wellbeing lens, the impacts of some foods companies—not to mention tobacco—must be seen in a new light.

Finally, there is connectivity. Personal relationships—at work, at home, and in communities—shape how we feel on a daily basis. Working practices affect relationships with colleagues. Businesses might innovate technological solutions to better connect us, and reduce loneliness. Philanthropic activities should be targeted at building social capital and strengthening community cohesion.

Looking ahead in what’s set to become the Asian Century, high rates of economic growth should continue. But with size and power, corporations have a unique responsibility to minimise suffering and improve how people feel about life. The future of business in Asia may not be about whether your organisation is zero-carbon, or ethical, or sustainable. It could well be about whether you are raising life satisfaction—whether you have a positive wellbeing footprint. A future where more companies aspire to improve how we feel about life is something we should all be happier for.

Richard Hardyment is a director at Corporate Citizenship. This article was first published on Eco-Business. 

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