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The changing face of happiness


Last week I attended a ‘house warming’ party at the new office of Happy, the company founded by the wonderful Henry Stewart.  As the author of The Happy Manifesto, Stewart has firmly placed his stake in the ground about the virtue of a happy workplace.  As part of the party, he regaled the audience with the numerous advantages that follow from having a happy workplace, whether that’s greater creativity levels, a greater ability to tackle adversity, increased loyalty to the organization, better customer service or enhanced productivity.

As a motto it’s certainly hard to argue against.  After he sold us on the virtues of happiness at work, he shared what he thought were some of the things that make us happy, with things such as empowerment and a supportive boss featuring highly.

Have these things changed however?  Sandie McHugh might be in as good a place as any to try and answer that question.  She studied happiness in the English town of Bolton over an 80 year time-frame to see how the triggers for happiness may have changed in that time.

The changing shape of happiness

Her analysis, which was revealed at the recent Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society, revealed a distinct change in what makes us happy in that time.  It emerged that eighty years ago the secret to a happy life involved things such as knowledge, security and religion.

By 2014 however, that had changed significantly, with leisure and humour replacing knowledge and religion, and only security standing the test of time.  Reflecting the more secular nature of modern society, religion had slumped to tenth and last place in the standings.

The study consisted of two surveys undertaken in Bolton in 1938 and 2014.  The survey was very simple, with an advert asking people ‘what is happiness?’.

Happiness in 1938

Some of the responses from the original survey underline the nature of happiness in that era.  They include “having enough money to meet everyday needs” and “I would like a little home, not many possessions”.  It was altogether a simpler time, with one respondent simply wanting to see his wife and children when he came home from work.

Despite various changes over the years, there remain many similarities, with modern respondents wanting their rent paid on time and to be able to eat healthily, to engage in hobbies and be able to go out for walks.

“The overall impression from the correspondence in 1938 is that happiness factors were rooted in everyday lives at home and within the community. In 2014 many comments value family and friends, with good humour and leisure time also ranked highly,” McHugh says.

Suffice to say, the study focused on the wider issue of happiness rather than anything specific to either our careers or the workplace in general.  I wonder how our triggers for workplace happiness may have changed over the years?  Instinctively, I would suggest that they haven’t changed a great deal, and like the Bolton study, we’re striving for many of the simple things outlined by Stewart.

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