THE BLOG
05/28/2013 04:53 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

How Should We Measure Happiness?

Christian Filli

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Peaceful Warrior, inspired by the true events in the life of Dan Millman. The story centers on his protégé-mentor relationship with a mystical service station attendant whom he names Socrates. Shortly after their initial encounter, Dan decides to prove himself and challenges Socrates to ask him a difficult question about any subject. Without hesitation, the humble old man simply asks: "Are you happy?"

For a cocky college kid like Dan, who is used to measuring life with grades, medals and girl conquests, this question seems to fall somewhere between redundancy and irrelevance. But of course, it is this question that makes the rest of the plot interesting.

Although happiness is presumably something every human being aspires to, the subject has a strange tendency to remain in the shadows of social consciousness. One potential reason for this is that it's usually perceived to be very subjective and personal, even elusive. In his best-selling book published in 1998, the Dalai Lama refers to it as an 'art' -- exploring how it is determined more by a state of mind than external conditions. The book actually goes deep into explaining how happiness results from systematic training and dedication. What's fascinating about this perspective is that most people seem to perceive art as a spontaneous creative expression and rarely recognize the discipline of practice required to bring it to life. Needless to say, this notion creates a conflict with our instant-gratification oriented modern society. As a result, the question "are you happy?" -- or "am I happy?", for that matter -- doesn't get asked frequently enough because it might take a lot of work (and time) to answer.

There is a country -- that's right, a country -- that has been asking the question for the last four decades. The term Gross National Happiness (GNH) was coined in Bhutan by the then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972, as an alternative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Since then, this tiny nation in the foothills of the Himalayas has sparked a discussion around the world with its new formula to measure "wealth", thru four basic pillars: sustainable development, cultural integrity, ecosystem conservation and good governance.

In more recent years, several institutions and organizations have taken interest in these metrics and have promoted some healthy global debate around the quantitative and qualitative measures that could make the GNH index 'exportable' and comparable between nations. While the universality of the original four pillars could have helped standardize the index globally, there is little alignment on which specific statistical measurements should be applied. Still, the conversation has continued to capture people's imagination and every year we are exposed to several rankings that make us reflect on our success in more integral ways. One example is the New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet Index (HPI), in which Costa Rica ranked 1st and the United States ranked 105th in 2012. The HPI is composed of three parts: perceived well-being, life expectancy and ecological footprint. Other sources such as Human Development Index (HDI) look into other aspects like education attainment and living standards, thus favoring developed nations and leading Norway and the U.S. to place 1st and 4th, respectively. The Legatum Prosperity Index (LPI) even goes as far as incorporating security, entrepreneurship and personal freedom into the mix.

Regardless of variances in methodology, there is no question that the movement is on the rise. This year, the UN officially proclaimed the International Day of Happiness, which was celebrated for the first time on March 20. And the biggest common denominator between methods is that they view happiness as a process, rather than an end state. It's about progress and development, rather than a result.

This view is actually consistent with the most well-known phrase in the United States Declaration of Independence which reads "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." But, how do Americans view happiness? Well, it seems to have been at the core of the nation's value system for over two centuries. However, we tend to forget that the initial draft of the declaration read "the pursuit of property", before Thomas Jefferson penned the final version. One could argue that this substitution, which took place so long ago, had little impact in what Americans actually believe in the 21st century, but one could also argue that it has everything to do with how the national culture has evolved over time. Quite amazingly, the Declaration of Independence happened the same year that Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was published. So, the long-standing association of happiness with financial growth and upward mobility is probably not a coincidence. For most of us who were brought up in the Western world, this has been at the core of what we believe.

But what will happen in the future? Can we realistically expect a shift in this value system over the next few years? Is a materialistic and competitive society like the United States' on the verge of significant change? Do we even want to change?

Whether we want it or not, there is a strong undercurrent pulling us in that direction, with overwhelming evidence indicating that the Age of Transcendence is upon us.

At the root of this is the mainstreaming of the Internet, which shifted the balance of information power to the masses and began loosening the hegemony of the corporation in society. Previous generations related to the corporation as a big source of security, but nowadays the place where you work plays a smaller role as long as you keep a robust social network. The relationship between the corporation and the public has also changed dramatically, as consumers are not just looking to buy products but expect brands to add value to their lives and their networks. Brands have become a participant in the game of social currency, hence corporate responsibility is no longer a PR tactic but a structural requirement.

Finally, the moral collapse in companies like Enron and Lehman Brothers hints to a future in which the growth of businesses depends on a more nurturing win-win relationship with all stakeholders. In this context, every respectable enterprise needs to adopt purpose, transparency and empathy as vital elements of its narrative to remain competitive.

Whatever set of values and standards each entity adopts, these will increasingly be at the service of the old adage "doing well by doing good." Over the past few years, we have seen a growing number of leadership gurus, economists, marketers, and CEOs grab the microphone to spread the gospel, so to say.

Happiness will probably continue to be an elusive concept and it will be up to individuals to practice it on their own terms. How it is measured is certainly up for debate and best practices will most likely remain flexible. But everything seems to indicate that modern economics will not rely exclusively on the bottom-line and the pursuit of happiness will take center stage in our civilization as a movement that embraces and promotes holistic and inclusive success.

And hopefully, down the road, more and more people will spontaneously answer Socrates' question with a confident and contagious yes!

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.

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