Is the International Day of Happiness a Happy Initiative?

It is important to understand that these happiness technologies, which will have a real impact on our "life experience," are a new type of technology. Again, they are not designed to change the world but to change ourselves, our behaviors, our relations to others and our lifestyles.
03/20/2013 12:35 pm ET Updated May 20, 2013

The United Nations recognized March 20 as the day for celebrating and reflecting on happiness. On the face of it, the idea of an international institution intending to "make us happy" seemed inauspicious. As it turns out, this worldwide day of happiness may well be a happy initiative. In its World Happiness Report, the U.N. does not merely make innocuous recommendations based on sweeping macro-economic observations. It particularly proposes fairly unexpected, concrete and empowering avenues. It appeals to our sense of responsibility and encourages us to work through our current difficulties and not assign undue blame to others. That is, our happiness largely depends on us, our lifestyles, here and now.

Growth does not bring happiness, but neither does de-growth

Early in its report, the UN notes the damning failure of the GNP-centered approach to happiness. For example, while the GNP of the U.S. has grown three-fold in the last 50 years, Americans do not claim to be happier today. There was always a sense that pursuing happiness through growth was illusory -- this is now unquestionable. After mentioning various approaches, including the Human Development Index, Gross National Happiness and Agenda 21, the U.N. report moves on to a more pragmatic section, drawing on the research of sociologists and psychologists who have observed the concrete factors that positively or negatively impact perceived happiness. It cites inequalities, extreme poverty, and bad health as obstacles to happiness and conversely highlights solidarity, education, freedom of speech, etc. as contributions to happiness.

The U.N. report then concludes that beyond health, economic and societal variables at the macro level, happiness primarily depends on the lifestyle we adopt, and that, therefore, "we can [improve our quality of life] by adopting a lifestyle and technologies that enhance happiness (or well-being)."

In fact, the U.N. distances itself from some currently popular movements that advocate a return to nature, the local, and slowness as a sole path toward happiness. These proponents of the "return to slow," advocates of "disconnect to connect," and promoters of degrowth opportunely renamed "happiness economy" indiscriminately castigate globalization, speed and ubiquitous technologies as absolute evils. It looks as though we would simply need to stay away from these to find happiness (a return to paradise lost, in a sense). The U.N. proposes a different alternative: confronting what hampers the development of our happiness and developing what is conducive to it by encouraging everyone at their own level (individuals, government, etc.) to engage in responsible lifestyles and use appropriate technologies to help us in the process. In other words, no "always on" nor "technology abstinence," but a sensible and sustainable use of technology, including "unplug and recharge." But what might these "technologies for happiness" be?

The key to happiness is in your hand

Technologies can help remove obstacles to happiness in a fairly direct way. As far as extreme poverty goes, for example, studies show that offering Internet access to homeless people constitutes the most profitable government policy for each invested dollar. The effect on homeless people's health, and relatedly, on people as a whole, is considerable, not to mention the reduction of social exclusion. In developing countries, mobile telephony has become widespread and individuals are coming up with innovative text message usages to get by daily, do business, help each other, educate themselves, or perform outreach actions. The success of the social network Mxit, which originated in Africa, is a case in point.

At the worldwide health level, the challenge we face no longer lies in pharmaceutical treatments but in the adoption of "good living habits." Today, nearly two deaths out of three are caused by non-communicable and largely-preventable diseases (sedentary lifestyle, diet, depression, addiction), according to the WHO. We feel that this proves that mobile technologies are efficient to help people prevent the consequences of those bad habits. It is actually the next major trend of digital technology. Better still, the predictable boom of well-being and happiness technologies might even bring growth back.

One way the Internet contributes to happiness is that makes it easy for people to maintain connections with their families, no matter if they live down the block or halfway around the world. International research has so much emphasized this that systematic access to the Internet is now a right accommodated in bilateral agreements regarding work-related emigration. More broadly, in the area of parenthood, support programs on cellphones, the Web or via texting are proving useful in terms of child protection, alleviation of family tensions, teaching children autonomy and prevention of juvenile delinquency. Technologies can also help us improve our relational intelligence and better handle our emotions, favor good ones over bad ones, as well as relax and avoid overwhelming stress. In professional life, purpose-built digital devices have a proven positive effect on well-being at work. As for seniors, technologies for aging better are still in their infancy, but advances in facilitating everyday life and delaying physical and cognitive decline are already substantial.

Finally, regarding the connection between happiness, freedom of speech and democracy, the positive impact of technology has been amply demonstrated. In fact, dictatorships' doggedness in shutting down its use provides the best demonstration.

Happiness technologies as benevolent technologies

It is important to understand that these happiness technologies, which will have a real impact on our "life experience," are a new type of technology. Again, they are not designed to change the world but to change ourselves, our behaviors, our relations to others and our lifestyles. In this way, they fit in seamlessly with the goal of improving the happiness of humanity stated by the U.N. report. So yes, this international day of happiness will be very useful if it allows us to realize that our happiness is just around the corner, if we are willing to take the trouble to work toward it individually and collectively with an open and confident attitude.

Christophe Deshayes has been deciphering trends of the digital age for 20 years and their impact on society, business and everyday life. As a professional speaker, he has given more than 1,500 talks for business, think tanks, symposiums and universities.

Since 1996, he has led several research and technology watch companies. He has published in 2013 Petit Traitᅢᄅ du Bonheur 2.0 (A Compact Treatise of Happiness 2.0) with Jean-Baptiste Stuchlik, and Les Vrais Rᅢᄅvolutionnaires du numᅢᄅrique (True Digital Revolutionaries) with Michel Berry. He regularly publishes articles in the medias.

Jean-Baptiste Stuchlik has worked as a consultant at several international consulting firms as director of health and public sector. As such, he led many missions for international organizations, work councils and health, safety and working conditions committees.

He holds a Ph.D. in management science from the Ecole Polytechnique and a master of science in psychology. He has been teaching at the Sorbonne University and many engineering schools. He has published in 2013 Petit Traitᅢᄅ du Bonheur 2.0 with Christophe Deshayes.

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