Understanding Human Happiness, Its Measure and a New Leadership Role

Feature Articles / June 2013

Greg Southworth

Greg Southworth


In order to understand the role of leadership in promoting happiness, it is necessary to define happiness. A casual survey of people on the street would seem to indicate they know what makes them happy. Often these conversations will result in discussions about having enough money and resources, a nice place to live, closeness to family and friends, personal freedom to live their lives without undue external interference, and even a healthy spiritual life may be cited as examples of things that contribute to happiness. It will then be necessary to explore the way individuals and leaders, using those values as guides to understanding happiness, can explore those factors with greater depth and how they can help in securing its occurrence. That is a key component of integral leadership in that people in a position to do so are helping people use those tools available to create individual and institutional happiness. Consequently, this paper looks at ways of understanding happiness in the human experience and how individuals and leaders can play an integral role in making sure that opportunities for happiness abound especially in societal or organizational settings. The final portion of this article looks at some organizational models and the creative changes, which can be applied to existing organizational frameworks, noting how and where training for accomplishing such efforts might be found. Making transformations which can lead to broad-based happiness in institutional settings can become the incubators for other means societally.

Defining happiness is a bit like defining pornography. US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis vs. Ohio (1964) lamented that he did not have a clear definition of pornography, but he knew it when he saw it (Jacobellis v Ohio, 1964). While difficult to define and while happiness may be a mental construct, it appears to be closely correlated to health, both physical and emotional, according to Brenner, a public health researcher (Brenner, 1995). This correlation makes measurement of happiness an important way to gauge human satisfaction with life. A conventional attempt to define happiness with Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary relates happiness to a state of well-being and contentment, even joy and a pleasurable or satisfying experience (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2005). Still others, such as Klein, scientist, author, and essayist, offer neurobiological definitions which are more clinical seeing happiness as chemicals released in the brain create positive feelings of well-being or euphoria (Klein, 2006).

Philosophy and Happiness

Philosophers may look for philosophical definitions of happiness and early Western efforts were supported by the writings of Plato in The Republic (Plato, trans., 1993). At one key point in The Republic, Plato, through Socrates, is discussing the meaning of justice along with an assembled number of various Athenians. The issue arose as to whether or not the just man is happier than the unjust man is. That discussion is considered in a series of hypothesized city-states coming into existence, culminating in a city-state ruled by philosopher-kings. The participants then explore the nature of existing regimes. Plato, as Socrates, believed morality is a necessary cause of happiness, that one’s happiness is directly related to a person’s moral behavior. Therefore, an immoral person would be motivated to be moral if he or she wants to be happy. The happy person, according to Plato, is the just person. The skeptics in the group claim that reality contradicts Socrates (Plato, 1993), and those tyrants, motivated by unjust principles, may be found to be happy. Moreover, they argue that good people are known to suffer, rather than to be happy. Socrates argues instead that the balanced soul, which he later defines, must be ordered for a person to be happy (Plato, trans. 1993).

In recent times, Capra, the Austrian born American physicist, theorist and writer, has approached the question of what makes for a satisfying or even a happy society as coming from the way we approach our problems and define solutions (Capra, 2002). His discussion consists of recent developments in systems theory as applied to biology and the extension of these ideas into the realm of human culture. Interestingly, Capra takes the reader on a journey from the microbiological to the organization of the human brain to how human systems, such as cities, are organized. The key message Capra (2002) conveys is that biological systems theory explains how these living systems are able to create and sustain themselves; a concept known as autopoiesis, which he contends, differentiates living from non-living systems. This process of autopoiesis, Capra writes, means that systems use energy and have a process where the systems learn to react to their external environment addressing the potential of chaos, which is ever looming. Capra (2002) then contends socially generated structures may be matter, biological, or cities for example, or they might even be cultural or intellectual human structures. For these systems to be sustainable, as the efficient biological and molecular systems Capra discusses, they also must learn and adapt, but for any socially generated structure to be sustainable, it must be based on the same operative principles that make biological systems sustainable (Capra, 2002). If we are to design human systems modeled on natural systems, we need to base those designs on what we learn from the natural sciences (Capra, 2002). Having a thorough understanding of the way biologic and human systems work successfully, can go a long way in helping those leaders within organizations understand what it takes to make an organization operate sustainably and successfully. A word of caution is needed in that there are ways to accomplish such a goal by maximizing the input of people within that organization rather than simply imposing a top-down strategy leaving employees and other stakeholders with the sense they are victims of someone’s social engineering scheme. More on that subject in due course.

It is entirely arguable that Capra is making his own case for the just society of Plato’s Socrates albeit his focus is less on direct governance than on systems’ responses. This balanced systems world envisioned by Capra is one which is both adaptable and sustainable (Capra, 2002). It is capable of learning from mistakes and incorporating that knowledge to the benefit, perhaps even happiness, of all within those systems. Plato might indeed consider that type of society one form of a just society given the criteria he espoused which could also be balanced in the way Capra espouses. Perhaps, if a just society is a moral society, then a sustainable society might also be a happy society. If such a discussion between the two theorists could be arranged, it would be fascinating to observe, all the while seeking to philosophically discern how those factors discussed by both would each identify contributions to a happier society.

Happiness Categories as Macro, Micro and Spiritual

In reviewing the literature on happiness and happiness research, I have noticed the subject appears to be broken into three very general categories and often those categories overlap. These general categories of happiness that I present here are used to differentiate the direction of focus the different researchers, theorists, and writers have taken. The first generally secular category is based on political-economy or macro considerations. This category often examines happiness in the macro-economic realm addressing social conditions, political realities, and factors which impact groups of people at the societal and often at global levels (Sachs, 2012).  The second generally non-secular category of happiness is based on issues of spirituality, religion, and religious practices. This can even be called the religious, spiritual practice, or the transpersonal category. This category can be complex, which may involve varying levels of belief, practice, and sense of belonging. Equally important, some individuals have strong secular, or non-spiritual, convictions and high levels of social engagement, but have no specified religious beliefs (Galen, 2012). For simplification purposes, I have classified this category as the spirituality category.

A final identified generally secular category is broadly labeled happiness as a function of community or happiness in community. This third category includes various individual clinical considerations as much of emotional and psychological wellbeing relates to interpersonal relationships with others as indicated by Walsh (2011), professor of psychiatry, philosophy, and anthropology, and adjunct professor of religious studies at the University of California at Irvine (Walsh, 2011). This third category also includes community-wide happiness at a broader level, but less than a societal or macro level. This could include the local town, city or intentional community levels (Sanguinetti, 2012). This last level I am calling the micro level to distinguish it from the macro or societal level, and the in-between or spiritual levels. There are movements within psychological and other social science research which offer great possibilities for a thorough examination of happiness in all three of these general categories, macro, spirituality, and micro.  Such circumstances almost cry out for an integral response. Before examining which kinds of happiness research settles well into the three categories identified, it is important to look briefly at a field of psychology, which has been dedicated to looking at the positive aspects of human emotional and psychological wellbeing. This relatively new movement, which has great potential to reach across all these categories is positive psychology.

Positive Psychology and Happiness

Positive psychology began as a new area of psychology when Seligman, who is considered the father of the modern positive psychology movement, used it as the theme for his presidency of the American Psychological Association in the late 1990s. The term positive psychology originates with Maslow who also shares the distinction of having been a founder in both the humanistic and transpersonal fields of psychology (Maslow, 1943). Seligman and Csikszentmihaly, both considered leaders of the positive psychology movement, have stated, “We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families, and communities” (Seligman &  Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 13).

The positive psychology field has its philosophical roots in various strands of thinking throughout history, including Judaism, Christianity and Greco-Roman philosophy (Compton, 2005).  The current focus of this movement in psychology has been to find and nurture genius and talent, and to make normal life more fulfilling, rather than merely treating mental illness. Positive psychologists in the field, writes Peterson (2006), analyze things like states of pleasure, values, strengths, virtues, talents, as well as the ways that they can be promoted by social systems and institutions (Peterson, 2006).Positive psychologists are also concerned with such things as positive experiences, enduring psychological traits, positive relationships, and positive institutions (Peterson, 2009). Positive psychology has sought to explore happiness from several angles, one being the neuropsychological levels by looking at physiological correlates to happiness that can be measured (Klein, 2006). Lykken and Tellegen (1996) contend that genetics researchers, whose work may increasingly influence positive psychology, are also aware that genetics play a role in happiness because of twin studies. Twins reared apart had nearly the same levels of happiness in studies and understanding how that works can contribute to methods used to achieve increased happiness reports (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996).

Recently, two positive psychologists, Peterson and Seligman (2004), have developed the Character, Strengths and Virtues Handbook which represents an attempt on the part of the positive psychology research community to identify and classify the positive psychological traits of human beings (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) The purpose of this handbook is to provide a theoretical framework to assist in understanding strengths and virtues and for developing practical applications for positive psychology. By identifying the classes of core virtues, made up of twenty-four measurable character strengths, which are considered good by the vast majority of cultures and throughout history, the researchers believe these traits lead to increased happiness when practiced. The suggestion of this type of universality, argue the authors, hints that in addition to trying to broaden the scope of psychological research to include mental wellness, the leaders of the positive psychology movement are suggesting that we may be predisposed toward certain virtues, that virtue has a biological, even a genetic, basis (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

Positive psychologists, such as Seligman, have placed a high priority on happiness research having created a website called Authentic Happiness at the University of Pennsylvania (Seligman, 2012). The website offers to be “the best place to start is by learning more about the latest theory and initiatives in positive psychology, by taking one of our well-being questionnaires, or by checking out recent presentations and selected media” (Seligman, Authentic Happiness, p.1). Many of the questionnaires offered on the website are, not surprisingly, focused on psychological perceptions of happiness,which would tend to put most of them in the micro, or individual and community, category used for my classification purposes. The current beauty of the positive psychology movement is that it seeks to list specifics, which make for a happy life which in turn can be helpful to leaders who truly care about the quality of life that people live.

There is a good example at the organizational level where the positive psychology movement has been involved with the US Army in developing and supporting a Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program.  The program is designed to build resilience and enhance performance, defined as providing soldiers, family members, and civilians with the mental and emotional skills to strengthen their minds and perform at their best when it matters most: in combat, healing after an injury or managing work and home life (Authentic Happiness, 2013). The University of Pennsylvania-based Authentic Happiness (2013) program has worked with the US Army to create Comprehensive Resilience Modules (CRMs) which are web-based, self-development training intended to build resilience across the force, and the wider military community, and teach skills that support social, emotional, family, spiritual, and physical resilience (Authentic Happiness, 2013).

Measurements of Happiness

With effective happiness measurements, trend levels can be followed across the conceived categories, among groups within societies, and among several societies. It can be a step, I perceive, in identifying where people are consistently happy, what makes them happy overall, does happiness in one part of life outweigh others, and can those positive circumstances found in one environment be replicated elsewhere. As a result, participant perceptions reported within various happiness factors, which will be discussed, can also have implications for the overall social and health policies of a society should those societies decide that correcting any unhappiness, and perhaps in addition, improve outer and inner well-being, seeing this as a worthwhile goal. Some of these possibilities offer approaches to these macro issues.

Graham (2005), professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and contributor to the Brookings Institution, has noted that cultures influence perceptions of happiness, but large data samples across cultural lines show patterns which are surprisingly consistent (Graham, 2005). One interesting characteristic found in several cultures is called the Easterlin (1974) paradox based on research done by Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California (Easterlin, 1974). The earlier methodology used by Easterlin (1974) involves a Gallup-poll style survey asking people about their perceptions of happiness as very happy, fairly happy, or not very happy. The other data collection method that Easterlin (1974) uses involves asking people for their perceptions of their hopes, fears and happiness (Easterlin, 1974). The area of most interest was the finding that an increase in income does correlate to happiness, but that are limits. It was also noted that an increase in education does have a corollary relationship to happiness, but the resulting Easterlin paradox says that an increase in income reaches a point of diminishing return, but more recently Easterlin (2003) and others are interested in the likelihood that aspirations increase with income, sometimes called the hedonic treadmill theory (Easterlin, 2003).

Yet, there is contrasting research by Pope (2011), a professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia, which gives a different view and presents an alternative to the hedonic treadmill theory. The Pope (2011) perspective is that the suffering that gives rise to and is perpetuated by contemporary culture’s addiction to materialistic consumption is described surprisingly well by the ancient tradition of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (Pope, 2011). His analysis points to what is needed in order to extract ourselves from a consumerist mentality and find genuine fulfillment. Neurologically speaking, Pope (2011) notes, humans are wired for all manner of consumption, and advertisers—just as they have done in the past with behaviorism and psychoanalysis—are exploiting the latest trends in psychology in order to stimulate desire, increase profit, and populate the world with those seeking external fulfillment (Pope, 2011). Nevertheless, there is a growing body of evidence that this wiring can be changed. Pope (2011) contends that studies in this vein open onto even larger implications as they shift the very assumptions of standard neurobiology (Pope, 2011). He argues the mind is then an emergent property of matter. If training the mind can affect the neurobiology of a person, then one must perhaps take seriously the suggestion, writes Pope (2011), made by the Dalai Lama in 2005 that thoughts may give rise to chemical events (Pope, 2011).

In that case, the brain should be viewed not as the origin of mind, but rather as mind’s executive officer. Under those conditions, argues Pope (2011), the philosophical doctrine of materialism itself is thrown into question, and in turn, it is necessary to question the cost of continuing to adopt it. In holding to a materialistic view, we look to the outer world for happiness, rather than looking within (Pope, 2011). He himself reflects on the parallels in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism with modern human beings exemplifying hungry ghosts trapped in a state of incessant greed and insatiability, which at its core reflects a desperate attempt to maintain a sense of self that is out of accord with basic reality. The rich Tibetan Buddhist understanding of this unfolding process by which the hungry ghost negotiates its project, including its attempts to avoid greater suffering and to seek bliss, serves to illustrate Pope’s analysis of our contemporary psychological dynamic (Pope, 2011). While the implications are largely political-economy or macro in nature, the essence of the Pope approach is also quite spiritual, or part of the in-between category, as it offers a perspective which challenges an overly materially based world-view.

Quantitative as well as qualitative measures of happiness will be useful to study in its interactions with wellness trends and the interactions among those any identified categories over time. It may be possible to develop a societal profile of happiness, which looks at society’s functioning components adding to the arsenal of understanding of what constitutes total well-being. One organization, which sees merit in the happiness evaluation, is the independent New Economics Foundation (NEF) in the United Kingdom. This foundation is looking at experiences of positive and negative emotions, satisfaction, vitality, resilience, self-esteem, and sense of purpose and meaning across multiple countries. Their definition of social well-being is made up of two main components, supportive relationships, and a feeling of trust and belonging, which they believe form a picture of a fulfilling and happy life. With National Accounts of Well-being, the foundation states, policymakers would have a new compass to guide decisions (New Economics Foundation, 2012).

According to the NEF (2012), a successful society is one in which people have high levels of well-being which is sustained over time (New Economics Foundation, 2012). Leaders and citizens then, have a stake in understanding how such relationships work and how to either create or sustain those factors, which lead to high levels of societal well-being. Accordingly, progress can be measured in terms of three key areas or spheres including goals as universally high levels of well-being, resources and sustainable use of environmental resources, human systems, or activities that achieve intermediate objectives such as a stable and productive economy, a cohesive society, good housing, and so forth (NEF, 2012). A society should, according to NEF (2012), consider the relationships between these spheres. The key relationship is between resources and goals so that good research asks how efficient is a society at achieving the goals it collectively seeks given its available resources. This presumes that leaders and other social participants are able to articulate such goals and use resources effectively. The NEF (2012) also contends the constituent parts of this relationship must also be considered in determining efficiency of the human systems at using resources sustainably, and asking how efficient are those human systems at delivering on its goals (NEF, 2012).

The New Economics Foundation proposes that well-being being measured be based on NEF’s own model, which draws on contemporary psychological research and ancient philosophy, and depicts well-being as a dynamic process (New Economics Foundation, 2012). The NEF model uses the idea of flourishing, that people are flourishing when they are functioning well in their interactions with the world and experience positive feelings as a result (NEF, 2012). A flourishing life involves good relationships, autonomy, competence, and a sense of purpose, as well as feelings of happiness and satisfaction. Measures of well-being should focus on what NEF calls flourishing, and this is best measured, they argue, subjectively, by asking people about their experiences, that is their feelings and their interactions with the world and about their judgments of those experiences. To do this effectively, NEF (2012) recommends questions based on established techniques, shown to be robust and reliable. In the long term, flourishing should be measured through a tailor-made survey to capture the richness of well-being in society. In the short-term, flourishing can be measured by including a small number of questions within an existing large-scale population survey (NEF, 2012).

NEF (2012) recommends using their Happy Planet Index (HPI) as an innovative measure that shows the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is created around the world (New Economics Foundation, 2012). NEF states it is the first index to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which country by country, people live long and happy lives. , NEF argues that the HPI does not reveal the happiest country in the world. The HPI shows the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens. The nations that top the HPI demonstrate that it is possible to achieve high experienced well-being and long life expectancy without over-stretching the planet’s resources. It uses global data on experienced well-being, life expectancy, and ecological footprint to generate an index revealing which countries are most efficient at producing long, happy lives for their inhabitants, while maintaining the conditions for future generations to do the same. The HPI, NEF (2012) asserts, shows that around the world, high levels of resource consumption do not reliably produce high levels of well-being. It also reveals that there are different routes to achieving comparable levels of well-being (NEF, 2012). The HPI demonstrates that the dominant Western model of development is not sustainable, argues the NEF, and we need to find other development paths towards sustainable well-being (NEF, 2012).

The HPI uses global data on life expectancy, experienced well-being and the ecological footprint defined as the Happy Planet Index roughly equals the experienced well-being reported times the life expectancy divided by the ecological footprint (New Economics Foundation, 2012). Each of these components of the HPI is based on a separate measure. Experienced well-being is currently assessed using a standard satisfaction survey assessment such as those developed by the UN or established polling organizations (NEF, 2012). One approach asks respondents to rank where 0 represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life, and report the level in which they believe best describes where they feel they currently stand. Life expectancy is data from the institutions such as the United Nations. The Ecological Footprint uses the amount of resource consumption as a measure of resource consumption. It is a per capita measure of the amount of land required to sustain a country’s consumption patterns, measured in terms of a hectare of land with average productive bio-capacity (NEF, 2012).

Once this HPI data is retrieved, questions arise as to how policy-makers (leaders) use the well-being data. NEF (2012) contends that people’s well-being is already influenced by the decisions of policy-makers, and measuring well-being directly will provide new evidence to enable them to improve those decisions (New Economics Foundation, 2012). Well-being data will have a number of uses in the policy process, as it will allow policy-makers to reconsider existing policy priorities, introduce new policy priorities, and provide better evidence of the likely impact of new policies (NEF, 20123). The foundation argues that the advantages to opting for these measures include better ways to measure progress towards collective societal goals including ways to evaluate after-the-event impacts and more accurately estimate value to the society, suggest new principles for detailed design of policies, identify inequalities in well-being (NEF, 2012).

Another successful approach, which touches very closely on positive psychology is the efforts that operationalize the study of happiness and reach over into other areas of the social sciences (Peterson, 2009). One latest effort to measure happiness is seen in a current version in the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) first proposed in 1972 by the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck (Salak, 2009). This approach does well to bring both happiness in community (micro) and political economic (macro) considerations into greater understanding and I also see potential hints of the spiritual, transpersonal, or in-between category.

The International Institute of Management (IIM), a business management organization, identified seven development areas, which include a nation’s physical and emotional health, and well-being based on previous work by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Templeton (2004), a journalist in the UK, notes that the GNH refers to the concept of a quantitative measurement of happiness and well-being based on self-reports by survey participants. GNH is motivated by the notion that subjective measures like well-being are more relevant and important than more easily observable measures like total goods and services consumed (Templeton, 2004). Originally, according to Kahneman, who has since been instrumental in developing the GNH surveys, happiness could be measured using the day reconstruction method, which consists in recollecting memories of the previous working day by writing a short diary (Templeton, 2004). Recent work in efforts to capture GNH involves the work of treating happiness as a socioeconomic development metric. The President of IIM (Jones, 2012) proposed this in 2006. The socioeconomic development metric used measures of societal development by tracking seven development areas including the nation’s mental and emotional health (Salak, 2009).

In 2010, Bhutan, the country credited with suggesting a GNH survey, discussed the results of its latest survey. In order to set up the baseline indicators, the Bhutanese center working on the survey developed a detailed questionnaire covering nine key areas considered crucial for reflecting the values and principles of GNH in Bhutan.  Ura, Alkire, Zangmo, and Wangdi’s (2012) latest report indicate these key areas of GNH fall within the domains of psychological wellbeing, health, time use, education, culture, good governance, ecology, community vitality and living standards (Ura, Alkire, Zangmo, & Wangdi, 2012).

After the consultations with stakeholders, such as the sector leaders of various Bhutanese agencies and to some extent the general public, a pilot survey was conducted in 2006 with 350 respondents, according to Ura et al, (2012), with the Bhutanese center involved with the survey (Ura et al, 2012). In the conduct of conventional surveys, piloting questionnaires and participatory techniques were considered critical to undertaking the full survey. The center stated that the questionnaires were pre-tested by the researchers to fully understand the potential problems in the entire survey administration process (e.g. structure, content, flow, and length of the questionnaires) as well as the actual data collected. The pilot survey also allowed the researchers to test the relevance of questions and identify translation problems with the survey questions. Ura et al (2012) note that some of the questions asked during the pilot testing were whether each question measured, what it is supposed to measure, whether the words were understood by the respondents and whether all interviewers interpret the question in the same way. Information on the range of response choices used, completion time, and so forth were also explored (Ura et al, 2012).

The quantitative and qualitative definition of happiness used by IIM with the GNH construct considers seven domains (Jones, 2012). The model used by Jones (2012) and the IIM include economic satisfaction which looks at the debt, savings and purchasing power of the respondents. The second category, environmental satisfaction looks at pollution, noise, and traffic. The third category, workplace satisfaction looks at job satisfaction, conflicts, ethics, and motivations for work. The fourth category, physical health, or wellness looks at illnesses, obesity and so on. The fifth category, mental health and wellness, looks at issues regarding positive outlook, use of psychotropic medications to manage illness, and self-esteem. The sixth category, social satisfaction looks at several areas such as relationship well-being including communication, social support, sexual relationships, issues of discrimination, safety, divorce rates, familial conflicts, lawsuits, crime rates, etc. The seventh category, political satisfaction views individual freedom, quality of local democratic practices, broadly defined, and foreign conflicts. The rankings are primarily on a 0-10 scale with 0 being very dissatisfied, 5 being neutral and 10 being very satisfied. Consequently, happiness is a subject for research because the physical health, mental and emotional well-being of citizens improves their lives and broadens the intellectual, physical, and social resources of a nation. Future modifications may be necessary to effectively measure happiness in the various categories (Jones, 2012). In addition, there is no indication these scales could not be applied at a local community level as well a societal one.

While not specifically spiritual or part of the spirituality category, the area where spirituality may have implications involves the rankings participants might give to mental and physical health and social satisfactions in the GNH survey.  There are criticisms of the GNH model as being subjective and possibly, subject to local political and cultural interpretations which might be used to benefit selected audiences (White, 2007). Those criticisms are one reason Jones (2012) appears to be willing to look at what has worked well in the surveys given and what needs to be culturally updated (Jones, 2012). It should be noted that Jones recommended seven categories whereas the Bhutanese model used nine. The advantage the GNH model offers is that it addresses several categories that have been already used in places like Bhutan and with modifications can be used in countries across language and cultural barriers as Jones (2012) seemed to indicate. Additional questions based on transpersonal or spiritual matters could be added to solicit input and to evaluate whether those have any correlation with happiness in the GNH defined categories.

As these tools become refined and as leaders, whether those in official capacities or those individuals interested in helpful change, in government, business and other types of organizations look for success and sustainability, questions arise as to how an organization can create an environment where employees, managers and owners are engaged with a sense of satisfaction and happiness in what they do. This may be an area where business can lead towards sustainability in a manner,which radiates to other institutions in society. Additionally, a societal environment which encourages broad-based participation in the economic as well as the social or political realms will likely move towards higher levels of happiness than those approaches which are instituted by a few in charge. Indeed, talk among employees at the lower levels of such top-down organizations often report grousing about the latest management gimmick to get them to produce more with less. Problems associated with employee and other stakeholder discontent are well documented in many locations well beyond the scope of this paper, but long term profitability and sustainability can be accomplished with well-planned shifts in practice.

Leadership and Happiness

This brings us to discussions about the role formal and informal leaders-especially those in organizational policy-making situations can play in promoting happiness .Why should leaders care? The New Economics Foundation, noted earlier, is specifically interested in the role of societal policy in promoting happiness (New Economics Foundation, 2012). The presumption is that policy-makers, citizens, and politicians would take the results yielded by the HPI, GNH or another model and use those results to initiate policies, which would promote happiness and do so with a measure of ecological sustainability. This also presumes that politicians and policy-makers are able to lead, educate, and inspire citizens to do the tasks necessary to accomplish these goals, which would, make for a happier society. It is far too early in the development process to see how willing large numbers of political leaders are to embrace such a role and what strategies will be used whether using HPI, GNH, or some other measurement tool to bring the needed policy changes into fruition.

There are, however, some interesting ideas at the organization level, which address ways to lead participants within an organization to a happier place and a sustainable place. There is no rule, which says that organizations and businesses cannot become catalysts for larger societal change, which leads to greater happiness. One such concept comes from Dr. Norman Kurland, an economist with the Center for Economic and Social Justice, along with several of his colleagues, have proposed an overarching economic theory and have developed some procedural concepts called the Just Third Way and justice–based management, respectively (Kurland, 2012). Briefly, the Just Third Way, according to Kurland (2012), is an economic philosophy suited to a 21st century global economy, which states that dignity and empowerment begins with the human person, not any institution. Social justice obligates each person to work with others to perfect the social order to support the dignity and empowerment of every person. The two interdependent factors of production are labor, or all human inputs, and capital, or all non-human inputs. These are two legitimate ways to produce wealth and be entitled to the incomes produced by them and this is accomplished through the contribution of one’s labor and the contribution of one’s capital. The relative value of these contributions is determined by free, open, and anti-monopolistic markets, which requires equal access to capital ownership. The three essential principles of economic justice are the principle of participation, the principle of distribution, and the principle of harmony. The four pillars of a just market system are limited economic power of the state, the full rights of private property, free, open and anti-monopolistic markets, and universal access to capital ownership (Kurland, 2012). Kurland goes on to advocate such things as capital investment accounts for all, much as all Americans would normally have social security accounts, as a means to move towards the democratization of capital. Through this process, he also advocates strengthening Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOP) to broaden employee ownership of companies, citizen land banks and community stock ownership plans for utilities as part of the mix within these capital accounts to address the goal of broadening capital ownership at the society level. The ideal of bringing employees and other citizens into the decision-making role regarding capital is where justice-based management (JBM) begins to take form (Kurland, 1998).

The underlying principle Kurland (2012) has presented is that people are generally happier when they have control over key aspects of their lives and economic ownership is one of the best ways society can manifest that ideal (Kurland, 2012). JBM follows the market-oriented theory of economic justice first advanced by the ESOP inventor, economist Louis Kelso and the philosopher Mortimer Adler, and more recently Kurland, has served as a consultant to help organizational leaders make steps toward a JBM model. The Kelso-Adler concepts underlying JBM reveals a systematic approach for enabling each member to: 1) participate fully as a worker and owner in the company, 2) receive a fair distribution based on what he or she contributes to the company as a worker and owner, and 3) organize with other members to correct problems or defects in the system affecting participation and distribution (Miller, 1994). Within a JBM system, according to Kurland (1998), these ethical and material aspects of value can be expressed in a business by creating structures of corporate governance and management based on shared values. The shared values are expressed in a written set of company core values or ethical principles which define the culture. The shared values clarify the social purposes and mission of the organization; and a code of ethics, which describe a set of virtues or behaviors to be encouraged, which guides individual behavior toward strengthening the company’s culture and interpersonal harmony. Ideally, these core values and code of ethics are agreed upon by consensus by every person in the company, and are subject to periodic review and improvement. These serve as the compass for guiding corporate objectives, policies, and other decisions; they also provide a basis for judging people’s behavior (Kurland, 1998).

JBM also seeks to maximize value for the customer expressing a simple formula for any business to follow for succeeding in the competitive marketplace:

V = Q/P

where V=Value, Q=Quality, and P=Price (Kurland, 1998)

Within the JBM culture, everyone in the company has a self-interest in providing good service to the customer, because ultimately it is the customer who authorizes every employee’s paycheck, including management’s and ownership’s paychecks. This calls for structuring the company’s compensation and reward system to enable every person in the company to be rewarded for the value of their contributions to the company. This is one of the fundamental aspects of ownership and reflects economic justice, where a person’s returns are based on performance and contribution. Basic JBM compensation and reward systems would include monthly, bimonthly or quarterly bonuses linked to each worker’s profit center within the company, annual, corporate-wide performance bonuses based on formulas tying each worker’s contributions to overall company profits, and a structured, profit-based program of share ownership (i.e. annual ESOP contributions), supplemented by cash dividend payouts to reinforce long-term ownership consciousness. In short, monetary rewards should move away from the more hierarchical systems, which focus only on management reward models to include employee-owners in what might be characterized as lower status occupations in the company who nevertheless contribute to its success. JBM offers, argues Kurland (1998), a systematic way of creating, maintaining, and perfecting an ownership culture for the good of all its members, including labor, management and the basis for expanding ownership to all participants (Kurland, 1998).

Given the ideas Kurland (1998) presents in JBM, it is natural to ask what benefits might be enjoyed in shifting ownership and responsibility within many large organizations. For management, it moves from an autocratic to a more participatory, justice-based mode, a company’s leadership can spread around some of management’s typical operational responsibilities. This gives managers more time to focus on the company’s long-range, strategic needs, rather than spending most of their time dealing with on-going crisis after crisis. For employees, it creates a workplace that operates according to the principles of JBM empowers employees as workers and as owners. JBM creates a corporate culture where work can be more satisfying and economically rewarding. For customers, there are indications that the more that people’s self- interests are unified within a management system reflecting these principles, the greater will be customer and employee satisfaction. This can also result in increased cost savings, increased sales, and increased profits. By offering solid principles and a logic for building an ongoing ownership culture, JBM helps to create an environment which respects the dignity of all forms of productive work.  For the company as a whole and society, JBM recognizes that, regardless of a person’s function or role in the company, we are all workers (Kurland, 1998). Presumable, these practices result in increased satisfaction and happiness throughout the organization and, if Kurland could make it so, in society overall by implementing the societal reforms he advocates, which would extend ownership to the broader population (Kurland, 2012).

While the JBM model focuses on transforming corporate or typical business entities, as we know them, such practices do not necessarily rule out the possibility of successful cooperative models of business in which owner-employees systems are built into the initial structure of the business fully capable of operating in a society of global markets. The Center for Economic and Social Justice through a consultation arm called Equity Expansion International (EEI) has helped several companies make the transition to employee ownership from existing organizations. Examples include such successes as EEI was a founding member of the USAID-funded Center for Privatization (1988), where it championed the democratized ownership of profitable, well-managed privatized companies, in contrast to the standard privatization model.  EEI associates have consulted extensively for USAID, the World Bank and other international organizations on economic development projects. EEI has provided ESOP privatization and economic development services in various countries including Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe (Kurland, Recinos, Bailey, Brohawn, & Greaney, 2013).

EEI’s model is not alone as business cooperatives whose goals at the outset where to lead employees into ownership roles have histories of success according to David Herrera of the University of San Diego leadership studies program (Herrera, 2013). The Mondragon Cooperative system started in Spain in the early 20th century is the largest worker cooperative in the world with nearly 100,000 worker-owners throughout hundreds of individual cooperatives. It is already starting to have an impact in the USA as the worker-owned enterprise is becoming a sustainable, familiar, and transformative experience within the United States. This cooperative business movement partially owes its seed inspiration to the Mondragon model, but the growing roots are all due to the efforts and resilience of the worker-owners, whose mission is to reproduce Mondragon’s blueprints. One example is the United Steelworkers Union, a large industrial trade union in North America, which has announced a historic plan to collaborate with Mondragon in order to open worker-owned factories in the United States (Herrera, 2004).

The concept of increasing productivity, sustainability, and improving employee outcomes has not been lost in the academic world. The Beyster Institute at the University of California-San Diego, Rady School of Management, works to advance the understanding and practice of employee ownership as an effective and responsible business model (Beyster Institute, 2013). The Institute’s focus is on education, research and consulting to promote employee ownership and the creation of effective ownership cultures serving companies interested in the employee ownership business strategy.  The Institute’s efforts help business owners looking to transition out of their companies and professional advisers who want to better serve their clients by gaining employee-ownership knowledge (Beyster Institute, 2013).

Transforming Organizational Culture

At this point, it is legitimate to ask how such a business or organizational culture could effectively work in a North American, if not a global, context. In the examples discussed involving JBM and the Mondragon Cooperatives, there are resources available which can help managers make such transformations within their organizations. Implied in these strategies is the idea that broadening ownership and power to include a wider range of stakeholder groups will impact happiness at work and happiness in the larger community including the customer base. One important key to implementation success is that organizational leaders have to be willing to promote these new approaches to those within the various levels of the organization. One such entity dedicated to helping firms transform themselves into effective employee-owned firms capable of tapping into the entrepreneurial talent of their employees at all levels is the just mentioned Beyster Institute. The Beyster Institute was named in 2002, as part of the Foundation for Enterprise Development (FED), and took on the commission to spread the visionary ideas of Dr. J. Robert Beyster, the founder of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) (Foundation for Enterprise Development, 2013). These ideas have led to the development of many highly successful enterprises based on the potent combination of employee ownership and entrepreneurial spirit. Among the guiding principles of FED are to give employees the freedom to create the kind of business and environment within which they would be passionate to work, encourage entrepreneurship and superior performance, and give employees ownership of the organization and rewards commensurate with their contributions (FED, 2013). In addition, they aim to create an empowering culture where employees have input in the policies and management of the company, know how the company makes money and is performing, and take actions for both sustainable long-term and short-term performance (FED, 2013). For those seeking general educational opportunities to learn more about the approaches used by the Institute and the FED, details are available through the website at the University of California San Diego, Rady School of Management. In addition to opportunities in general education, research and consultation, the Institute, through the Rady School of Management, includes undergraduate, masters and doctoral level business degree programs (Rady School of Management, UC San Diego, 2013). Among the companies, the Beyster Institute has been successful in helping transform their business models are: The Accounting Group, CMC Rescue, Inc., Coast Citrust Distributors, Dini Partners, Inc., Flexpak Corporation, Los Angeles Engineering, Inc., n-Link Corporation, Parties That Cook, Senderra Funding LLC and Systech Solutions, Inc. (Rady School of Management, UC San Diego, 2013).

The successful transformations of these organizations were the result not only of a new vision for these organizations, but they were successes because their leaders were willing to look at the overall sustainable benefits to the organization itself and the people who made that organization work. Others may have also had a desire to contribute a working model to society by building a blueprint for long- term success. They were willing to risk making people truly happy in their work. The model brings economic resources under democratic control, and they do so uniquely among corporate governance structures. There are currently few other business models, save to cooperative ones suggested by Mondragon and the worker-owned ones of EEI, which accomplish this goal. These participative models have the advantage of being able to work effectively on both a very small level and on a very large scale. Such experience now allows for the development of new models of human business interactions, which both meet the needs of people in society by providing needed goods and services, but doing so in a way that imparts the highest of religious and ethical values, promotes inclusive social connectedness, and is able to function in a globally oriented marketplace. It would then seem that exploring the JBM model, Mondragon, or the Beyster Institute model as a source for happiness in a business or an organizational environment is worthy of greater investigation as the models seek to address a multiplicity of values ranging from social, economic, community, and perhaps even spiritual in a broader context.


Leadership, both formal and informal, in bringing about happiness to large groups of people in a meaningful way would then seem to be a daunting task, but it is an important ingredient in integral leadership seeking to maximize potentialities. If the implementation of a system, which seeks to take people where they are and maximize participation is what the integral space is about, then these approaches discussed are seeking to accomplish that goal whether or not they are knowingly using the integral terminology. This vision can also be reflected on a societal level if societies have a useful measure of happiness and then have the will and the means to move forward to achieve that societal happiness. The Happy Planet Index and the Gross Domestic Happiness tools are good steps in that direction, but it takes visionary political or organizational foresight willing to continue to hold the higher vision of what can be accomplished even when there are temporary setbacks. It is common practice these days to hear of businesses and organizations from sole proprietorships to large corporations to governmental agencies developing vision statements and mission statements.  The leaders who have vision, courage, trust, and a sense of mission, such as the ones offered by the Mondragon Cooperatives, the Beyster Institute or Equity Expansion International, are capable of using tools which measure movement towards those goals. They can offer something beyond the mundane. It is an alternate vision to the lone wolf entrepreneur who is the repository of all business skill, if not all wisdom. The ability to communicate, educate and inspire and to creatively solve multiple problems in ways heretofore unexpected, is the sign of the integral leader capable of helping people find their own way to happiness, as a co-creator to happiness not just a passive recipient of projects imposed from the top for temporary benefit. The beauty in these kinds of efforts is that they address not only the economic needs of a people or a society; they seek to reinvigorate social connectedness while they promote values of equality, liberty, and justice. I am willing to guess that would make most people happy.


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About the Author

Greg Southworth is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. He is currently a PhD student at Sofia University (formerly Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). Greg is employed with a US Federal government contractor that oversees mental health clinicians working with active duty military service members and their families on US military bases worldwide. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Gregory Southworth at g.southworth@sofia.edu


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