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In Practice

How to Counter Growing Unhappiness

An interview with

Unhappiness has been steadily climbing for a decade, and its rise has been in the blind spot of almost every world leader. The editors of Unravel spoke with Jon Clifton, CEO of global analytics and advisory company Gallup, about his new book Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It. The book is steeped in research from the Gallup World Poll, a 100-year initiative spanning over 150 countries.

In this conversation, Mr. Clifton explains the reasons for growing unhappiness, its implications and how it can be addressed. He also outlines how business leaders can drive better outcomes at the workplace.

UNRAVEL: What explains the growing unhappiness globally over the past decade?

CLIFTON: Loneliness, rising hunger, and misery in the global workplace are key causes.

UNRAVEL: What are the implications of growing unhappiness? 

CLIFTON: The consequences are severe. People make decisions and act based on how they feel. It impacts their behavior with respect to voting, protesting, and even causing harm to themselves or others.

For example, as unhappiness increased between 2011 and 2019, so did civil unrest. According to the Global Peace Institute, civil unrest increased 244% between 2011 and 2019 — then increased exponentially after that.

Suicide is also on the rise. Look at the United States, which has seen massive increases in suicides and deaths of despair. The U.S. was 20th in the world for unhappiness in 2006; since then, it has dropped to 50th. Why? Not because Americans have experienced less anger, stress, or sadness but because the rest of the world caught up. So, while suicides and deaths of despair have been rising consistently in the US, they may become more common globally.

Unhappiness Is Under-Recognized by Leaders

UNRAVEL: Why is this trend not talked about more? How is it that leaders are not focused on this? 

CLIFTON: Some countries are talking about this. In the U.S., for example, the Centers for Disease Control has robust measures of how people feel — such as sadness and pain. But if you ask what sadness or loneliness looks like in Tanzania or El Salvador, no one knows because the indicators for those countries don’t exist. Many countries cannot afford to collect robust statistics on how people feel.

People often believe that being overworked is the biggest driver of burnout, but that’s not true. It is a significant driver, but the biggest driver is perceived unfair treatment at work.

The other problem is that collecting such statistics is just not a priority. In the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, there isn’t a single indicator for subjective well-being. Measuring how people feel must be a priority of world leaders if we are going to reverse this global rise of misery.

UNRAVEL: In your view, has COVID-19 exacerbated the situation? If so, how? 

CLIFTON: Without question. Certain groups of people were disproportionately affected, such as women working full time who have children. COVID-19 also wrecked the lives of young people — not just in terms of their education but in the amount of social interaction they lost. Humans need social connection, and many friendships are developed at young ages, but lockdowns made this incredibly difficult.

UNRAVEL: Would you say that there are links between growing unhappiness and increased polarization?

CLIFTON: George Ward, an academic at MIT, believes there is a connection between unhappiness and populism. He also believes there is a connection between unhappiness and voting behavior. For years, politicians and pundits adopted the famous James Carville quote, “It’s the economy, stupid,” as gospel. Ward’s research suggests that politicians should hang a very different quote in their campaign headquarters — “It’s how your life is going, stupid.”

Our research suggests that it isn’t just leaders in democracies who should pay attention to rising unhappiness; it should matter to authoritarian leaders, too.

UNRAVEL: Is workforce burnout contributing to growing anxiety and stress? 

CLIFTON: It is, but the single biggest driver of burnout isn’t what people think it is. People often believe that being overworked is the biggest driver of burnout, but that’s not true. It is a significant driver, but the biggest driver is perceived unfair treatment at work. And this unfair treatment is often the result of your manager. If organizations can improve the quality of their managers, they will significantly enhance well-being in the world.

80% of full-time workers say they enjoy the work they do, but then why are only 20% of employees thriving at work? The reason isn’t the work they do; it’s their workplace. Fix the world’s broken workplace, and you will stop the global rise of unhappiness overnight.

Measuring and Improving Well-Being

UNRAVEL: Can well-being and/or happiness be measured? If so, how?

CLIFTON: Yes. If you want to know how someone feels, just ask them. It is remarkable what someone will tell you if you simply ask them.

UNRAVEL: What can governments do to improve citizen well-being? 

CLIFTON: The role of leaders is not to make people happy; the role of leaders should be to reduce misery. And the problem in the world today is that misery is rising.

UNRAVEL: What can companies do to improve employee well-being? 

CLIFTON: Measure employee well-being and then train your managers to be better managers. Gallup discovered that the manager is responsible for 70% of an employee’s well-being at work. Today, people become the boss because they are technical experts at what they do, but they’re rarely trained to manage people.

UNRAVEL: In your view, what should be the top priority for individuals as they go about their daily lives? 

CLIFTON: If you ask a young woman in El Salvador what a great life looks like, her answer will be very different than if you pose the same question to a guy from Nebraska. But there are some commonalities among humanity. Gallup finds five commonalities in what makes a great life for all of humanity — social, work, community, physical and financial well-being. If an individual thrives in each of these elements, or even a few, it would be unusual to see that they are suffering in life. 

Jon Clifton

Chief Executive Officer at Gallup

Jon Clifton is the CEO of Gallup, an advisory firm that specialises in big data analytics of employees, customers, students and citizens. Jon’s mission is to help 7 billion citizens be heard on their most pressing work and life issues through the Gallup World Poll, a 100-year initiative spanning 150 countries. Because of his expertise, Jon has been interviewed on BBC News, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, Axios and Al-Jazeera, and has testified in front of the US Congress on the state of American small business and entrepreneurship.

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