Friday Rant: Odd Equations — Accounting for Happiness, Especially at Work

Unemployment is higher than it has ever been in the lives of most working Americans, our healthcare system is one of the worst among developed nations (and we can't agree on how to fix it), our system of public education is an oxymoron in urban areas, most people's pension plans (those fortunate enough to have one) have been decimated, the death toll of US soldiers continues to climb in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we're all apprehensive about whether a cessation of economic decline portends an imminent up-turn. Yet according to the The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index (TM) (WBI), "the nation's largest and most comprehensive measure of how Americans are faring physically, emotionally, socially, financially and professionally, resumed its upward climb in August 2009, up nearly one percent to close the month at 67.0, tying the record high set in February 2008 ... The WBI Composite Score has trended steadily upward since February of this year."

Is this the result of poor methodology, survey bias, or faulty statistical analysis? Probably not given that "the compilation of 1,000 telephonic surveys a day, 625,000 across a random sample of adult citizens, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index represents the largest and most comprehensive measure of health and well-being data available today from the nation's social, emotional and physical health and work perspective" and that Gallup wouldn't lend their reputation to this index lightly. There may be one bias, however, and that is the rapidly evolving decrease in land-lines and 'the do not call' lists that apply to cell phones (but I haven't been able to validate this). So why are these findings so counter intuitive? Let's look at them more closely.

The WBI reports that "from the findings, we know that health isn't always an isolated phenomenon. It can be affected by work environment and other factors and, conversely, health can have an impact on work productivity and performance ... By far the biggest driver of the increase in overall well-being in August was a 3.3 percent rise in the WBI's Work Environment Sub-Index, which measures the satisfaction of individuals in their places of employment. In general, monthly Work Environment scores have tracked lower in 2009 when compared to 2008 values."

"Satisfaction at work trended down significantly from 53.3 in October 2008 to a low of 48.7 in February 2009. In June of this year, Work Environment broke 50.0 for the first time in 2009. Last month's score of 50.5 is the highest Work Environment score of the year." Also of note is "The WBI's Life Evaluation Sub-Index (LEI), which asks Americans to rate their current life and outlook for the future, also resumed a positive trajectory in August, rising 1.0 percentage point, off-setting July's 1.0 percentage point decline, the only decline experienced by this sub-index since February. For the fourth straight month, more Americans, 51.1 percent, are considered "Thriving" rather than "Struggling" under the LEI's classification system. The number of "Suffering" Americans dropped to just 3.3 percent in August, 1.1 points less than previous year levels, equating to a better quality of life for nearly 2.5 million Americans."

Hmm ... this reads to me like we're getting happier mostly because we're more satisfied at work. Perhaps the unemployed aren't counted here -- but I digress. The WSJ performed a stellar analysis of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index last week, focusing on the wide variation in happiness between occupational groups. The story concludes that "Regardless of occupational field, the survey suggests that seeking out enjoyable work and finding a way to do it on your own terms, with some control over both the process and the outcome, is likely for most people to fuel satisfaction and contentment." So perhaps it's surprising, according to the Journal analysis, that "business owners surpassed 10 other occupational groups on a composite measure of six criteria of contentment, including emotional and physical health, job satisfaction, healthy behavior, access to basic needs and self-reports of overall life quality".

So if you want the biggest bang for the your largest daily investment -- that's time, not money -- be your own boss (maybe this explains the rise of "free agents" in the procurement world). Recession, bah. Money may not buy happiness, but independence, flexibility and control over our daily lives apparently does. And to corporate managers: train, educate, trust, be flexible, and encourage independent thinking / action. Do so, and morale will soar.

William Busch

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