Framing the discourse in everyday communication – less feelings of want, more feelings of happiness

Blogging on personal leadership opportunity here came with some advice – to select “an opportunity where you believe you will be realistically able to (begin to) implement actual change in this area while on the programme”, with the “aim of intervention to initiate/ alter a particular activity or behaviour; and/or to influence opinions/ values/ beliefs”, assuming the role of a change agent. I found it wise words after  setting a pretty lofty goal of introducing the idea of focusing on personal happiness as a way to shift perspective of those around me from things to personal satisfaction. In a city where material property (and public showcasing of it) is quite high on the general agenda and is one of the main differentiating factors between all those that live in it.

While I have already set out on including satisfaction of individuals as a point in everyday communication, two significant events happened to me which helped align the course further since the first blogpost on leadership opportunity in March – one is learning more about what the word “discourse” means (I literally heard the whole idea of discourse analysis the first time in the first resident workshop in Cambridge), and the other is having an accident while on vacation – lesson learned, don’t drive a motorbike in Thailand, especially wearing only flip-flops and shorts.

Life sucks when you’re in pain. Eternal optimist might say there’s a silver lining of pain making all other problems seem irrelevant, but that was one thin silver lining. Similar perspective on a big problem is easy to transfer to anything that dominates your worries right now, Blog Reader. Same goes for any issue discussed in a business or private communication, especially in meetings and exchanges dedicated to planning action (except maybe if its legal action, though there may be some happiness there too!)

After much suffering during the return home (ever tried keeping your foot elevated during a 7 hour flight?) I found myself in care of a surgeon – wound care specialist. As we had multiple treatment sessions every few days, I came to learn that here was a doc who went to study surgery not because things were easy, but because they were challenging, and that made him happy. I learned a bit about his family and way he handled life back in the day of a grueling schedule of studying by day and working by night in Iraq where he was from, to today’s successful work and life in UAE. He would usually start from something that challenged him or a member of his family recently, then how using a proper mindset turned it around to being a good thing and he would always end up saying how “doing that finally lead to feeling of happiness” or “…and that feelings of happiness start to appear“. Have you ever heard your doctor speak about something like that?

Similar principle, I’m starting to discover, can be applied in everyday chats, directly or indirectly addressing sustainability. I mentioned discourse as a concept back there, didn’t I? Well, in musing about this before starting to write this blogpost, and having in mind that my upcoming dissertations will utilize discourse analysis to figure out that the WHAT and HOW someone says things is formed by their specific context and goals and how that leads to a bigger picture (and policy making). Seems fair to say that my, more or less subtle, changes in language used in meetings went to contribute to the agenda already set by leadership of Dubai government of putting happiness first. Someone might think it’s an easy right when set in that context, but for example when one gets into energy, it’s easy and often necessary to slide into technical discussions and ideas on large renewables (we’re building the largest solar park in the world here) or distributed solar photovoltaics (putting a PV on every rooftop in Dubai) and need to push forward for example more stringent water use efficiency standards on appliances.

Coming up with real world examples of how happiness is put into such a discussion without going into boring detail of specifics of what my organization does is a bit difficult so I’ll try to generalize a bit – as a policy making entity, our job is to communicate with a variety of actors representing sometimes opposing interests (even under the same vision, under which government is aligned). After a round of technical exchanges on who should do what in implementing a specific policy or action, or adjusting the course of the same, we usually deal with ways in which different involved teams will react when presented with change – Middle East is a very consultative environment where very few things are imposed. What I do is try to figure out what makes each of individual teams happy (fulfilling their interests while presenting things to align with their character and cultural values), and then try to make it a part of the execution plan.

Moving forward, I’ll try to use a bit more of the knowledge as I pick it up through research. For example, in this report, there’s an interesting quote (abbreviated by me):

 (there is)…potential to use happiness as a motivator. The connection could be emphasized … in civil society. If environmental discourse is changed to include happiness research, the environment versus economy debate could be reframed, with focus shifted from the pursuit of pure economic growth to increased levels of subjective well-being.

So how about to go about change people’s opinion through debate? Anybody ever try to tell you “don’t do this and this”? These kinds of messages (and people!) are really not pleasant – nobody likes to be wrong but even more to be told so. Hostility gets people nowhere. On the other hand, everybody is happy when for example a service provider or product manufacturer offers more sustainable choices to the same consumer we were telling is wrong in the first scenario (making change at the source vs. at demand). Seems like a simple perspective shift but some people seem to have trouble understanding it (including some on our own cohort!).

Another interesting paper looked deeper into this topic and I could not help myself from doing a copy paste, for your but also for my benefit and recollection in next post in this series:

Sustainable happiness is a concept that has the potential to enhance urban planning policies by raising the profile of happiness and well-being, while reinforcing the links with sustainability… In the absence of more explicit discussions regarding public happiness or “Genuine Wealth,” there continues to be tension between sustainability objectives and meeting the more public demands that are embedded in a consumer society view of happiness. Additional research regarding happiness, health and the built environment will undoubtedly encourage such discussions. Fostering an informed discourse about happiness and sustainability will require attention to education.
Sustainability seems to be consistent with behaviour and policies that support high levels of life satisfaction, and sustainable happiness reinforces this relationship. The concept could be used to motivate sustainable behaviour from sectors of the population that are weary of dire environmental messages. One drawback, of course, is that mentioning “happiness” in many academic and policy circles is still met with scepticism. As one transportation colleague suggested, “I don’t care if people are happy, I just want them to get out of their cars!” Another challenge is the current limited set of choices for sustainable lifestyles and livelihoods…Finally, stakeholders who have a vested interest in unsustainable policy and practice are likely to resist sustainable happiness.

So as my own status overview for Dubai, not specific to energy (yet), I’ll borrow and modify the list of steps from this report, now and in the future, in tracking the pursuit of my goal of promoting personal happiness in discourses on sustainability:

Step/Action Status
Highlight the close link between sustainable behaviours and happiness PLANNING
Use sustainability projects as drivers for community spirit and vitality PLANNING
Moderate excessive materialism through happiness ONGOING
Nurture basic psychological needs ONGOING
Incorporate subjective well-being when designing and evaluating policy measures ONGOING
Add happiness as a goal of public policy ONGOING*

* with a lot of help from Government of Dubai which already put happiness on the policy agenda.

And with that, on I go to make all this more specific to daily work in my organization and family life at home.

12 thoughts on “Framing the discourse in everyday communication – less feelings of want, more feelings of happiness

  1. Hi Luka,

    Thank you for this update on your progress on this very interesting topic.

    I would like to say that in the financial world, there is still a lot to be done to make the various actors of the financial industry understand that happiness does not necessarily come from achieving high financial performance. For instance, still all too often, fund managers believe that their clients will only be happy if they provide them with high financial returns and forget that increasingly individual investors seek a mixture of financial performance and social or environmental “good”. We are slowly getting there since some fund managers have started to understand this concept but there is still a long road to go.

    Part of the problem is that most people seek immediate happiness and somehow high financial returns seem to fulfil such desire.

    A lot of investors and actors of the financial industry are yet to understand that happiness is not necessarily a state one can reach immediately. It requires vision. Vision of a better world where the resources of our planet are not used and abused, where the air we all breathe is healthier, where free access to education and health for all contributes to the wealth of a country, where being richer than one’s neighbour is not one’s ultimate objective in life and that one may gain more happiness out of not seeing the rest of the world being in poverty etc…

    It requires a complete shift of values and I would say governments have a crucial role to play in promoting happiness. Action is truly required at government level. Indeed, they have the power to change policies leading to a more balance redistribution of wealth. I am not advocating for a return to ultra socialist policies but I personally think that this race for individual financial gain has lead us to all the environmental and social issues which we witness nowadays and we need to find that balance. Without this materialism will be exacerbated to a point where our world becomes truly unstainable.

    Having said this, I shall get ready for dinner in Madrid to a good quality middle of the road restaurant where I do not need to dress up and carry an expensive handbag to impress my fellow diners! Good food, good company and a nice drink. That’s my idea of happiness. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the interesting comment!

      It would be an interesting topic to explore – happiness is usually examined either as a personal or societal goal, I have not really seen industry-specific ideas for achieving that. If you go to the investing experts to take care of your money, does happiness enter the picture? Would it be in selecting the industries and/or types of investment (i.e. funds focusing on sustainability and/or at least avoiding investing in companies to do with firearms, tobacco, gambling…?). Perhaps some in the financial industry have had enough of just investing for profit sake so the advent of impact investing, social bonds etc etc is kind of an offshoot of that? In either case might work well for the industry – idea that “do good” or at least “do no evil” can lead to more satisfaction for all players (because in the end, investing is again about people and what they do, as people make the companies).

      And fully agree that happiness is about good food, bit of drink and some people, whether it be in a simple roadside eatery or a fancy-schmancy 3 star Michelin with or without a Prada handbag 😉


    2. I agree with both of you. It is not easy to think of happiness as an economic product.

      I think the concept has changed since the generation of our parents. Indeed, for them, being happy meant having material wealth : a big house, a good car, jewelleries etc.
      I was really shocked to discover the FT has a « how to spend it » section !!
      But as Edith Wharton said, « If only we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time. »

      Our generation is somehow different. Indeed, happiness economics challenges the assumption of neoclassical economics that assumes higher income always correlates to higher levels of utility and economic welfare. At low levels of income, more money does generally increase happiness as rising income enables a person to buy goods and services. However, research has also shown this to be true only to a certain level of income, somewhere between $75,000 and $120,000, and income beyond that does not necessarily correlate to greater happiness.
      Factors that affect happiness include the quality and type of work people are doing, as well as the amount of hours they are working. Research on happiness economics has shown that income levels alone do not necessarily correlate to happiness as much as the sense of satisfaction gained from work. Boring repetitive jobs may give little joy, while self-employment or work in creative skilled jobs can lead to greater satisfaction.

      And big companies understood it. This is why Google hired an engineer whose job is to make people happier.
      Netflix also offers good work environment : employees can go on holidays as often as they want (but apparently with this system, they go less often than with the traditional system, by fear of being judged).

      Nevertheless, as Marie underlined, the financial sector is often slow to adapt and it has not yet understood the economic value of making people happy !
      But like her, I believe that the government has its share of responsibility in making people happy.
      The OECD gathers data on happiness economics and ranks its 35 member countries based on factors such as housing, income, employment, education, environment, civic engagement and health. The OECD’s purpose is to help governments design better public policies.
      Surprinsingly, in a country like France, where the quality of life is quite high (we don’t pay for education and health services, we get financial help when we have kids, we have free cultural services and so on), complaining is a habit !
      As the French writer Colette wrote : « What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner. »

      On my side, I believe happiness is a state of mind. Put on your pink glasses and enjoy every moment of life !

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Tres bien dit Alix! 😉

        I am somehow sitting between your parents’ and your generation and my challenge now is how do I explain what happiness is to my young kids.

        I am actually now feeling quite fortunate to have never embraced consumerism like a lot of people of my generation due to my family background. My parents were never interested in consumerism and I am hoping to transmit these values to them. Your baby, Joyce, will be living in a very different world than we did and we have a responsibility to prepare our children for it. 😉


      2. Thanks Luka, this is a very central theme to sustainability that too often we don’t feel is appropriate to discuss in a business context. Your reflection on the perception gap with the old generation is very true I believe.

        I remember talking about happiness with my shareholders (who are all in their 50’s) during our annual meeting. I was talking about making possible adjustments to the way we work and redefining the purpose of our company to something more meaningful. This was something I wanted to do for my colleagues but also for myself. One of them replied that I had to choose between well-being and entrepreneurship! I had to prove to him that we will be better off in the long run as a company, attracting better employees and certainly more profitable if we take happiness into the equation. It baffled me that I had to explain that !


      3. Oh wow, thanks for this Nicolas! That’s truly baffling to hear someone say that entrepreneurship comes as tradeoff to well-being… when for an entrepreneur it’s usually passion/expertise and personal fulfillment of being their own boss is a source of pleasure! On the other hand, I do know a few cases I’ve met where entrepreneurship was more like the only option as there were no jobs, especially in less developed countries. Well, here’s to teaching people there’s synergies in what they think doesn’t work together! 🙂


  2. Hi Luka,

    Another great posting by yourself that I really enjoyed.

    It’s interesting having moved to a NGO in contrast to a listed organization in regards to seeing individual’s levels of happiness. I hear comments about making the vulnerable people that we support happy rather than the employee happy and overall this appears to make the employee happy. As there are no annual bonuses it generates a different working environment. I’m not suggesting that its a perfect world or that everyone in it achieves an ultimate level of happiness but it is different and I wonder whether employees self select for this experience hence resulting in a different cultural environment?

    Based on the Royal Commission into Banking here in Australia I wonder whether the culture of bonuses is going to change and hence wonder what they will move to instead? An industry that appeared to determine happiness by the level of bonuses is about to have a dramatic change and I wonder if this will result will in a turnover of employees as a result?

    The saying that money doesn’t buy happiness but it sure helps certainly makes for an interesting discussion around the dinner table.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Angela, thanks for reading and the thoughtful comment!

      That sounds like a mighty jump into a new world, moving from a listed company to an NGO – very different motivations for sure. You made me remember a small NGO which was formed while I was working at the university by people who were passionate about doing things differently and talking about what matters instead of chasing profit… although in order for NGO to survive it does need to attract some revenue / donors / projects. I do believe it’s a strong personal motivation that’s needed here, one I see in my own family where now i have a fresh entrepreneur – it’s amazing to see how involved and passionate about the project the person has become, and nothing seems too difficult to do when it feels right (kind of like love, eh?).

      I thought a lot about what you said on bonuses and chasing profit in general and I concluded that for some people it really does cause happiness, but also sensitivity to causes of unhappiness rises exponentially – think going daily to a 3 star michelin restaurant which is probably awesome but at that level stupid things like temperature of bottled still water can become an issue, or some not-humble-enough gesture of waiter, etc… whereas in simpler places (and lives) such insignificant things would never matter. Much to be said on “the middle path” from taoism/buddhism but let’s do that in Cam 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Luka,

    your post reminded me of Government of Buthan putting 2008. Gross National Happiness (GNH) into the Constitution of Buthan as a guiding philosophy.

    Buthan is still the only country in the World having Ministry of Happiness, while the pursuit of happiness is a national and economic goal.

    Cheers to our pursuit of happiness.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Wrapping up on personal leadership – changes, changes… – Integrality

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