C’mon, Get Happy

Dubai’s political leaders have set a goal of making it “the happiest city on Earth.” The effort is surprisingly serious.

This might be hard to fathom amid the unnerving gyrations in the global financial markets collapse earlier this week, but this weekend, political leaders will gather in Dubai for a happiness meeting. Well, technically, they will be attending the annual World Government Summit, but the role of public (and increasingly private) institutions in promoting, measuring, and achieving “elevated levels of happiness worldwide” is a primary focus of the agenda.

Dubai’s political leaders have set a goal of making it “the happiest city on Earth,” appointing ministers of happiness, installing happiness meters that measure resident satisfaction at service interaction points throughout the city, funding projects, and more. According to the World Happiness Report for 2012-2014, Dubai residents are 2.5% more cheerful than they were in 2005 (the United Arab Emirates as a whole ranked 20th in the world in happiness; Norway came in first). But this isn’t just government feel-good, touchy-feely stuff. Private firms in Dubai are starting to build and budget for happiness in their own initiatives. Firms are evaluating their pay systems and other benefits to see if they can make people happier. Harish Bhatia, Korn Ferry's regional head for products in the Middle East, says he sees more firms trying to link their attempts to improve employee engagement to the happiness metrics that the country is tracking. It makes sense if you consider firms that engage and enable their employees post up to 4.5 times more revenue growth than those that don’t. 

Research shows that how people feel at work plays a big part in whether they feel happy. It used to be that how much people got paid directly correlated with how happy they were in their jobs. But today, the amount of variety the job entails, level of autonomy, support from co-workers and management, security, work-life balance, and other considerations along with pay appear to factor into the calculus of what makes a good job. “If you have the right job, the right pay, the right leadership in the organization, and clarity on goals, you’re likely to be happy,” says George Karam, a managing partner with Korn Ferry in Dubai.

Dubai’s happiness push mirrors other transformation attempts by fellow Middle Eastern nations. Neighboring country Saudi Arabia, for example, is undertaking a massive effort to modernize its workforcetaxes, and culture. It’s also an interesting contrast to the recent naming of a minister of loneliness in the United Kingdom, whose job description is to help its residents combat depression. 

Happiness, of course, is a complex emotion that is difficult to achieve and sustain. Aside from the unique individual factors that go into the equation, Dubai’s societal makeup offers its own challenges. Even though the UAE is progressive when compared to other Middle Eastern countries, it isn’t exactly progressive in an absolute sense, for instance. Plus, there are more foreigners in the country than actual citizens, which begs the question of whether those residents can ever be happy in the absence of many of the civil rights they are granted in their native countries. 

Still, the potential gains to be made in productivity, economic growth, and more is enough to make Dubai’s business and political leaders wonder, “Is happiness the new GDP?”