I’ve asked myself the following question literally hundreds of times. There are stacks of books with entrepreneurial stories, books about the life of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, et al. We know these guys are driven, talented, obsessed, ruthless, workaholic and a little bit lucky (see, e.g., How to Spot an Entrepreneur). We envy them and even try to model our lives after them, but why? What makes them happy?
A passion for the pinnacle of money, power and prestige could be a good answer, but surely these high achievers know that someone always comes along to nudge you off the platform. Consider Bill Gates; in an astonishing display of fiscal virility, he rented the entire Hawaiian island of Lanai for his wedding to Melinda. One would assume this was a happy occasion, as they are still husband and wife after 18 years. Bill set a new standard for opulence, until billionaire Larry Ellison came along and bought Lanai outright. Larry has not been forthcoming about his intentions for the purchase (to date, he has been married and divorced four times).
It is worthwhile to remember that “happiness” is much more than a new-age, feel-good buzzword sparring with “balanced”, “centered” and “good karma” in the titles of bestsellers and self-improvement workshops. America’s founders trusted Thomas Jefferson with drafting the first version of the Declaration of Independence, and his second sentence is one of the most elegant and profound ever written. There is more to this journey than just life and liberty from British rule, Jefferson wrote. It is also about pursuing happiness.
Although this happiness thing is in our mission statement, it has proven elusive. In 1988, Bobby McFerrin promoted a two step process, the first of which was “Don’t worry.” Whether or not it worked, it made Bobby a lot of money. History is unclear on how happy he was.
Politicians routinely ask if we are better off now than we were four years ago. Numbers are tallied and scrutinized. How much do we earn? How many new homes are we building? How many iPhone5’s were sold in the first 24 hours? It’s been over 200 years since Jefferson suggested happiness as one of the key metrics of the American experiment and the government still hasn’t found a good way to measure it.
The traditional metric for happiness has been the GDP per capita, a number representing the total value of goods and services produced in the country per unit human. This presumed surrogate for standard of living only works if making and using stuff leads us to happiness. According to the CIA (one of several agencies which tabulate GDP data) the top three countries in the world in this category are Monaco, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. The U.S. is in the 19th spot.
We love to talk about people who are poor but happy and rich people who are probably miserable, but what’s the real story? The polling gurus at Gallup took it straight to the source, surveying folks directly to ask just how happy they really are. The results show the top three happiest countries are Denmark, Finland and Norway. On this list the U.S. ranks 11th, just ahead of Costa Rica.
The confusing message in this data has not gone unnoticed. Americans are kicking butt on Life and Liberty, but two out of three is just not good enough. Inquiring minds need to know; are we happy?
There’s a saying in engineering – “You can’t control it if you can’t measure it.” Vermont, Maryland, Seattle, Somerville, Wisconsin and California’s Nevada City are just a few of the states and cities that are developing measures of happiness. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is working on an official index. This stuff we keep getting more of, is it really the right stuff? What if economic growth is harming the environment without improving the real quality of life?
For many pragmatists the whole idea of happiness is just too “fluffy”. Work hard, stay focused, count your blessings, and be thankful you’re not living in a poor country like the tiny South Asian nation of Bhutan, where the average life expectancy is 67 years and annual income is $2000.
Back in 1972, the King of Bhutan, sensing that money and happiness were not well correlated, called for a Gross National Happiness index. National policies based on the GNH limit tourism, ban tobacco, and keep motorists away from town centers every Tuesday. The 7 million people of Bhutan are warm, friendly, and measurably happier than they were 40 years ago.
You don’t have to travel to Bhutan to see that GDP per capita is leaving out something important. At the beginning of his Presidential campaign in 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy said the GDP…
"...does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages … it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."
It is tempting to think of “The Happy Entrepreneur” as a risk taker who has put up big numbers. Perhaps the definition should be revised to look more like this;
entrepreneur [ahn-truh-pruh-noor] noun; an enterprising individual who builds happiness through risk and initiative, accepting full responsibility for the outcome.
As citizens of this great country we are entitled, in fact we are expected, to pursue happiness. Soon the Federal Government will be telling us exactly how happy we really are. Once that happens, things are bound to get better.
Prior to founding INVENTtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. While at Seagate, he was a proud member of the team that brought the world’s first notebook disk drive with perpendicular recording technology to the market.
Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, a Master of Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.