How Trust is Linked to Happiness

Since 2012 global happiness has become a quality we measure and there is an organization that uses a variety of factors to rank the world’s nations on what I suppose we can call a Happiness Index. “The aspiration of society is the flourishing of its members,” said Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University. “This report gives evidence on how to achieve societal well-being. It’s not by money alone, but also by fairness, honesty, trust, and good health. The evidence here will be useful to all countries as they pursue the new Sustainable Development Goals.”

The report, produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), contains analysis from leading experts in the fields of economics, neuroscience, national statistics, and describes how measurements of subjective well-being can be used effectively to assess national progress.

The impact of Happiness on productivity has given rise to the discipline of Happiness Economics.

Denmark, was the happiest nation in the world according to the 2014 report and, as a country, it has been topping the list for some time. The Danes have ranked high among the happiest nations in the world. In 2014 they occupied the top spot and in 2015 they were still amongst the world’s five happiest nations. Research indicates this is because Danes have a high level of trust, even for people they don’t know. Apparently, trust makes people happy. Happy people behave differently and their behavior, taken cumulatively, affects the entire social fabric and culture of their country.

Trust and happiness? Related and affecting each other? As if trust was not hard enough to define and then measure, happiness had to also be added to the mix. From a practical research point of view we may as well start asking for a newt’s eye and the blood of a freshly killed baby bat as the secret ingredients we need to make our marketing efforts work and trust happen.

Yet the data shows the connection. America, which has never been amongst the world’s happiest nations is also experiencing a drain in trust:

“You can take our word for it. Americans don’t trust each other anymore.” Begins an Associated Press report, “We’re not talking about the loss of faith in big institutions such as the government, the church or Wall Street, which fluctuates with events. For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy — trust in the other fellow — has been quietly draining away.”

In 2013 Associated Press worked with GfK, the global marketing and research firm, to poll Americans on how they felt about their fellow citizens. The results were unsettling. Americans, it appeared, are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. “…only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.”

That’s a significant decline and it affects not just nations but also organizations. Not just staff working within them, but also their customers. In my last real job I worked for the John Lewis Partnership in the UK in a corporate communication capacity. John Lewis is a leading retail department store that also owns the upmarket supermarket chain of Waitrose. It is staff-owned, internally governed by a two-tier staff-participatory, governance-by-committee system that sounds crazy to any conventional business but which its staff make work but what is most important here is that its internal mission statement is “To make its customers and staff happy”.

In 2013, following the backlash over its corporation tax bill, Amazon (which had been topping the popularity polls) fell to fourth place and John Lewis became the UK’s most trusted brand. While the brand is strictly national and has not yet expanded beyond the UK borders it’s by no means a lightweight. Its 2014 annual report shows revenue of $15.5 billion.

Consider just how much the world has changed. We’re looking at nations and businesses and institutions, judging them not like the complex, behemoths they appear to be. Not like the infallible, perpetual motion machines they would like us to think they are, grinding slowly but inevitably and deserving unquestionable loyalty, respect and obedience. We judge them the way we judge people. We want them to be trustworthy. To be happy.

By topping the list of more than 100 brands, beating global rivals such as Amazon and Virgin, John Lewis earned The Guardian newspaper’s headlines praise for building “trust capital” and was featured in the UK’s Retail Gazette as one of the most “human” brands as defined by the Human Era Index report. The Human Era Index report, which dishes out scores of 1–10 based on whether companies are trustworthy, honest and caring to its customers, quantified thousands of customers’ experiences across 1,000+ brands before it awarded John Lewis a high mark of 8.8.

Consider just how much the world has changed. We’re looking at nations and businesses and institutions, judging them not like the complex, behemoths they appear to be. Not like the infallible, perpetual motion machines they would like us to think they are, grinding slowly but inevitably and deserving unquestionable loyalty, respect and obedience. We judge them the way we judge people. We want them to be trustworthy. To be happy. We want them to trust us, and when they have contact with us (or we with them) we want them to make us happy (or, at the very least not give us reasons to be unhappy).

People bring in their qualities to the places they live in and the places they work in. Businesses, communities, villages, cities and countries then become what their people eventually make them.

The human qualities that become the connecting threads of our relationships: vulnerability, interdependence, loyalty, love, trust and happiness, are now the key requirements for any relationship to work, all relationships without exception. We cut no slack to any of them just because they are big, complicated, seemingly vital. All of these institutions, businesses and even nations are made of people.

People bring in their qualities to the places they live in and the places they work in. Businesses, communities, villages, cities and countries then become what their people eventually make them. While this may sound a little utopian as a point of view and disregard the fact that companies and villages, communities and countries already have a culture that’s part of their history and that culture changes slowly and only after much effort, the fact remains that human qualities transcend even the most intransigent conditions.

Excerpt from Chapter 4 of The Tribe That Discovered Trust.

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