What Do Social Impact & Happiness Have In Common?

At Intentionality CIC, we’re convinced that the answer to the question ‘What do social impact and happiness have in common?’ is ‘Everything’.  We think well-being really matters; the quality of life of individuals, communities, society, or, to put it another way, ‘happiness’.  This article sets out the reasons why and what it has to do with social impact analysis, and is based on a presentation of the same name given at the SIAA conference ‘Beyond Measurement’ in Paris in December 2013.

To clarify what we mean by well-being, or happiness, “Wellbeing is a positive physical, social and mental state; it is not just the absence of pain, discomfort and incapacity.  It arises not only from the action of individuals, but from a host of collective goods and relationships with other people.  It requires that basic needs are met, that individuals have a sense of purpose, and that they feel able to achieve important personal goals and participate in society.  It is enhanced by conditions that include supportive personal relationships, involvement in empowered communities, good health, financial security, rewarding employment, and a healthy and attractive environment.”[i]

Put another way, ‘the best things in life aren’t things’[ii], which we know to be true when we stop and think about it.  What makes the biggest difference to our well-being, are not things – cars, televisions, clothes, gadgets – but friendships, beauty, purpose, health, freedom from worry, and something meaningful to do.

So, if well-being matters, we should put measurement, analysis and action to work.  After all, it is vital to ‘measure what matters’[iii], which is very good advice for all enterprises, but particularly for social enterprises and those interested in intentionally making a positive social and environmental impact.  So, let’s explore in more depth ‘what matters’ to our well-being.

Relationships matter. To illustrate this point, we ask ‘How many people do you know who would help you in a crisis?  None, one or more than one?’  I suspect the answer is ‘more than one’ but it remains shocking to me that some people answer ‘one’ or even ‘none’.[iv]  According to Barry Schwartz, “what seems to be the most important factor in providing happiness is close social relations. People who are married, who have good friends, and who are close to their families are happier than those who are not. … Being connected to others seems to be much more important to subjective well-being than being rich.”[v]

Employment matters. Unemployment is ‘a disaster’ says Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics. “We can be needed by our family, but most of us need more than this: we need to feel we are contributing to the wider society.  Thus work provides not only income but also an extra meaning to life.  That is why unemployment is such a disaster: it reduces income but it also reduces happiness directly by destroying the self-respect and social relationships created by work.”[vi]  Creating opportunities for meaningful work, particularly paid work, is what great enterprises (of all types) do and it has incredible personal and social impact.  After all, “paid employment is central to the functioning of societies and to the mental health of individuals.”[vii]

Trust matters.  Trust has been in decline in the UK for over 50 years.  In 1959 56% of people said ‘most people could be trusted’, in 1999 that figure was 29%[viii].  Why does trust matter?  Because “social trust (trust in most other people) is associated with higher life satisfaction and happiness, and a lower probability of suicide”[ix] Anything that organisations, institutions, clubs, gatherings, events and projects can do to engender and encourage trust would have a positive social impact.

If these are some of the key things that matter most in life and to our well-being – to me, you, our friends, family, neighbours, and to everyone else – then social impact analysis should start and end with these things, and be informed throughout by them.  Great social impact analysis should help organisations and projects focus on their mission, deepen their organisational culture, tell a compelling ‘story of change’, put their stakeholders at the centre of what they do, and create or enhance areas of impact.  Those things matter.

Steve Coles is the Founder and Managing Director of Intentionality CIC

This article was originally written for the SIAA Conference Publication ‘Beyond Measurement’, based on a workshop that Steve Coles delivered at their conference of the same name in Paris on 10th December 2013.

To read the full SIAA Conference Beyond Measurement Publication please click here


[i] UK Government’s Whitehall Wellbeing Working Group, 2006 quoted in Local Wellbeing: Can We Measure It? by Nicola Steuer and Nic Marks, from: http://youngfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Local-Wellbeing-Can-we-Measure-it-September-2008.pdf

[ii] Quote attributed to Art Buchwald, an American Humorist (1925 – 2007)

[iii] Mission Inc.: The Practitioner’s Guide to Social Enterprise by Kevin Lynch and Julius Walls Jr.

[iv] Taking the Temperature of Local Communities: The Wellbeing and Resilience Measure (WARM), Young Foundation, p. 79, from: http://youngfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Taking-the-Temperature-of-Local-Communities.pdf

[v] The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz, p. 107

[vi] Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, by Richard Layard, p.67

[vii] Warr, P. ‘Wellbeing and the Workplace,’ in D. Kahneman, E. Diener, and N. Schwarz (eds.), Wellbeing: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology, New York, 1999

[viii] A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age, by Richard Layard, Judy Dunn

[ix] Do we really know what makes us happy? by Dolan, Peasgood and White – http://pauldolan.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/do-we-really-know-what-makes-us-happy.pdf