Wellness Meets Happiness

The conversation becomes more important

The tiny county of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index encourages development policies that improve an individual’s well-being, not just its Gross Domestic Product.

The concept of “happiness” is often associated with “wellness,” which is often associated with health. Confusingly, the term “well-being” is often used to describe both. What is the difference anyway? If you’re “well,” aren’t you happy and content? If you are happy and content, aren’t you also “well”? Not necessarily.

There have been times in past years when a country scored in the top 10 of a happiness index, but, yet, is known for having an unhealthy population. Mexico is one example. The strong social bonds of family and faith contribute to a high happiness score but the country has one of the highest obesity and diabetes rates in the world.

And what about the difference between wellness and well-being? Could these definitions be influenced by cultural factors or how these words are translated to and from other languages?

These are all good questions and ones we predict will become increasingly significant as advances in happiness science make strong contributions to the global health, wellness and well-being conversation. In addition, while measuring happiness is important, the wellness industry cannot lose sight of its goal of creating a healthier world – including mind, body and soul. It’s not enough to take the “heartbeat” of happiness. We also have to constantly improve people’s heart health.

While today many of us use the terms health, happiness, wellness and well-being interchangeably at times, we predict conversations about these factors will mature in the years ahead. The world’s perception of happiness is a pursuit that no longer has frivolous connotations. Governments, businesses and individuals are examining the opportunities to measure what health, happiness, wellness and well-being mean. In addition, it is likely that more ways of measuring will emerge as time goes on, and a more distinct terminology that helps the world meet these goals will emerge.

Today, we see a developing trend that happiness is more closely linked with well-being, and wellness more closely linked with overall health. This distinction is likely to be useful going forward. Ultimately, the hope is that the conversation regarding health, happiness, wellness and well-being will motivate people across the world to focus on what makes them thrive.

Statue of Buddha in Bhutan, which will test whether the country’s efforts to measure happiness can also work for business.

Some History

Research on happiness began in the 1970s. One of the foremost contributors was Richard Easterlin at the University of Southern California. Other accomplished and highly educated economists built from his base. Today, the World Happiness Report is edited by three of those leaders: Richard Layard, Director, Well-Being Programme, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science; John F. Helliwell, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia; and the well-known economist from Columbia, Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of The Center for Sustainable Development at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, and Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General.

While happiness research or happiness economics was developing, the field of positive psychology began emerging in the late 1990’s. Martin “Marty” Seligman, an American psychologist and educator is probably best known for having promoted this field within the scientific community. In his 2011 book, Flourish, Seligman articulated an account of how he measures well-being, and titled this work, “Well-Being Theory”. He concludes that there are five elements to “well-being”: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement.

In 2017, the Global Wellness Summit featured several current leaders in happiness science who shared insights and demonstrated how people and societies worldwide can thrive by fueling their happiness quotient. Happiness science pioneer, Silvia Garcia, former global director of the Happiness Institute at Coca-Cola and Founder of FeelLogic, has applied this science to the economy, workplace, health, politics and education. Garcia emphatically told Summit delegates, “Research shows we can influence our happiness.” While Mo Gawdat, former Chief Business Officer for Google [X] and the author of Solve for Happy: Engineering Your Path to Joy shared his equation for happiness with this fairly simple, but scientifically backed, message: “You are happy when life meets your expectations.”

We see the wellness industry aligning tightly with the new happiness science, which includes physical wellness among its pillars but also emphasizes “purpose” and “social/communal” connections. Just as people turn to Pilates to relieve pain or yoga and meditation to relieve anxiety and improve focus, wellness professionals are creating and delivering programs ingrained in the principles of happiness science.

“Research shows we can influence our happiness,” Silvia Garcia, speaking at the 2017 Global Wellness Summit.

Fueling the Trend

Societal Realities

It’s hard to miss the thousands of news reports that remind us that technology overload, and lack of community and isolation, all fuel unhappiness. Our trends team first identified the harmful effects of overdosing on technology and social media as a trend in 2008, and the critical need to disconnect to maintain mental wellness has played a starring role in wellness forecasts every year since then. Today, medical and healthcare professionals, psychologists, and wellness experts regularly issue warnings about the dangers of technology and social media addictions – and the need to unplug.

However, it is clear that most of us will never be able to meaningfully unplug and will (happily) become addicted to the latest social media craze faster than you can say Instagram. Our desperate need to disconnect from technology and its associated woes – and our inability to do so – will continue to drive the quest for solutions to help us disengage from the digital world and reclaim our lives–and our happiness.

Global Research

Global research studies, including the United Nation’s World Happiness Report, found that the Northern European nations of Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and Finland (all strong in social support, generosity, physical health and honest governance) ranked as the world’s five happiest nations, while productivity-focused economies like China and the U.S. fell in happiness in recent years.

The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, which tracks the key factors that drive greater well-being for individuals and populations, also showed that overall well-being among U.S. adults declined substantially in 2017, following a three-year uptick. The Gallup-Sharecare study cites emotional and psychological metrics as the primary source of the decrease. The report also identifies components of happiness, including:

Purpose: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goal(s)

Social: Having supportive relationships and love in your life

Financial: Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security

Community: Liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community

Physical: Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

These studies, along with other research, show that happiness is something we need to consciously work to attain…and importantly, we can change how we feel. This means more people (and more businesses) understand that there is a deep desire for happiness–and solutions that help people find happiness can be valuable.

As Mo Gawdat noted about happiness at the 2017 Summit, “…It is becoming understood that it is not a trivial pursuit nor unachievable.”

Governments Taking Action

The tiny country of Bhutan was the first to spotlight happiness (or well-being) as an achievable goal, and, according to The Economist, the country has focused on a development policy inspired by the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) for more than six decades. Uniquely, Bhutan’s GNH promotes development policies that improve an individual’s well-being, not just its Gross Domestic Product.

With fast-growing interest in insights from happiness science, more governments and governmental organizations are taking action. Bhutan’s Prime Minister proposed a World Happiness Day to the United Nations in 2011 and in 2012 the U.N. General Assembly named March 20 as “World Happiness Day,” recognizing that “…happiness (is an) universal goal…in the lives of human beings around the world.”

More recently, Dubai made happiness a wide-ranging policy priority, appointing its first Minister of Happiness in 2016.

Aspects of the Trend

Attacking Problems of Loneliness and Disconnection

Loneliness and disconnection is, according to the new happiness science, one of the biggest obstacles to happiness…and, ultimately, longevity. Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an expert in happiness says, “Taking care of your body is important but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. Loneliness kills…it’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” Essentially, relationships and community truly matter when it comes to our happiness and health. Recognizing the role face-to-face connection has in our happiness has created a new way of approaching our daily lives and a focus on minimizing isolation.

Significantly, when Dan Buettner studied “The Secrets of a Long Life” in an article for National Geographic, he identified five of the world’s “Blue Zones” (regions where people lived the longest). Ultimately, Buettner landed on a list of nine life lessons (The Power 9) that contribute to longevity and happiness.

The beach cities of Southern California have secured $8.1 million to create a “Blue Zone Project” that focuses not only on physical health but heavily on community interaction, including workshops on living with purpose, social gatherings and classes (walking, fitness, mindfulness, etc.). All have the goal of creating a happier, healthier community.
The huge surge in co-working and co-living spaces comes from our need for community. WeWork has reimagined office spaces in 21 countries across the Americas, Europe and India and is one of many examples of co-working spaces that are designed to foster community and creativity in our “gig” economy. Next up is WeLive, a project that fosters community by giving residents of urban areas gathering places, like pubs, cafes, fitness classes and open spaces.

Social spaces, in general, are on the rise – with some dedicated to self-care (fitness, wellness, mindfulness) and even to purpose (like having a positive impact on the world). The Assemblage in New York is one example: dedicated to creating new coworking, coliving and social spaces, its manifesto is to transform society while transforming ourselves and making a positive impact on individuals.

And, of course, the sense of community – or hanging out with your tribe – has never been more prevalent in fitness and wellness travel, where joining up with like-minded individuals to venture on an inspirational, healthy or fitness retreat anywhere in the world or taking a morning walk or class in your local park is easily accessed via social media platforms.

Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an expert in happiness says, “Taking care of your body is important but tending to your relationship is a form of self-care too. Loneliness kills…it’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

Taking Control of Technology: Don’t Let It Control You

The isolation and “disconnection” caused by all the digital screens in our lives is something we’re all aware of. Recently, a former Google executive surprised Silicon Valley by saying that “(Technology is) an existential threat to the human race.” Tristan Harris, who worked as a Google design ethicist until 2016, says that two billion people are using Facebook on a daily basis and they are checking their smartphones 150 times a day. He says that this compulsion isn’t simply an addiction, It’s also causing us to self-interrupt ourselves roughly every 40 seconds, causing extraordinary anxiety.

That constant interruption of our brains, along with a social media universe designed to make you constantly compare yourself to others (endless “FOMO”, a fear of missing out), is leading to a serious spike in depression, suicide and extreme body issues. Studies show that seeing picture-perfect images on social media has a negative effect on young women’s self-esteem, and research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide rates doubled among girls, and rose by more than 30% among teen boys and young men, between 2007 and 2015.

All this screen time, including a new 24/7 bombardment by work and news, takes us away from the present and from the actual real people we’re physically with. It all adds up to a recipe for unhappiness.

Hence disconnection is the new luxury, and a quick glance at other 2018 GWS Trends, including “Extreme Wellness” and “Transformative Wellness Travel,” shows just how far people will go – and how much they’ll spend – to get off the grid. Not only are we striving to “unplug” during travel adventures but day spas and gyms are also becoming digital-free zones.

More surprising, in a digital world where “food porn” is a mainstay, many restaurants are encouraging disconnecting. Popular U.S. chain Le Pain Quotidien rewarded customers during the month of August (2017) with dessert if they took “a break from the digital world by sealing [their] phone in a box for a whole meal.”

Mindfulness has also risen in conjunction with the growth of technology, and programs are taught in schools and meditation centers, as well as in wellness locations around the globe. Many believe it is a critical skill to navigate the digital future.

Jeremy McCarthy, Group Director of Spa & Wellness, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (Hong Kong), told the Summit audience in his keynote titled “Wellness in the Age of Technology” that not all technology is bad – the real problem is that it is so good. But McCarthy points out that “…(technology) is the greatest threat to human well-being that we’ve ever seen, while being the greatest hope for our navigating our future.”

Happiness Travel

The goal of any vacation is to relax and find time to be happy, and for decades spas and wellness-oriented resorts have excelled in providing experiences that help people rejuvenate their minds and bodies. In a new twist on wellness travel, “Happiness Travel” is entering the vacation equation, and spas and wellness retreats are now offering specific programs and activities that help guests “find their happy.” We even see tourism destinations/programming starting to be designed around the pillars of happiness.

Part of the happiness equation is a quest for silence and quiet contemplation, named by GWS as a top trend in 2017. The Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas was the first in the global chain to offer a digital wellness option, with silenced phones and no electronic interruptions–even a silence ceremony at check in. Global wellness retreat leader, on the Spanish coast, bans mobile and music devices. The UK’s Time to Log Off offers retreats and workshops designed to provide a taste of taking a break from screens and a toolkit to continue new healthier habits when guests return home.

Mo Gawdat, former Chief Business O cer for Google [X] and the author of “Solve for Happy: Engineering Your Path to Joy,” shared his equation for happiness with delegates at the 2017 Global Wellness Summit.

Happy Workplace = Happy Workers

The Beatles had it right when they sang “Can’t Buy Me Love” to adoring fans. Research shows that once people reach a basic standard of living, more money does not result in greater happiness. Workplaces, wrestling with high levels of employee unhappiness and its toll on productivity, are beginning to use lessons learned from happiness research.

An associate editor of the World Happiness Report, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, PhD, Associate Professor of Economics and Strategy at SaÏd Business School, University of Oxford, spoke at the Summit, sharing new insights on the relationship between happiness and income, economic growth and inequality. “Putting happiness center stage in business and governmental policy makes powerful sense: research shows that boosting people’s happiness makes them 7 to 12% more productive and that the top ‘best-to-work-for’ companies outperform competitors”

According to The Economist, in 2018, Tshering Tobgay, prime minister of Bhutan, will test whether the country’s efforts to measure happiness can also work for businesses. The idea is to move businesses from a narrow focus on short-term (financial) benefits and be “…accountable to shareholders, customers, employees, the community and the environment.”

To accomplish this ambitious goal, Bhutan will ask companies located in the country to use a voluntary GNH Certification Tool for Business, drawn from the widely reported GNH (happiness) Index that has shaped Bhutanese public policy. For example, employees will be asked questions on job satisfaction, occupational stress, employee engagement, workplace discrimination, and emotional experiences.

The article notes that, “The adoption of GNH by the private sector will have a greater impact than public policy, which tends to be mired in bureaucracy and politics. As the average employed person, aged between 18 and 65, spends 94,080 hours at work—that is, 35% of his or her waking day—the reality is that businesses and society are interdependent.”

Employers worldwide are starting to understand how much financial stress impacts health and wellness, and we are seeing financial wellbeing classes in corporate settings. There is also research that shows that financial issues are a significant contributor to people’s stress. One study on the implications of stress and marriage showed that of respondents who had experienced a divorce, 60% said that finances was either a major cause or a major factor.

Happy Fitness and Foods on the Rise

The science of happiness is rapidly moving into the wellness domains of fitness and food, and spa and wellness professionals are introducing new programs that tap into the quest for happiness. This focus promises to generate new business and revenues for wellness locations.

Ireland’s Boogie Bounce is a high energy, low impact program that provides exercise and fun. Shown in photo: Founder Jenny Belcher and her two daughters.

Playfulness and happiness for happiness sake programs invite guests and clients to be a little kid again. One example: new fitness classes like Ireland’s Boogie Bounce work every muscle in the entire body including the face muscles. Taking place in a party atmosphere, the exercise class is conducted on mini trampolines and is choreographed to pumping music.

Mindfulness-happiness programs are popping up, such as the UK’s aptly named Mindful Happiness. The company’s website reminds us that, “Mindfulness is having your mind full of the present moment so you experience more happiness.”

An article published by the Berkeley Science Review explains that the mindfulness-happiness connection is based on the theory that a discrepancy gap can exist between our actual self and our ideal self. According to the author, “Where mindfulness is concerned, the hypothesis is that closing the self-discrepancy gap makes us happy, and that mindfulness meditation helps close the gap.”

The Extreme Wellness Trend in this GWS Forecast explains how extreme fitness programs raise endorphins–and that means more happiness.

And there are also specific programs like Laughter Yoga, which promotes laughter as a form of physical exercise, and “smile” asana.

The ad agency J Walter Thompson (JWT) named “Mood Food” as one its top 100 trends for 2018. Monarch Airline’s mood-enhancing food menu, designed to create a calmer in-flight experience for passengers, includes Echinacea and licorice ice cream to boost immunity, green tea and lavender cakes to improve relaxation, and herbal tea to reduce bloating. The report noted that several restaurants at Gatwick Airport also are trying mood-lifting ingredients, such as Frankie & Benny’s, which has offered serotonin-packed ingredients such as tuna, salmon, citrus fruits and banana. Even Pizza Hut has introduced a mood-enhancing pizza. (Although some would say all pizza is mood-enhancing.)

In 2013 the BMC Medical Journal referenced studies that depression shares mechanisms with obesity and cardiovascular disease. And BMC’s 2017 study on diet and depression showed that an anti-inflammatory, Mediterranean-style diet high in vegetables, fish, olive oil and nuts reduced symptoms of depression in 32% of its sample.

The prediction? As consumers understand the food-happiness connection, they will expect brands to deliver products that do more than taste good. They must also deliver a large serving of happiness, with laughter for dessert.

Part of the happiness equation is a quest for silence and quiet contemplation, named by GWS as a top trend in 2017. SHA Wellness Clinic on the Spanish coast bans mobile and music devices so guests can concentrate on wellness programs.

The Future

In so many ways we’ve never had it better. Much of the world has an abundance of food, we are living longer, and technology has changed our lives in ways unimaginable just a decade ago. Yet, overall, the world is painfully unhappy. According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, a measure of happiness produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which surveyed 155 countries, the world scores a mediocre 5.3 out of 10 for total happiness. We have to wonder: how can this be in a time when things are (relatively) so good?

In the past, the concept of happiness was considered vague and a matter of luck and birth. However, the new rigorous science of happiness shows that happiness – like wellness – is something we can choose, and more and more people will be using wellness modalities as a route to their personal happiness.

Much like the mental health industry, which for many years focused on human failings and pathology, the wellness industry will embrace neuroscience to understand the mechanisms of happiness, hope, empathy, resilience and joy. In addition, because we have more tools to measure happiness, we believe that the distinctions between the pursuits of health, happiness, well-being and wellness will become more defined. And members of the wellness industry will understand the important role happiness plays in wellness…and vice versa.


Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, “Americans’ Well-Being Declines in 2017,” November 2017
The Economist, “The World in 2018: How to Measure a Happy Business,” Lauren Crowm, 2018
The Harvard Gazette, “Good genes are nice, but joy is better”
Sage Journals, “Instagram use and young women’s body image concerns and self-objectification: Testing mediational pathways”
Institute of Education Sciences, “The Impact of Financial Stress in Marriage: Implications for Marriage and Family Therapists,” Sandra Crews Arguello
Berkeley Science Review, “Can Mindfulness Make You Happier?” Sarah Roberts, 2012
BMC Medical Journal, “Diet, a new target to prevent depression?” Sanchez-Villegas and Martínez-Gonzále, January 2013

Copyright © 2017-2018 by Global Wellness Summit.
If you cite ideas and information in this report please credit “2018 Wellness Trends, from Global Wellness Summit”.
For more information, email beth.mcgroarty@globalwellnesssummit.com.