Few would say that a childhood love for numbers would result in a career spent studying happiness. But Nic Marks found a way to combine his statistical brain with his inveterate optimism to forge a career path doing exactly that. Working for the New Economics Foundation (NEF) – an independent ‘think-and-do tank’ – Nic created the Happy Planet Index, which measures the wellbeing of people in the nations of the world, while taking into account their environmental impact. But can the NEF’s work change the focus of the world’s governments from GDP to wellbeing? Nic says that he’s crazy enough to think so.
What was your childhood dream?
I was very into numbers, which might sound a bit bizarre. I used to count in powers of two and when I’d walk down a road I‘d try to end up with a power of two for my number of steps. I also wanted to be a scientist, like many kids do, but mostly I was just interested in counting.
What inspired you to study happiness and wellbeing?
It was a random walk actually. I went to study mathematics at university but I ended up doing applied statistics and I then got a job as a management consultant. When a friend in my group at the consultancy left to join an environmental consultancy, it made me realise that it was actually possible to do a job that you wanted to do. It might sound really stupid, but I think a lot of us just follow this track we get put on by school and our parents without really thinking about what we want to do. At that time I knew a management guru called Charles Handy who was a friend of my uncle and I went to talk to him. He told me that you should try as many things as you can and that – unless you’re a sportsman – men aren’t very successful until their forties. I took it to heart and in my spare time trained to be a psychotherapist and became very interested in environmental stuff. I started working with a think tank called the New Economics Foundation in the nineties and, in 2001, they asked me to do some work with them about wellbeing. And that’s how it started. But I’m a fairly happy guy, so it was kind of a natural fit.
Do you find it difficult to remain an optimist in the world of statistics?
Yes, but I blindly go on! I do know a lot of people who are personally optimistic but globally pessimistic, and I can get very pessimistic sometimes – I think if you know the data and understand the systems, it’s very hard not to be. But you have to recognise that these systems have always been with us and they’re evolved to meet a certain set of opportunities to build things for the future.
Will climate change have a direct impact on happiness in the future?
Certainly – it will make life harder in some parts of the world. If there is a big rise in sea levels, there are many cities that will have problems. The poor will suffer but the rich will buy themselves out of the problem. These are all things that have to be thought about and it will be an extraordinary challenge, but that’s not to say that people won’t rise to that challenge.
How closely do you think religion is linked to happiness?
I haven’t personally done any studies, but in most big studies of populations, religiosity is associated with high levels of happiness. But when you are in a religious movement, you get community and relationships, so the question is: how much do they actually get from believing in a certain faith? Well, if you really genuinely believe in an afterlife, then I imagine that you’d find that comforting. I’m convinced that being religious works for some people but I think it would be ridiculous to suggest that becoming religious would increase happiness. I do think meditation is exceptionally interesting – there have been studies of Buddhist monks and how their brains work – because it can be very calming and expands creativity. So I think some of the rituals associated with religion can be profoundly good for us and I wouldn’t dismiss their wisdom.
Do you believe in a god and, if so, which one?
I would say that I believe in the greater good and I don’t know much beyond that! I’m an evolutionist, so I believe that things evolve because they serve a need for humans.
What inspires you?
You’ve got a life, so it seems like you should use it. Aristotle talked about what is sometimes translated from Greek as ‘wellbeing’ and sometimes as ‘a life well lived’, but my favourite translation of it is ‘doing the best with what you do best’. I think life is incredible, but I look at a lot of people and I’m amazed at how narrow they’ve become in what they think life is about. And that’s not to criticise them – I think that the system has shaped them in certain ways. I have been born into a certain amount of privilege, but, if that’s the case, I think you need to do something that’s useful rather than just maximise your own earning potential in a business making something people don’t need. When I look at things, I just see the big picture. What I’ve learned to do is not get swamped by that and to realise that I can only do small things, but I will do them to the best of my ability and try to make a contribution. Steve Jobs said: ‘The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.’ I guess I’m arrogant enough to think the world needs changing and crazy enough to have a shot at it.
What are you focusing on at the moment?
We’re working on a lot of things to do with happiness at work and we’re going to launch a whole range of tools for that. We have a new website called www.happinessatworksurvey.com, which is a free check-up on people’s happiness at work that gives feedback on their results and how to take action.
What has been your greatest achievement?
Professionally, the three best things I think we’ve done are The Happy Planet Index, the next edition of which comes out in June, The Five Ways to Wellbeing (Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Give), and this new thing we’re doing with happiness at work. What’s good about them is that they engage with a complex issue but are simple and fun at the same time. That’s what I’m always looking to do. The Happy Planet Index allows people to approach a difficult and scary topic like climate change in a different way – it’s a critique and a possibility at the same time. I like having that tension in things between the problem and the solution.
Where do you find peace in life?
In water. I live near the River Thames and most days when I’m working at home, I go out for a walk along the river. I tend to have my good ideas walking – I’m not a creature of speed at all, but I love walking and the reflection process that goes on while I’m doing it.
What are your words of wisdom?
Find a way to do what you do best.