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The Art, Science, Business and Politics of Happiness

The Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled "Happiness, Inc." in this week's Weekend Edition, which described how research into happiness is being applied in business contexts.  I've encountered a whole bunch of happiness-related pieces recently, and this one prompted me to weave them together.

The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, by His Holyness the Dalai Lama, has long been on my reading list.  I haven't read it yet, but I have several friends who have recommended it, and its the kind of book that I want to have on my bookshelf almost for the title alone.  I have read -- and highly recommend -- the two top-rated books in the Amazon.com "happiness" category: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, by Don Miguel Ruiz, and How Full is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life, by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton (which I review in more detail here).  What I believe all these books have in common is the notion that, like an artist, one has to follow one's instincts and natural inclinations to find and express one's truth, regardless of what the critics might say.

Happiness is increasingly the purview of science, as well.  The late Donald Clifton, a co-author of the How Full is Your Bucket? book I noted above, was one of the early proponents of positive psychology -- the study and promotion of positive rather than negative ways of thinking -- but Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness : Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, appears to be its chief spokesperson, at least with respect to the popular press.  His approach to focusing on things that bring people joy was mentioned in the WSJ article as a sales strategy adopted by employees of David's Bridal stores in their interactions with joyful yet highly stressed customers.

The article also mentions a number of new ways to measure happiness.  Brian Knutson, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University, uses brain imaging technology to measure a subject's neurophysiological processes -- such as oxygen flow through the brain -- while playing a videogame.  Sensory Logic videotapes people when they are exposed to a new product, then slices the videotapes into segments of 1/30th of a second, and analyzes several dimensions of facial expressions to distinguish true smiles from social smiles, to help determine whether prospective customers are being truthful or just being nice [leading me to wonder how happiness researchers would answer the question "Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?"].

These approaches seem more likely to yield useful information than many of the surveys I've read about over the years that are based on people's self-reporting of happiness.  The article mentions two studies reported by David Blanchflower. an economics professor at Dartmouth College, which attempt to determine the monetary value of a healthy, stable relationship.  One suggests that, all else being equal, single or unhappily married people have to earn $100,000 more than happily married people to achieve a similar level of happiness; another suggests that someone having sex on a monthly basis would have to earn $50,000 more than someone having weekly sex with a monogamous partner to be as happy.  The article then goes on to speculate about how such findings may figure into divorce settlements.

The Pew Research Center published a report entitled Are We Happy Yet?, in which 3,014 U.S. adults were asked how happy they were, and the results suggests a population that is happier than I would have expected, based on the facial expressions and interactions I have observed:

  • 34%: "very happy"
  • 50%: "pretty happy"
  • 15%: "not too happy"

In slicing and dicing the data, they found a number of interesting correlations:

and a number of interesting non-correlations:

These are interesting, but I have doubts about the self-reporting of happiness (the common exchange "How are you doing?" / "Good, thanks" comes to mind).  I remember a study I heard about years ago reporting that 85% of U.S. adult males rate themselves "above-average" drivers; I can't find a reference now, but I did discover a study of 50,000 business leaders that reported that 85% of leaders rate themselves in the "top 20%" in comparison to their peers.  Perhaps a happiness survey that was combined with some of the other types of measurement (brain waves and/or facial expressions) would yield more convincing results.  Of course, I have my own bias, based in part on the books I mentioned at the outset: I believe the most important factor in happiness is attitude, which is difficult to measure ... I imagine asking "How would you rate your attitude?" would be as nebulous as asking "How happy are you?" (or "How good a driver / leader are you?").

There are a variety of other studies that show that money can buy happiness, that money can't buy happiness (the latter of which was published on the same day as the Pew study ... which, as noted above, showed that money can buy happiness), and that the correlation between money and happiness varies considerably across differerent countries.

One country, Bhutan, has placed Gross National Happiness as a cornerstone of its national policy, articulating four pillars through which to promote this goal:

  • good governance
  • cultural preservation
  • environmental conservation
  • economic development

An insightful article by Jeff Greenwald in Yoga Journal, entitled Happy Land, explores these four dimensions, the implicit and explicit tradeoffs they entail, and the challenges Bhutan faces as it struggles to maintain its focus on happiness in the face of increasing exposure to western perspectives on happiness.  The article concludes with a question of priorities that resonates with issues that I have raised in several posts ... and brings this back full circle again to the Dalai Lama:

How might the United States change if our government and people set aside the mantle of a superpower and focused on happiness as the ultimate goal of our national and individual lives? It's a frustrating subject, as the resources to create such a society are clearly within our means. But resources are not enough. The crucial thing, as the Dalai Lama has pointed out, is motivation—and ours has been compromised by decades of corporate greed, personal materialism, and sitcom reruns.

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