The Business of Happiness

This article was originally published by Canay Atalay on  on the Human Works website.

This is article #2 in the Happy Innovation Series, read article #1 here.

The Business of Happiness

The last 500 years we have witnessed a breath-taking series of revolutions. The Earth has been united into a single ecological and historical sphere. The economy has grown exponentially and humankind today enjoys the kind of wealth that used to be the stuff of fairy tales. Science and the industrial revolutions have given humankind superpowers and practically limitless energy. The social order has been completely transformed, as have politics, daily life and human psychology.

But are we happier? Historians seldom ask such questions. Or business people. Economies depend on people purchasing and using things to feel happier for a temporary time so they come back again, keep on sharing more data and get exposed to more advertising. Do you think happy people with good social relationships and satisfactory personal lives would spend hours on social media scrolling, peeking into others’ lives and craving for more likes? Of course not. So it’s our job to think critically, ask questions and start with a basic one:

What is happiness?

Aldous Huxley, the author of dystopian novel Brave New World, presents a disconcerting world based on the biological assumption that happiness equals pleasure. To be happy is no more and no less than experiencing pleasant bodily sensations. Since our biochemistry limits the volume and duration of these sensations, the only way to make people experience a high level of happiness over an extended period of time is to manipulate their biochemical system.

Some scholars also contest the pleasure definition of happiness. In a famous study Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel Prize in economics, asked people to recount a typical workday, going through it episode by episode and evaluating how much they enjoyed or disliked each moment. He discovered what seems to be a paradox in most people’s view of their lives. Let’s take the example of raising a child: When you count the bad experiences, how could people still see their children as the chief source of their happiness? Maybe happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments? Happiness consists of seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness: our values. Our values make all the difference to whether we see ourselves as miserable slaves to a baby dictator or as lovingly nurturing a new life.

Businesses are selling pleasure with a fake promise of happiness that is superficial and addictive. Real happiness is not a KPI to many businesses, they want you to come back to spend more time and money to sustain their business. That’s why McDonald’s have Happy Meals. It’s why, when Coca-Cola recently changed its tagline from ‘Open Happiness’ to ‘Taste The Feeling’, it maintained its focus on happy images of people connecting and engaging one another. The same goes for fashion, makeup companies, hardware companies, telecoms, gaming and social media businesses and even banks.

Advertising is based on one thing, happiness’ says Don Draper in Mad Men. Though fictional, Don manages to vocalise the fundamental principle of marketing that emotion takes precedence over rationality. It is no longer just the marketing or the taste, every second spent on services are designed to feed users’ dopamine addiction. Just check out the increasing social media addictions of children, their booming obesity, depression and emerging diseases rates such as ADHD, and children being over-medicated as young as six years old.

High levels of dopamine block the release and transport of serotonin. So more dopamine means less serotonin, and this prevents our experience of contentment or true happiness. As long as we are stuck in addictive patterns, we can’t be content and we will never be happy. It explains why depressive adolescents can cure themselves by cutting out Facebook and Instagram.

Liberalism sees the feelings of individuals as the supreme source of authority. What is good and what is bad, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what ought to be and what ought not to be, are all determined by what each one of us feels. Liberal politics is based on the idea that the voters know the best and there is no need for Big Brother to tell what is good for us. Liberal economics is based on the idea that the customer is always right. Liberal art declares that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Students in liberal schools are taught to think for themselves. But then why aren’t we creating paradise-like lives for all with all the power, wealth and technology we have access to?

Which Century-Old is Your Thinking?

At the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, pilgrims were greeted by the inscription: Know thyself. The implication is the average person is ignorant of his true self and is therefore likely to be ignorant of true happiness. To sum up, subjective well-being questionnaires identify our wellbeing with our subjective feelings based on our mostly un-analysed thoughts. We have a tendency to identify the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of particular emotional states.

Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes. When they feel anger, they think ‘I am angry. This is my anger.’ They consequently spend their life avoiding the same kind of feelings and pursuing others. They never realise that they are not their feelings and the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery, or at best in a life that is ‘Less than its potential’.

In the 17th century, with Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy, we assumed that human beings are, at their core, selfish creatures. So we learnt to be afraid of each other. Our economic and political systems are based mainly on these beliefs. In the 18th century, Jean Jacques Rousseau claimed human beings are good in nature: we don’t need any police or government but we need to organize.

In our world today, we need to collaborate and self-organise more than ever. That’s why we need to be aware of our internal and external assumptions. Assumptions are not only in ourselves but also in our environment (such as surveillance cameras or unwritten community/ company cultures). We can go further and faster through innovation, but we still have too much fear. We need conscious leaders to rethink the future of society, with exponential technologies.

Existing addictive services and products are planned and designed by smart and talented designers, coders, psychologists, neuroscientists and business people. We are all responsible for our own life and business designs, as well as for leading and innovating consciously. We cannot change the world without first changing ourselves. Happy innovation starts with a happy innovator. We are the narrative makers: what we think, feel and decide will exponentially affect our children.

Happy Innovation Compass: Children First World Design

We innovate with dreams of better services, jobs, cities and lives for ourselves. Conscious leaders must find a worldwide co-operation that does not threaten the diversity of our lives. Our new cosmic story is the first unifying vision that is true for every person on Earth.

Everyone, regardless of their scientific, religious, social, cultural background, is capable of expanding their perspective once they grasp this story and their personal role in it. It can help motivate us to protect cosmically rare and invaluable phenomenon evolving on Earth: naturally intelligent life, upcoming generations, our children and us.

That’s why I see ‘Children First World Design’ as a great compass for all innovators. This approach uses both holistic and analytical thinking, considering both the present and the future. Beyond thinking, it also transcends ‘being’ in the joy of meaningful innovation, together with the most innovative human role models; children.

Here are 4 steps to innovate with ‘Children First World Design’:

1- Does this idea gives me happiness and joy? If it doesn’t make you happy, it won’t make others happy. Change the idea or make it an idea that makes your heart sing, like a child while playing.

2- How do your innovations affect children, their wellbeing, environment, families, their air, water and cultures? If bad, just change it. ASAP. (Article 3 on UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.)

3- Remember, children are way more creative than us. Why not co-create our future? Design with children for children. (Examples in the next article)

4- How can we learn together? Every innovation (of products, services, systems, companies, leadership) needs learning programs to foster innovation in the culture. Role model children’s learning with joy and curiosity to design learning programs for your teams, partners and target audiences.

Cover photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash.

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