A Reflection on Trends towards Happiness and what it means to Business

As I’m reading and studying trends related to various world issues, I noticed a few trends that gave me cause to ponder. Beyond speculation, these trends may also give us clues as to how we might organize our businesses to contribute to the betterment of the world.

For example, on reading the World Values Survey, there appeared to be a trend toward individualism and secularism until 1980, after which the values seemed to take a little bit of a reversal at least in most cases. While there was no discussion on this point in the chart, I have to wonder if there was a pause to re-think the issue of continued movement towards secularism and individualism.  

What’s even more interesting is that the Happiness Index taken by the World Values Survey suggested decreasing happiness in the US until 1980 (this same period of trending toward secularism and individualism) after which there was a reversal. The US happiness index also increased from 1980 onward peaking at 2006 during the Bush administration, although perhaps by that point with the anticipation of change on the horizon.
 Still, I have to wonder whether the reversal in trend toward secularism and individualism suggests.

Perhaps it is that people are only comfortable with these trends to a degree and then begin to recognize that human choice is ultimately best served when there is an alignment with the Will of God (or acceptance of higher values as represented by religious belief). In other words, people choose to submit their own will to a greater Will and are subsequently happier when they do so. The reasons for this may be related to feelings of altruism or having a greater sense of purpose but it may also be that our happiness really comes from sharing happiness with others. Serving others who are not grateful generally does little to lift the spirits.

There also seemed to be an overall increase of happiness during the period for most societies as they trends toward global consciousness, an increase of wealth and as their ability to make choices increase. Some of this is contradicted by other studies which suggest that too much choice actually causes anxiety, complexity and a decrease in happiness.  In other words, as we spend much more time trying to choose, we become less satisfied because we are confused by our choices and less satisfied after the fact with our choices because we contemplate all the other choices that we are now living without. With simpler choices we simply make the best choice we can of a few items and then moving on with life.  This would suggest that the increase in choices related to increasing happiness is something else. Perhaps this freedom of choice is related more to what we do with our time, our ability to buy nutritious food, our ability to live in decent homes, have better education and our ability to vote. 

Another interesting dynamic is that societies which consider themselves as less democratic have a higher regard for the importance of democracy and yet are more critical of their own country’s democratic structures suggesting perhaps that the more democracy becomes an accepted norm, the more we also learn to take our choices for granted.  

From a sustainability perspective, the increase in happiness related to collective consciousness and a move towards spirituality rather than secular materialism is undoubtedly a good thing. On the other hand, without spiritual or values based education, the increase in economic freedom of the many billions in developing countries also signals a serious challenge to the global environment. Freedom of choice is good when we are educated to think in ways that are good for the world, but democracy and freedom once taken for granted also lead to a sense of entitlement which lead us to believe that we can enjoy the world’s resources with impunity. So while this may bring us temporary happiness, it has also brought us closer to the brink of environmental tragedy. The carbon economy being the most prevalent example, while benefiting our freedom in the western world, has contributed to untold misery of countless millions who we see only as statistics on our big screen HD TVs. If we were to measure the happiness index of Pakistan at this moment, it is certain that there would be a major dip.  

For businesses what do these trends suggest?  

It is difficult to make any firm conclusions in translating these trends to business directions but we may be able to draw some conclusion.

1) Types of Products

If we are actually interested in serving our client’s true happiness, we would read the trends that suggest a move away from individualism and secularism and create more products and services which help us all to operate together as a society in ways which promote an increasing values base and which serve the common good (sustainability being an example), all while keeping choices relatively limited. Interestingly, companies like GM, with the reduction of the number of brands (i.e. the demise of Oldsmobile and Pontiac)  have actually begun down this path of simplification even if for seemingly unrelated economic reasons. Could it be that too much choice was also too much for the consumer? 

2) Quality of Products 

Quality in products also introduces a form of simplification to the consumer. If you don’t have to keep fixing your car every few weeks, your life is more straight forward. The same is true for any product which is more durable.   

3) Conceptual Freedom

When people are free to use their time in service to others, especially those they choose to serve, they tend to be happier. This suggests that while challenge at work is important, finding the right work environment is critical for both the employee and the company. Free time after work is also necessary. Creating a working environment where people are free to learn and interact with others in the work place and which limits their working time so that they are also free to spend time with friends and family will ultimately contribute to a happier society. Creating freedom to interact, however, is generally not enough in a working environment. Often there is a need for education on team work, values based consultation and respect for the contributions of others. Placing a team challenge in front of an aggressive group of competitive individuals (i.e. not a team) is often a recipe for backbiting, smears, conflict and other forms of disunity which contribute nothing to the overall happiness of the organization, nor in the end, to the service of clients.  

4) Social Contribution

Employers do well to make part of their organization about contributing to the common good and allowing employees to participate in socially oriented endeavors. While suggested by recent trends away from individualism, this concept is also supported by studies of what employees value in companies where they are employeed. Salary is important but it’s not everything. Economic studies have proven that people are willing to sacrifice money both for justice and for altruistic reason. And there is no doubt consumers will also be swayed towards companies that hold high values. Ikea is an interesting example of a company which has grow partially as a result of it’s environmental orientation. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my conclusions and please share these ideas and  articles with others if you like them, either by e-mailing the link or though the share button. 

All the best, 

Garth Schmalenberg

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