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Creating Value from an Abundance of Happiness

J. Walker Smith

illustration of smiling head in profile with three flowers sprouting from its head

We’re much happier than you might realize—here’s what marketers can do to help spread the love

With New Zealand’s announcement that its 2019 national budget would prioritize human well-being over economic growth, happiness is back in the news. Called the Wellbeing Budget, New Zealand’s national plan requires that all new spending be devoted to one or more of five cornerstone areas related to quality of life: transitioning to a sustainable, low-emissions economy; creating social and economic opportunities to thrive in a digital age; boosting the incomes and opportunities of indigenous people; reducing child poverty and family violence; and supporting mental health, particularly for young people.

Alongside these well-being priorities, investments will continue in housing, health, education and infrastructure. New Zealand has committed to monitor progress of its well-being plan in conjunction with its traditional economic and fiscal outlook.

The elevation of well-being as a top priority in New Zealand’s 2019 budget has won a lot of praise and admiration around the world. But there is a noteworthy nuance in the budget policy statement that has not attracted much attention. The well-being outlook informing the budget priorities found that “New Zealanders enjoy relatively high levels of overall well-being but that there are challenges and disparities to address.” In other words, despite some important problems that require immediate and urgent attention, happiness is generally not in short supply.

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Mother Jones blogger and political pundit Kevin Drum reacted to the news of New Zealand’s 2019 budget by posting a chart on Twitter that suggests happiness is in greater abundance than people realize. The chart comes from an Ipsos study called “Perils of Perception” that has been conducted annually since 2012. This research is designed to quantify the gap between perception and reality across a wide variety of social and economic areas.

graph showing correlation between perceived versus actual global happiness

The chart posted by Drum shows that happiness is an area in which people have the greatest misperceptions. The horizontal axis shows the percentage of people in a country who rate themselves as happy. The vertical axis shows the guesses that people make about happiness levels in other countries. If guesses about happiness matched the actual ratings that people give of their own happiness, all countries would line up in a perfect correlation along an upward 45-degree diagonal. Of course, it’s too much to expect a perfect correlation, but the data doesn’t even show a reasonably good one. People underestimate the happiness of others by a substantial margin.

The happiness data shows that the percentage of people in a given country who rate themselves as happy is much higher than the guesses made by people outside that country. For example, 90% of people in the U.S. rate themselves as very or rather happy, but people in other countries think that only about half of Americans are that happy. This pattern of results is true for every country in the world.

In decades past, when economic levels were lower and product quality was mixed, perhaps discontent was the undercurrent of life and happiness was scarce. … The opportunity nowadays is in finding ways to create value from the abundance of happiness, not from relieving a scarcity of happiness.

Marketing is rooted in the idea of scarcity, of people lacking something. Marketers offer products and services to fill that gap. The late Harvard Business School guru Ted Levitt once defined the purpose of a business as getting and keeping a customer. How do you do that? Levitt reminded us that people don’t buy products, they buy solutions to problems—what companies must study are the problems people are trying to solve. As Levitt famously put it, people want quarter-inch holes, not quarter-inch drill bits. To summarize Levitt more conceptually, people want ways to slake the scarcities in their lives.

But regarding happiness, marketers are dealing with abundance, not scarcity. Maybe the best way to approach happiness is not in terms of a gap to fill but as a resource to be developed and utilized. In decades past, when economic levels were lower and product quality was mixed, perhaps discontent was the undercurrent of life and happiness was scarce. But whatever it was then, that is not the case today. The opportunity nowadays is in finding ways to create value from the abundance of happiness, not from relieving a scarcity of happiness.

When scarcity prevails, consumers want to get things to fill gaps, so marketers deliver those things. With abundance, consumers have plenty and marketers should consider offerings that enable consumers to share. Rather than worrying only about deficits of happiness, marketers should help more people get more out of the abundance of happiness. Consumption is no longer just about getting, it’s also about giving. Marketing is no longer solely about filling gaps, but about transforming riches. No longer does value come only from satisfying needs; it comes from spreading abundance, too.

With scarcity, people think mostly of themselves. But abundance encourages people to think more of others. This shift is at work in today’s marketplace, with basic values moving from extreme, narrowly focused self-absorption to a more balanced and inclusive consideration of others. The future of status is self-sacrifice, not self-enrichment.

This makeover of happiness from a problem of scarcity to an opportunity of abundance is bubbling up in many ways. For example, a group of people referred to as the New Singerians is practicing effective altruism by working high-paying jobs that enable them to give as much money as possible to charities that have been vetted for effectiveness. They follow the utilitarian philosophy of Peter Singer, who argues that money should be spent to produce the biggest increase in net utility or happiness. In practical terms, this means that the unit of happiness a rich person gets from spending a dollar is less than what a poor person gets, so the abundance of happiness enjoyed by rich people is better shared than spent.

Many social trends reflect this focus on others and the aspiration of self-sacrifice, whether it’s Greta Thunberg’s climate change activism; David Brooks’ leadership of Weave: The Social Fabric Project, sponsored by the Aspen Institute; or the Green New Deal that was first articulated in 2006 and has only now achieved widespread awareness.

Brands are also catching on. Most famously, Nike and its Colin Kaepernick ad grabbed headlines. More and more, this is what consumers will demand: brands that find ways to create and share the value available from the under-utilized abundance of happiness.

J. Walker Smith is chief knowledge officer for brand and marketing at Kantar Consulting and co-author of four books, including Rocking the Ages. Follow him on Twitter at @jwalkersmith.​