The Glass Ceiling of Happiness

The New Capitalist ManifestoIn the past, we’ve written about how people who are are happy (or become happy) significantly boost the chances that their friends will become happy. But what if there were a limited amount of happiness in the world?

This is the argument Umair Haque makes in his new book, The New Capitalist Manifesto. While the bulk of Haque’s book is about why and how the cornerstones of capitalism as we know it must be changed in order to achieve true prosperity, his discussion of happiness caught my eye.

“The overriding goal of an industrial era business is, as long as it is profitable, to push more product at people, whether it makes them better off–or worse off.” states Haque. “Those incentives are deeply at odds with postmodern society’s Prozac-flavored problem: what you might call happiness scarcity.”

Haque goes on to summarize research which proves that, despite increasing incomes, people just aren’t getting any happier. In fact, he cites the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, which reports that the percentage of very happy people in the United States peaked at 38 percent in the early 1970s and has fallen to 32% since. Haque argues, “Capitalism as we know it has hit a glass ceiling of happiness–a limit to the amount of happiness and very happy people its cornerstones can create in the long run.”

Why? Because happiness doesn’t depend on material wealth, but on well-being. And while connectedness, economic security, and healthfulness are what defines our well-being, these are all put in jeopardy by the practices of corporations that seek pure profit and nothing else (think: plastic toys filling up our landfills and junk food filling up our arteries). So, in a sense, capitalism for capitalism’s sake is actually making society less happy.

Fortunately, Haque provides a blueprint for how capitalism can actually make people happier. The key is to focus on difference rather than differentiation: “In the industrial era, firms sought to differentiate products and services. The name of the game was adding perceived value through more elaborate brands, cleverer slogans, or more gripping ads. Difference, in contrast, is not about how differentiated our stuff is, but whether we can make a difference to people, communities, society, and future generations.”

Haque isn’t arguing that we should all go out and start non-profits. He’s making the point that capitalism in the 21st century doesn’t just require that we do things right, but that we also do the right things. In a small, crowded world with limited resources, our well-being depends on it.

What companies have you seen that strive for difference and not just differentiation?

Read more from Umair Haque on his excellent blog or on his always-fascinating Twitter stream.