Consider a contrast between two visions of the festive season — the first, a time for consumption (thoughtless, aggressive, pushy, relentless); the second, a time for what you might call cultivation (the human stuff that really matters, lasts, and multiplies).
While, admittedly, business has done its bah-humbug brain-dead best to try and shamelessly commandeer Christmas in the haggard name of crass, vulgar consumerism, try as the masters of the universe might, they can’t stop the holidays from being about the deeper elements of an authentically well-lived life: lasting relationships, human intimacy, animating passion, enduring ideals, higher purpose, shared values, meaning (and maybe a homemade fruitcake or two). In fact, when you stop to think about it, the stuff that makes the holidays resonant with happiness is exactly the opposite of the nakedly self-interested, hyperrational, profit-maximizing, utility-seeking behaviour that’s supposed to, in the gleaming vision of orthodox economics, unleash prosperity.
Isn’t it just a little bit striking how that approach to prosperity is suspiciously, well, Scroogely? And isn’t it just a little bit odd that even though most five-year-olds can give you a deeply serious, thoroughly instructive, slightly hilarious talking-to about Scrooge’s existential emptiness, we continue to cling to his version of prosperity?
So here’s a hopelessly utopian, ridiculously idealistic, unrepentantly impertinent question. What might happen if the global economy put that second vision first — the one about meaning, purpose, and, above all, happiness? What might happen if happiness wasn’t just the fuzzy-wuzzy, airy-fairy notion so beloved of personal coaches, new age preachers, and leadership gurus, but something as tough as steel, written into the fabric of our economy? What if economies institutionalized happiness, codifying, observing, measuring, and monitoring it? Sound crazy? Britain’s already trying it.
What if we measured the quality of outcomes instead of just the quantity of output — which is all that GDP really is? Maybe instead of sweating over whether customers were merely “satisfied” with their products, boardrooms would start asking whether said products actually made people happier.
Yes, happiness is complicated. There are many competing ways to measure it, some of which are more subjective than others. So institutionalizing happiness is far from a trivial, straightforward, or even well-understood task.
But here’s the thing: measuring “product” or national income used to be considered monumentally difficult, if not impossible, too — until, in the wake of the Great Depression, America had the courage and foresight to invest in a pioneering effort to take it on. Today, the BEA calls GDP “one of the great inventions of the 20th century.” They’re right: it almost without precedent shaped how we conceive of the economy. And, unfortunately, still does.
Maybe it’s time to begin the 21st century with a similar bang. Maybe happiness should be the first greatest achievement of 21st-century economics. And maybe to escape the Great Stagnation — just as GDP was the key that finally unlocked the iron cage of the Great Depression by letting us understand what was really going wrong with the economy — it will have to be.
We frequently assume that pain is acceptable because it’s a prerequisite to prosperity. That’s a nice morality tale of redemption and original sin. But is it really true? After all, we’ve undergone a whole lot of pain lately — but I don’t see much prosperity on the horizon. Perhaps, just maybe, the much-misunderstood, oft-misquoted Adam Smith said it best:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.”
Not their “self-interest.” Their “self-love.” Smith’s conception of the relationship between money and prosperity was more complex, nuanced, and richer than it’s often made out to be. To me, “self-love” sounds a lot like it’s not just about “pecuniary,” monetary, gain — but about something like happiness. It sounds a little bit, in fact, like Adam Smith wasn’t asking us all to be Scrooge, and to infinitely Scrooge one another with maximum Scroogitude. He might just have been asking us to strive to transcend the Scrooge inside each of us and discover what real wealth means.
It’s not about having — it’s about meaning.
This article was originally written by Umair Haque, and full credit goes to the Harvard Business Review, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.