Unframing Happiness

Richard Wallace

Is everybody happy?

Once, happiness was little more than fresh meat, a dry cave and a warm fire.

Then, it was about getting closer to whatever god you believed in.

Most recently, that quest for religious ecstasy has given way to a fascination with technologies that are sometimes, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, indistinguishable from magic.

Electric light, for example, illuminated more than the dark. It gave us the ability to work beyond sundown and suddenly, happiness was tied to productivity and achievement.

That was until Europe’s first industrialised bloodbath, where the Lost Generation found its ideals of happiness blasted apart and smashed into the mud.

Not surprisingly, for those who’d stared mortality in the face at an extraordinarily young age, happiness was then expressed through hedonism.

They were alive, so they chased sensations and the marketplace was quick to oblige, making things easier, more convenient, cheaper and fun. A list of qualities that are so familiar to us because they remain the guiding stars of modern day ‘happiness.’

For many years, the holy trinity of alcohol, nicotine and sugar were the affordable delivery-systems for this consumption-based version of happiness, providing relaxation, good times, quick highs and easy smiles.

But as any 4-year-old will tell you, even the most awesome sugar high can only last so long – and the comedown has been heavy in more ways than one.

We’re fatter, tired, spiritually unfulfilled and (contradictory as it sounds) thanks to the addition of social media, we’re lonely, too.

So, happiness has again been redefined. This time, as wellbeing.

These days, our search is for things that can’t be bought, sold or artificially sweetened; experiences, family, fun, health and prosperity.

In the commercial world, our first instinct is to ask what this means for brands. But we’ll only get the right answer when we ask what it means for society.

For now, the happiness we crave is not dictated by companies and increasingly, can’t be provided by them.

We want a level of control over what we feel in a way that’s more nuanced and long lasting than eating junk food, drinking booze or wearing the latest Nikes.

We want ethical consumption. Artisanal, not mass-produced.

Of course, these things alone won’t make us happy, but the idea of putting feelings (and our control of them) at the forefront of the consumer experience will play a large role in how we define it.

That’s not to say brands don’t have a role in our future happiness. It’s just that I suspect the foreseeable future will belong to the brands brave enough to slow down and contemplate how they can play a positive role in society.

And prosper as a result.

Wayne Guthrie is co-founder of Fearlessly Frank – an innovation consultancy that helps businesses develop and take to market ideas that drive revenue and growth.