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Customer Happiness – Tackle anxiety-points [OECD Study]

A major landmark study on “The Origins of Happiness” is out today, and being presented at the London School of Economics (co-organised by the OECD).  The study, co-authored by Lord Richard Layard (who authors the World Happiness Report), and is based on new research with 200,000 participants across Europe, US and Australia (all the data is here).

The headline. Human happiness is flatlining. Happiness has not improved significantly in the developed world since records began 50 years ago. From a political perspective, this is odd since population happiness is the best predictor (.64) of whether a government gets re-elected (better than growth (.36), or unemployment (-.06), or inflation (.15)).

And for marketers, there’s a super insight. Happiness is about the absence of anxiety.  So stop fetishing pain points, and start focusing on anxiety points – worries of future threats and insecurity.

More generally, the looked at the key drivers of happiness, and has some noteworthy headline findings

  • Happiness is not about money, differences in income explain only 1% of the variation in happiness. A doubling your income only results in a 0.2 bump on a 0-10 single item happiness scale* (see below)
  • Overall increases in income or education have little effect on the overall happiness of the population
  • Happiness is not about inequality, inequality explains under 2 per cent in any country of the variance of happiness (however, an extra dollar is 10 times more effective in boosting happiness to a poor person than to someone who is 10 times richer)
  • Happiness is about the absence of anxiety (and depression) – psychological discomfort associated with the anticipation of future threat
  • Happiness is about mental health.  The biggest distinguishing feature between happy and unhappy people is neither poverty, unemployment or physical illness, but mental illness.
  • Eliminating anxiety and depression would reduce misery by 20% compared to just 5% if policymakers focused on eliminating poverty
  • Happiness is about having a loving partner – this is the R in the ARC of happiness (the finding that happiness is driven by as sense of Autonomy (Freedom), Relatedness (Connectedness) and Competence (Mastery)
  • Education has a very small effect on happiness , compared with, for example, having a partner.
  • Happiness is about being in work – people derive a sense of satisfaction from life from work, whilst unemployment cripples happiness

For marketers, much of this may seem beyond their pay grade – big questions about what drives human happiness.

But there are practical implications.  In addition to focusing alleviating anxiety, brands could invest in the gift-economy.  Gifts help build relationships, and relationships drive happiness, so if you want happy customers, sell gifts. Creating a gift version of your product or service could be the single best thing you can do to contribute to happiness.

Of course, there are caveats with any correlational study based on self-reports – correlation does not mean causation.  But the study provides some hard and useful evidence for any for whom the pursuit of happiness matters.

Just as Thomas Jefferson noted that  “The care of human life and happiness… is the only legitimate object of good government”, we’d say this – The care of human life and happiness is the only legitimate objective of a good brand.

* Happiness Question

Overall how satisfied are you with your life, these days? (0 = extremely satisfied, 10 = extremely satisfied).

Adapted to brands

Overall how satisfied are you with Brand X, these days?

Happiness is flatlining.


Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.