Warm and Fuzzy Capitalism

January 6, 2011

Happy New Year everyone!

Have you made any 2011 resolutions? I have. Next Christmas, I’m going to ignore the fact that the holidays have become a time for thoughtless, aggressive, pushy, relentless consumption. Instead, I resolve to cultivate the more human stuff that really matters, lasts, and multiplies, not only during the holidays, but every non-hyperrational shopping day of the year.

And yes, I’m being serious. You see, I am a capitalist by conviction and by profession, and I believe the best economic system is the one that rewards entrepreneurship and risk-taking, maximizes customer choice, and uses markets to allocate scarce resources. If there’s a better recipe for creating prosperity, I haven’t seen it – and neither have you.  However, we need more meaning in capitalism, especially as it relates to the holidays.

Business has done its bah-humbug brain-dead best to try and shamelessly take control of Christmas in the haggard name of crass, vulgar consumerism. Happiness and prosperity, contrary to popular belief, are not inextricably linked. In fact, when you stop to think about it, the stuff that makes the holidays resonant with happiness is exactly the opposite of the self-interested, profit-maximizing, utility-seeking behavior that’s supposed to, in the gleaming vision of orthodox economics, unleash prosperity.

Isn’t it incredibly striking just 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? What’s even more shocking is that businesses around us, particularly during this time of year, advocate his version of prosperity as well.  Buy more – and happiness will come to you!

At the risk of sounding hopelessly utopian and probably ridiculously idealistic, I boldly pose the following questions:

  • What might happen if the global economy put a vision derived from meaning, purpose, and, above all, happiness first?
  • What 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 during holidays?
  • And how would customer service during the holidays change as a result?
  • What if businesses and economies institutionalized happiness, codifying, observing, measuring, and monitoring it during holidays?
  • Do I sound crazy? Not really. Britain’s already trying it.

Consider Heidi for a moment.  She is a customer service associate at the Big-A department store. During the holidays, she was asked to point shoppers to daily deals, give them discount coupons for needless “stuff” and pack their large sacks with items promised to bring joy to the masses.  The reason that she is doing all of this is not because she wants to, but because she has to – her employer has incented her to sell – to sell quantity and not the quality!

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 we should make an effort!

Businesses 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). Otherwise capitalism will, believe it or not, die. And I say: Long live capitalism!

That’s my resolution anyway. What’s yours?

Photo courtesy of Paul Lowry.

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