The Virtual Pursuit of Happiness

The Virtual Pursuit of Happiness

Why are Lawyers 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression and more likely to end up divorced? Why can’t money buy you happiness? What does happiness (and fear) matter to hospitality and retail?

The plethora of online posters and pop–culture platitudes would indicate we should know how to make someone (even a Lawyer) happy. However it’s real essence seems more the stuff of clichéd internet google images, rather than hard science. The truth is that happiness is one of the less studied of the human emotions. It’s not something we can 'cure' or 'treat' easily; there are many programmes (and research) on sadness, anger and fear. It is essential to understand this emotion however as it informs much about hospitality and retail success. The customer's emotional response is an increasingly important subject of research and analysis. The emotional responses we are all aware of – the feeling of overcoming a primal fear – is the primary driver that moves customers in all sectors. Google’s Abigail Posner says we can’t underestimate the importance of understanding the science of emotion in marketing:

Understand the emotional appeal and key drivers behind the discovery, viewing, sharing and creation of online video, photography and visual content….In the language of the visual web, when we share a video or an image, we’re not just sharing the object, but we’re sharing in the emotional response it creates.

The emotion of happiness is now beginning to be investigated in a more scientific manner. A growing number of researchers are uncovering surprising facts about the nature of joy, delight and the more evasive one, happiness. One of the greatest challenges in the study of happiness, lies in its definition. Happiness is a big umbrella term that can mean different things to different people. We are clearer on the causes and definitions of unhappiness, sadness and depression. In fact we can begin to understand why those lawyers are so unhappy. Martin Seligman, psychology professor at University of Penn explains that they have trained their minds to seek out the bad in life, because pessimists excel at law:

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.

So how can we help customers (and Lawyers) get their mind out of these negative loops? You can train your mind and your employees minds to be happy; it’s not that complicated. If you take the words of the angry Hermione telling her friend Ron (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix),

Just because you've got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn't mean we all have.

Actually though, we all might have. New research from the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow, published in Current Biology, says the range of human emotion may be a little closer to a teaspoon than previously thought. It says we’re really only capable of four “basic” emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. These basic 4 emotions tend to meld together in myriad ways in our brains to create our layered emotional state that is true both online and in hospitality. Robert Plutchik’s famous wheel of emotions shows just some of the well known emotional layers.


One of the most interesting developemnts has come from the work of psychoanalystDonald Winnicott. He discovered that our first emotional action in life is to respond to our mother’s smile with a smile of our own. Obviously, joy and happiness are hard-wired into all of us. Winnicott’s discovery of a baby’s social smile also tells us that joy increases when it is shared. No wonder, then, that happiness is the main driver for social media sharing. Emotions layered with and related to happiness make up the majority of this list of the top drivers of viral content as studied by Fractl. Here’s what Fractl’s study of top emotional drivers looks like overlaid on the emotion wheel:


One of the primary drivers of buying (see my post here) is fear rather thanhappiness. The part of the brain helps us determine the significance of any scary event is the amygdala and decides how we respond (fight or flight). fear can also cause another response that might be interesting to marketers in particular. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrated that consumers who experienced fear while watching a film felt a greater affiliation with a present brand than those who watched films evoking other emotions, like happiness, sadness or excitement.

The theory is that when we’re scared, we need to share the experience with others – and if no one else is around, even a non-human brand will do. Fear can stimulate people to report greater brand attachment.

So the secret is relatively simple even for Lawyers (and all of us); when it comes to thinking about the future, be optimistic. Optimism can make you happier. Then you must teach your brain (and your staff) to seek out the good things in life. Rather than asking how we can get happier, we should be asking how we can increase happiness all around us. When you make positive changes in your own life, those effects ripple out from you and you can find yourself surrounded by the very thing you wanted. Hospitality in a nutshell.


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