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LONDON—The last two decades have seen the world double down on a growing obsession with ease and convenience. Industries, fortunes, and entire ways of life have been built on the idea that easier is better, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
In 2019 Amazon became the world’s most valuable brand, making founder Jeff Bezos the wealthiest human being in modern history. The same year ride-hailing app Uber was estimated to have 110 million users worldwide – almost three times the population of Canada. 2019 also saw the global market for food delivery services like Deliveroo estimated at $94 billion and expected to grow at just over 9% per year, reaching $134.5 billion by 2023—more than twice the GDP of the quaint European tax haven of Luxembourg.
It’s important to remember that although Amazon, Uber and Deliveroo sell products, services, transportation or takeaways—at the core of their business model is something far simpler. They trade ease, for money. And it works brilliantly.
Ease is by no means a bad thing. Throughout history, much progress has been made in pursuit of it. From the wheel to the Internet, electricity to agriculture, ease has made the world incalculably better. It’s been one of the base drives behind the success of the human race. Ease gives us more time, fewer obstacles, and more ways to enjoy life. All in all, to make us happier.
Or so we’d think.
We’re seeing a counterintuitive trend in the developed world—as life gets easier, people appear to be getting unhappier. According to the 2019 World Happiness Report, this unhappiness is on the rise. Based on data stretching back to 2005, the prevalence of feelings of worry, sadness, and anger has been steadily increasing. They’re up by more than 27% in the last fifteen years.
This effect is particularly severe in the UK and the US. Research suggests that American adults have been becoming steadily less happy since 2000, while adolescents have been experiencing more depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm since 2010.
“We are in an era of rising tensions and negative emotions,” says economist Jeffrey D. Sachs. “These findings point to underlying challenges that need to be addressed.”
So why is it happening?
The scientific jury is still out, but there may be a couple of things that can start to point us to the answers. There are two fundamental laws we seem to have forgotten. One is a fundamental law of the universe. The other, a fundamental law of human nature.
- You don’t get something for nothing.
- Easy, doesn’t make us happy.
However you measure it, the Western World is in a sorry state. What can we do to correct our course? There might be a glimmer of hope in the most unexpected of places. A global pandemic.
Stay Home, Get Active
In April of this year, a colleague Sam Shannon and I wrote a short human-interest piece following a discussion about why Brits were suddenly baking bread ‘en masse’ during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The baking spike was so profound that according to Google Trends, from March to April UK searches for ‘how to make bread’ increased by 769% in less than a week.
The piece was originally presented as a bit of light relief looking into possible explanations for this otherwise unexpected behaviour, until we stumbled across something more significant. Something that we hoped might suggest what we’ve lost, and what we might be taking the first steps toward regaining. It occurred to us that in the midst of the greatest public health crisis of our generation, people were doing something difficult, frustrating, complicated, messy, hard-to-get-right – and it was making them happy. Really happy.
It wasn’t just baking, either. There were reports on the news, Google Trend spikes, and countless articles about people taking on housework, repairs, painting, gardening, cycling, pottery, cooking, yoga, and learning new skills like drawing and languages. Rates of all kinds of work-to-result activities were skyrocketing during the same time frame.
We were intrigued, so we asked colleagues, family, and friends who had baked during lockdown to show us their creations. What we found were people willing and eager to talk about their baking experience with stories that made us laugh, cry and tear up. Their stories also made us hungry. We were inundated with beautiful shots of loaves in baskets, painstakingly folded in napkins, resting on cooling racks and strategically sliced to present their most delicious angles.
Logically, difficult or frustrating tasks are counterintuitive activities when you’re stressed, scared and under pressure. But people were finding the opposite. Swathes of the British population were rediscovering something. A value that previous generations were well aware of but that we’d lost along the way. We were observing a return to things that take work but offer fulfillment—taking real effort, to give real value. The antidote to our modern malaise may be simpler than we first thought.
Hand Made Happiness, It’s Now Yours To Enjoy
We’ve been conditioned to believe that happiness is the result of the things and experiences we purchase. But what about the things we make? Can making also make us happy?
Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California is a world-renowned expert on the neurological basis of happiness. He is specifically an expert in the often bundled together, yet subtly different, concepts of pleasure and happiness. He simplifies the difference between them by associating them with the functions of serotonin and dopamine, two of our brain’s main reward system neurotransmitters.
Lustig describes pleasure as short-lived, visceral, immediately gratifying, caused by substances or behaviours, and mainly being a result of dopamine. Happiness, on the other hand, is long-lived, ethereal, less immediate, and not brought about by substances or behaviours. Happiness is mainly a result of serotonin.
Dopamine is easy to spike, it can come from a sugary snack or a social media like. But serotonin is more difficult. It comes from fulfillment, achievement and activity. Dopamine is taken, serotonin is earned. The same goes for pleasure and happiness.
Perhaps today’s bakers have unwittingly rediscovered this central tenet of human psychology – that happiness is earned, not taken. Serotonin, not dopamine.
Brands Can Help Foster Personal Fulfillment
In recent weeks, I’ve been looking for lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m a believer that advertising, the industry I work in, has a considerable voice in society, and with that voice comes a considerable responsibility which is often shirked.
There’s an opportunity here, for brands to start taking responsibility for the consequences of what they sell. To use their power and influence in a way that’s good for society, not just their balance sheets.
Amazon, Uber and Deliveroo sell ease in the same way that cigarette companies sell cigarettes, or alcohol companies, alcohol. There is a responsibility in selling something that may be damaging to human health, a responsibility that up until now hasn’t been a priority. After all, the tobacco and alcohol industries became regulated for good reason.
Our current state of widespread unhappiness could be the price we’re paying for the crusade against inconvenience, and it’s a steep price at that. But it’s not all bad for brands—there could even be one of those semi-mythical opportunities for brands to sell products whilst actually doing some good for society. Two objectives that very rarely align. The pathway is counterintuitive because a smart marketing idea today involves the customer and makes her “work” for the answer.
There’s been a glimmer of light in the last dark few months. People appear to be consciously turning back towards the fulfilling. We seem to be rediscovering what we were coming close to losing. For the first time in years, we’re actively choosing the inconvenient – and it’s making us happy.
Maybe it’s time we stopped to look at ourselves and our habits and recognise the growing dangers of “easy” while celebrating the benefits of manual labor, patience, and savoring the outcomes.