This is the 32nd in a series of 32 posts—each one a section from Euro RSCG Worldwide PR’s “The Big Little Book of Nexts,” which in total features more than 150 sightings for 2012. It’s the biggest, most robust annual trends report ever from @erwwpr CEO Marian Salzman and her trendspotting team. To download the entire report, go to the Brainfood tab at eurorscgpr.com.
There is increasing convergence between the notions of health and wellness, the experience of psychological well-being and the influence of the economy. In economics, influential people are questioning the value of GDP (gross domestic product) as a way of measuring the economic health of a country. One of the criticisms is that it puts all economic activity in the plus column, even when the activity involves rectifying the damaging effects created by some economic activity—such as fixing a wrecked car, cleaning up pollution or dealing with public health problems such as overweight and diabetes. Another is that it only measures activity where money changes hands; buying your food gets added into GDP but growing your own food doesn’t. Superficially, that’s understandable, but on deeper consideration it doesn’t make sense. In the lingering hangover of the credit bubble and economic bust of 2007-08, people high and low have been questioning the costs and consequences of pursuing economic growth pure and simple—especially when much of the economic growth of the bubble years was fueled by consumer debt. There has been serious interest in the notion of gross national happiness, pioneered by the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. In fact, in July 2011 the United Nations adopted a resolution calling on member states to “give more importance to happiness and well-being in determining how to achieve and measure social and economic development.” Skeptics inclined to regard this as idealistic waffle might care to bear in mind that the U.S. Declaration of Independence specifies “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as unalienable rights. Interest in thinking different about quality of life has also been stimulated by research showing that above a certain level of income, more money doesn’t lead to great wellness or well-being. In 2010, University of Southern California Professor Richard Easterlin published an update of his landmark 1974 study about the relationship between income and well-being. Looking at 37 countries of a range of economic statuses, with measurements over an average of 22 years, the new study found that happiness ratings within a country don’t rise with income. This is the so-called Easterlin Paradox; increased income doesn’t correlate with increased happiness. To paraphrase Easterlin, increasing well-being might require more focus on enhancing personal factors such as health and family life rather than accumulating more material goods. That’s just as well, at least in most Western economies, because the longer the economic crisis and jobless recovery drag on, the more people are easing off retail therapy and seeking happiness in other ways. This raises two questions that have been engaging people for thousands of years, and particularly over the past decade: What is happiness, and how do you achieve it? It’s an issue that has spawned a whole sub-industry of self-help books and seminars since the 1960s. Only in the past decade or so, however, have researchers, academics and healthcare professionals looked at the issue systematically and scientifically. Some solid answers are coming from the emerging field of positive psychology, centered at the University of Pennsylvania, which is concerned with identifying the “strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive,” according to Penn’s Positive Psychology Center. Specialists in the field are finding that hedonistic experiences of pleasure such as a new gadget, a full belly or a great massage do not lead to greater life satisfaction; conversely, pursuing personal growth, developing potential, achieving personal excellence and contributing to the lives of others create a more enduring sense of well-being, or eudaimonia. This somehow makes sense, although it goes against the grain of the past 30-plus years. Until recently, it was pretty much taken for granted that happiness would come from more material abundance, more great-value consumer products and increasing consumer choice. But not only does ever more money to buy increasing amounts of stuff not lead to ever more happiness, it’s now becoming clear that we might have so much consumer choice that it’s making people feel more anxious. It turns out that in this go-go-go, always-on, 24/7 hyperconnected world, people in all walks of life in all countries are vulnerable to decision fatigue. Quite simply, the more decisions people have to make throughout the day, the more tired their brains get, until eventually they resort either to rash, do-whatever decisions or cautious, do-nothing decisions. No wonder 66 percent of respondents in a recent Euro RSCG survey of 19 countries agreed that “Most of us would be better off if we lived more simply,” while only 8 percent disagreed (68 percent versus 7 percent in the United States). One of the many effects of decision fatigue is that people have progressively and measurably less willpower the more decisions they have to make; that’s bad news for weight watchers who have to walk past the impulse purchase shelves near the supermarket checkout, and it plays against people intending to go for a run when the TV and sofa beckon after a long day of work. On average, people spend an exhausting four hours every day resisting temptation. Giving in to it has stressful negative effects on wellness, well-being and self-esteem. According to Florida State University social psychologist Roy Baumeister in his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, the smart approach is not to rely on willpower to salvage situations at the last moment. Instead, develop strategies to avoid temptation and stress. Doing this effectively creates an all-round win-win on every front where it’s applied: better health and fitness, less stress, greater self-control and enhanced self-esteem.