John C. Havens is EVP, Strategy and Engagement at Yoxi.tv, an organization that discovers and elevates social entrepreneurs by leveraging their expertise for global business opportunities. He can be reached at email@example.com.
What if generosity were a currency? This was a question posed by the Danish chocolate company Anthon Berg for its recent Generous Store campaign. The company opened a pop-up store for one day in Copenhagen last winter, and distributed chocolate as payment to individuals who promised to perform a generous deed for a loved one.
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Chocolate lovers posted to the company's Facebook page, sharing promises like “serving breakfast in bed.” Then they picked up their chocolate payment at the store and essentially broadcast to their social graph to "pay it forward."
Research suggests that paying it forward is something the average person enjoys. Søren Christensen, a partner in Anthon Berg’s ad agency, says his company's findings showed that seven out of ten people were happy when they did something good for other people. But only one out of ten people ever experienced generosity on a daily basis.
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Why the disparity, and why does it matter?
Two reasons. First, there’s a growing movement to standardize the metrics around well-being that can lead to happiness. Second, the combination of big data, your social graph, and artificial intelligence means everyone will soon be able to measure individual progress toward well-being, set against the backdrop of all humanity’s pursuit to do the same. In the near future, our virtual identity will be easily visible by emerging technology like Google’s Project Glass and our actions will be just as trackable as our influence. We have two choices in this virtual arena: Work to increase the well-being of others and the world, or create a hierarchy of influence based largely on popularity.
Metrics Not Mood
If you’re thinking the study of happiness and well-being seems flaky, you’re missing a major trend that’s beginning to influence a number of global economies.
At the recent United Nations Summit, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that, “Gross National Product (GDP) fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress.” In other words, measuring well-being is not the pursuit of identifying the ephemeral emotion of happiness. It’s about looking at a deeper level of “economic, social and environmental objectives that are most effectively pursued in a holistic manner.”
And economics alone are not the primary driver of well-being. Statistics show, for instance, that after a person or family receives a salary of $75,000 per year, increasing the amount of money brought home doesn’t increase a feeling of well-being.
Jeffery Sachs, the renowned economist from Columbia University who edited the first World Happiness Report for the UN, certainly comes to the same conclusion. He said, "The U.S. has had a three-time increase of GNP per capita since 1960, but the happiness needle hasn't budged." The report, which provides scientific evidence that happiness can be reliably measured and is meaningful, notes that the U.S. has not as happy as other countries because of a too-prominent focus on boosting the economy -- while largely ignoring long-term effects on environment or holistic education. (The Danes, however, were listed as the happiest people on the planet by Sachs’ report -- apparently Anthon Berg is onto something with their Wonka-onian economics).
The study of happiness is a burgeoning field of study around the world, with scientists and other experts providing hard data as to the benefits of a balanced approach to well-being versus too singular a focus on money or self.
“Our goal is to get people thinking more deeply about what happiness is and what is the connection between themselves and their community and world” says Laura Musikanski, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The Happiness Initiative, an organization inspired by Bhutan’s ideas on Gross National Happiness, also known as GNH. They even created a survey geared to measure ten metrics of well-being which include material well being, physical health and time balance.
Her site also contains an excellent history of Happiness Research that provides important data-related insight. For example, although ephemeral happiness may come about due to a combination of luck, timing or fate, the emerging science of happiness proposes that “our actions determine 40% of happiness, and that well-being can be both synthetically created and habitually formed.”
This may be the biggest reason for our desire to measure this space, and several takes on measuring it have popped up. The Quantified Self movement has exploded and Nicholas Fenton’s practice of chronicling information for his annual life’s report has inspired others to follow his lead via Daytum and other self-monitoring services. Ariana Huffington also recently announced her GPS for the Soul, an app that launches this June that provides a “course-correcting mechanism’ for your mind, body and spirit.”
The natural next step in this process, then, is to marry the collective metrics of individuals to form a collective virtual picture of a community or country. Mirroring the goals of GPS for the Soul, it would be simple to map GNH/well-being metrics to existing technology like Mint.com that provides updates on how to maintain material well-being or Project Noah that encourages more access to nature. Via this methodology, our lives could become a virtual H(app)athon, with technology doling out advice on how to flourish, while proactively helping others.
The Efficacy of Fun
But as with any behavior or state of mind, it will take a village. “A really important part of changing behavior is social reinforcement,” says C. Lincoln (Link) Hoewing, Assistant Vice President for Internet and Technology Issues for Verizon and frequent contributor to Verizon’s Policy Blog. “You start seeing and comparing yourself to others more when you know that other people can find out what you’re doing.” This form of Accountability Based Influence (ABI) is most effective when eliciting a positive response. As an example, Hoewing noted Volkswagen’s Fun Theory campaign, whose Piano Stairs YouTube Video has received almost eighteen million views to date. For the campaign, a set of stairs in a Stockholm subway were outfitted with full size piano keys that played notes as people walked on them, resulting in 66% more people than normal choosing the stairs over the nearby escalator. It’s a simple leap to picture this event being geared towards a community metric of well-being, where the GNH for Stockholm would have risen the day of the campaign.
The Currency of Community
Brands are certainly learning to leverage well-being in the form of corporate social responsibility known as shared value. While bringing happiness to consumers via a product or service is not unique, bringing happiness to a community is just coming intro widespread acceptance. “We want to set in motion an upward spiral of confidence,” stated Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in his Letter to America last August. This included the company’s Create Jobs for USA program that has seeded $5 million dollars to provide capital grants for under served community businesses. “The idea of the initiative is to create happiness coming from economic well being,” states Adam Brotman, Chief Digital Officer for Starbucks. The company also recently announced their Store Partnership Model where pilot community organizations in New York City's Harlem neighborhood and Los Angeles' Crenshaw neighborhood will share in the profits of a Starbucks store. A minimum of $100,000 for each organization will seed programs geared towards job and life skill development, positive learning environments and overall health and wellness in the community. “We’re in the happiness and people business,” says Brotman, referring to the shared value mentality that a social business can be generous and profitable at the same time. “A thriving or happy community is something that’s good for everybody.”
When Actions Create Identity
In about three to five years it won’t matter if you’d rather not project your actions to the world -- your virtual footprint will simply be too hard to conceal. Your preferences combined with the data generated by external forces will in essence make everything, including objects, inherently interactive.
“What’s a social network for data?” asks Jim Karkanias, an executive at Microsoft who runs their Health Solutions Group, and has been working on a range of projects that broach the physical and computing worlds. “We’re imagining biology versus silicon as the next platform in which we write software.” Karkanias uses a form of prototyping for his work based on Project Hieroglyph, a movement that encourages science fiction writers to infuse their work with optimism that can inspire a new generation to ‘get big stuff done.’ “Science fiction sets the stage for people to imagine things bigger than reality,” says Karkanias, noting that adhering to practicality in ideation tends to create a narrow experience that limits imagination and hinders happiness.
Data already has its own social networks: RFID tags, M2M (machine to machine) sensors in cars and the Internet of Things let machines trade information without the need for human intervention. The self-tracking craze with humans combined with this ubiquitous data means highly personalized and proactive information can be aggregated to inform our actions on a minute scale. The advent of things like Google Goggles means we’ll be able to virtually see other people’s data as well as eventually record our entire existence. Our lives will be tagged and ranked as semantic information fed into a massive global algorithm that could be geared towards inspiring positive behavior. Karkanias agrees: “Artificial Intelligence in the form of a perpetual life coach will live at the information level providing guidance on every aspect of your day.”
Technology of this kind will likely manifest itself in a reverse Siri interface, with a GPS-like voice guiding you on issues both a personal and macro. The societal impact could shift negative personal patterns as well as a community or country’s Gross National Happiness. Karkanias provides an example of this model where you’re in your car and take a route that passes a McDonald’s. As your Coach knows your health issues regarding cholesterol, it adjusts the route of your self-driving car to the nearest Whole Foods to map to your GNH/well-being metric regarding health. Likewise, cameras in a subway car utilizing facial recognition technology might scan the face of a woman who is four months pregnant and send you a text to give her your seat to map to her GNH/well-being metric of psychological well being. Emerging services like Sickweather will provide health-related predictive data that will affect whole communities regarding metrics of time, balance, and well-being.
Inspiration Versus Ignorance
Some pundits say that privacy is disappearing, but that doesn’t mean we should let our identity be dictated by outside forces. Unfortunately, people are largely unaware of the repercussions of giving away personal information as we enter a virtual era where information can be accessed by so many parties so easily. “People are not fully aware of the data they generate and how that’s coupled with Artificial Intelligence learning algorithms. It’s creating a different social and economic order and we’re in the midst of that happening now,” states John Clippinger, Founder and Executive Director of idcubed.org and a Scientist at the MIT Media Lab Human Dynamics Group where he is conducting research on trust frameworks for protecting and sharing personal information. He feels the inevitable onset of ubiquitous data meshing with synthetic biology and people’s social graphs can be a positive evolution if the whole process takes place in the open.
This transparency is the key. Fostering a culture based on GNH and mapped by existing technology provides a positive path towards the future. We should emulate chocolatier Anthon Berg and let generosity be our currency. Our lives will be sweeter for the choice.
This story originally published on Mashable here.