Happiness Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

We humans are constantly engaged in the Pursuit of Happiness—even though many of us don’t really know what happiness is or where to find it. All too often we live by the words, “Once I get this, do that, or achieve more, I’ll be happy.” Usually, that “happiness” only lasts for a short period of time. Then we’re back on that perpetual journey to be happy yet again.

Despite all that we spend on things we think we need to feel fulfilled, real happiness lies deep within our psyche. It’s not influenced by the materialistic things we think we have to have to achieve true joy. Marketers of luxury brands and totally unnecessary gadgets bank on the hope that we’ll never learn this lesson. And fortunately for them, many of us won’t.

But for brands that market to real people in the everyday world, understanding what drives real happiness is critical to engaging the highly distracted consumer mind that we all compete for today. 

According to Nielsen’s latest research on consumer values, “New Wealth, New World,” North Americans are now amongst the least likely to:

  • Pay more for designer products
  • Buy famous brands
  • Buy unnecessary items impulsively
  • Be early adopters for new products
  • Buy something because of a free gift
  • Buy products promoted in a store

And if these trends holds true, perhaps Americans are starting to seek happiness outside of materialism. According to a recent poll by Time magazine, we’re already there. 

When asked the question, “What one thing in your life has brought you the greatest happiness?”, 52% of respondents say children and family (only 5% say marriage, which is a topic for another day). And nearly 80% of respondents say relationships with children or friends are a major source of happiness. Other sources of happiness cited by more than 50% of respondents include contributing to others’ lives, control over their own life, and religious or spiritual life. 

Interestingly, there’s nothing tangible on this list. Neither products nor brands are listed as sources of happiness, yet many marketers keep trying to convince consumers that their products will help them achieve the real happiness they relentlessly pursue. A study by Prospect Insights and Analytics shows that the happiest generation right now is the “silent generation”—seniors who are the least focused on gaining materialism. Contrastingly, the least happy generation is Millennials, those who tend to be the earliest adaptors of new gadgets, widgets, and “smart” devices.

So how do we get consumers to buy goods and services if all they really want to be happy is to have strong connections with friends and family? It’s actually simpler than it seems.

Psychological theory tells us that we’re consciously and unconsciously in the pursuit of two things: pleasure and avoidance of pain. We’re more programmed to fear loss or pain than we are to seek or desire joy or thrills. Many of the products we buy, we buy to avoid pain. Take financial services: We buy insurance so that we can avoid the pain of losing our quality of life, our car, our home, our livelihood, or our income should something unexpected happen. Even though the odds of us losing our homes due to a fire, earthquake, or flood are low, we’re still willing to pay thousands each year to avoid that pain. 

To capture the attention of consumers’ unconscious mind, and ultimately to engage the conscious mind, try associating tangible products with the not-so-tangible happiness factors that we seek daily. In other words, associate your unemotional products with compelling emotions and watch your response rates and ROI swing upwards.

Takeaway: Determine the leading elements of happiness or emotional value that are attached to your product. Is it security, peace of mind, confidence, sense of fulfillment? Build your brand promise around that. Promises around price and quality are fleeting and can be matched by competitors. Promises that align with what matters most in our lives are, well, “priceless”—and we all know how successful that ad campaign has been.

Jeanette McMurtry, principal of e4marketing, is an authority on psychology-based marketing, speaking at business events worldwide. She is a Back by Popular Demand trainer, speaker, and course instructor for the DMA.
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