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How Can You Make the World Happier?

Jonathan Haidt believes the answer is "more capitalism."

If you had the opportunity to make the whole world happier, where would you start? Educate adults and children about the steps they can take to consistently flourish? Measure wellbeing at a national level to shape government policies? Overhaul capitalism to be less self-serving?

Given less than 30% of people in the world today describe themselves as flourishing clearly we have a way to go. And yet we know, that when people have higher levels of wellbeing all sorts of individual and collective benefits are likely to flow.

For example, a meta-analysis of more than 200 studies found that when people feel happier they are more energetic and healthier, they show more flexibility and ingenuity in their thinking, they have better relationships and are more charitable, they are more resilient in the face of hardship and they are more productive at work and make better leaders. Given the environmental, economic, social and political challenges our world faces, surely this is the kind of population growth we need to be supporting.

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But just how can we possibly make the world happier?

Professor Jonathan Haidt, from the Stern Business School at New York University and author of the New York Times Bestseller, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and The Happiness Hypothesis, took me by surprise with his answer to this question: “More capitalism.”

Really? What could the growth of capitalism possibly have to do with improving happiness in the world? Surely it’s one of the very practices taking us away from, not towards, happiness.

“In 1999, when Martin Seligman held the first gathering of researchers to inform the conceptualization of positive psychology he asked us: ‘How do we raise the total tonnage of happiness?” explained Jonathan when I interviewed him earlier this year at the World Congress of Positive Psychology. Click here to listen to the full podcast.

“At the time we agreed to focus on improving positive experiences, cultivating positive character traits and enabling positive institutions. While we’ve made rapid progress on the first two, the third has been much slower,” he said. “But, if you really want to have a gigantic impact you don’t do that with therapy, you do that by changing the nature of human interactions, changing the economy or curing a disease.”

“For example, in the last 15 years we’ve seen more than a billion people escape poverty as a result of capitalism rising up in Asia,” Jonathan explained. “Capitalism is the major force that has shaped the physical and institutional world that we live in. It changes our minds, it changes our brains, and it changes our relationships.”

To be clear, Haidt is not naively advocating that capitalism doesn’t have its ethical challenges as a platform for building global happiness. Rather his intent is to provoke conversation and exploration about the stories we tell about the impact and possibilities of capitalism.

Haidt argues that there are two basic narratives about capitalism. The first is that capitalism is exploitation. It allows the rich to get richer, because they exploit people and the environment. The second is that capitalism is liberation. It allows people to reap the profits of their own work, and energizes an explosion of civil society.

But what if there was a third possibility for what capitalism offers the world?

In his book “The Happiness Hypothesis” Haidt concludes that happiness comes from getting the right relationship between yourself and others, yourself and your work and yourself and something larger than yourself. What if capitalism wasn’t actually about our monetary relationships, but instead became focused on how it helps the human heart and mind to flourish?

“Capitalism doesn’t necessarily have to be the evil of just more, more, and more to the detriment of everybody,” Haidt explained. “Rising prosperity can bring rising security, which causes changing values, which causes rising education — especially for women — which causes demographic transition, which causes shrinking population, which benefits our environment. It holds the potential to free us to find more meaning and flourishing.”

As we begin to re-discover the possibilities of capitalism, Haidt suggests three principles that may help us to realize this third story:

  • Invest in positive-sum relationships – Libertarian philosopher David Schmidtz observed: “At its best, a free market society is a game that we can only win by making other people better off.” We don’t live in that world just yet, but when you get an economy right people aren’t just thinking about how to get rich, they’re thinking about what people need and how they can be of service.
  • Value the yin and yang – The exploitation and liberation stories of capitalism both have some truth to them, but if you just embrace one side you miss seeing both the possibilities and threats of the other side. The only way we can develop a more humane and effective version of capitalism is to acknowledge the need for both decency and dynamism and find ways to balance these forces.
  • Answer the hundred trillion dollar questions – The total productivity of the planet is rapidly on its way to a hundred trillion dollars in the next five years. What are we going to do with all that wealth? How are we going to live? What will give our lives meaning? These are questions positive psychology can help people, businesses and governments to answer if we’re willing to be part of the conversation.

How might you harness the possibilities of capitalism to help more people in the world to consistently flourish? You can watch Haidt speaking more about the three stories of capitalism here, hear him debate these possibilities with the Dalai Lama here and look out for his new book on this topic in 2017.