Is New Brain Research on Happiness Creating a Monster?

You know the feeling.

That little rush when your eye drifts to the ads on the side of your favorite social media page.

Those little blurbs speak to your love of leather handbags, gourmet burgers, or tech gadgets.

They call for just a quick click, a minute browse… and your credit card.

Those ads – and that gleeful little rush of purchase pleasure – are no accident.


In fact, more and more social media outlets and retailers, large and small, are chomping at the bit to use what we’re learning from brain research to make us happier.

More alarming, marketers hope these research results will show them how to link our happiness to an ongoing desire to buy more and more stuff.

It’s a retail world. And happiness is no longer an unknown continent.

Soon, our understanding of the brain and behavior will align itself with social economics and we will have located happiness, defined its borders, and measured it.

With the lay of the land understood, our happiness can, and will, be sold.

So, if human happiness is now a commodity, how will we use it?

Is “happiness science” creating a marketing monster?


Happiness for sale is not new.

Many of us often opt for retail therapy because we believe the market media suggestion that the key to your happiness is in the bottom of your latest shopping bag.

However, when we try to get a grip on what happiness really is, we have trouble defining it. Knowing happiness when we see it is an age-old pursuit of philosophers, merchants, and now scientists alike.

In an effort to define happiness more clearly, a new field called “psycho-economics” has developed over the last 15 years:

  • In 2002, the Nobel prize for behavioral economics was awarded to Daniel Kahneman for his research regarding happiness. His work is foundational to the belief that happiness is a measurable experience, available for study.
  • In 2005, Happiness – Lessons from a New Science, a worldwide bestseller, was written by Britain’s “Happiness Tsar,” social economist Richard Layard. Layard’s research supported his conclusion that much of what we experience as depressive illness, or “unhappiness,” today has a greater negative impact on society than serious economic ills, like unemployment.
  • In 2008, Layard’s findings fueled positive social change. The British Labour government adopted a sort of  “happiness agenda.” Positive psychology for the general public was touted as legitimate and necessary. Significant amounts of national resources were allocated to addressing societal depression.


The Money = Happiness Connection

For more than four decades, Layard and other social economists have also investigated the intriguing relationship between happiness and income, a topic we’ve looked at in other posts. Recent happiness/wealth research tells us that incomes topping $75,000 per year reveal no increases in happiness. An interesting finding, considering governmental concern regarding the social problems caused by economic inequality.

Government and wealthy citizens, even those who appreciate Kahneman and Layard’s happiness research, however, are not quick to take on the idea that riches don’t make you happy — even though it’s clear that when voters go the polling stations, their votes generally reflect their happiness or discontent; not their incomes.

Social economists are keenly aware that shifting public policy away from income and material accumulation, to life satisfaction, is a slow process.

Finally, there lingers the problem of  “success”. According to Layard, a contest of societal perceptions is always at work. Does success require competition and besting each other? Or is success the satisfaction of contributing to one another? Can we change our assumptions about success, and come to believe that life should center on a broader conception of happiness?


Happiness for sale…with a new twist

Sale of new items, based on potential leaps in health and happiness, is old hat. But  with new technology, comes a new twist. The happiness we’re sold affords a second stream of income marketers can’t wait to cash in: Information.

The market now contains smart equipment, intelligent apps, and body monitors able to collect data concerning our habits — habits marketers analyze and mark “for sale.” Our data is currency and commodity, and as the century progresses, advertisers are more and more able to track our lives and anticipate our moods for profit.

It isn’t hard to imagine the happiness devices, good spirits gizmos, and gladness gadgets that are likely on the horizon.Truth be told, I did purchase a watch that purports to improve well-being and quality of life. It promised to harvest the natural frequencies that constantly circle the earth and channel them to my body.

However, I haven’t noticed an uptick in, what I’m happy to say, is a characteristically optimistic outlook; a quality I’m lucky enough to have acquired, developed, or inherited somewhere along the way. Making the purchase however, does give me pause.

Neurologists are doing their best to locate our internal ”purchase prompt,” the trigger in the brain that drives us to buy, and buy some more. Data collectors are honing their ability to discern when we’re in the mood to shop. Marketers are using what they know about happiness economics, and psychology, to make us determined to have the item we believe will make us happier.


Do compulsive buyers stand a chance in the face of such powerful lures?

It just may be that  positive psychologists and happiness economists have created a monster they can’t rein in. Their work was meant to highlight the idea that money and belongings don’t improve our happiness. But it seems the crowd of consumer scientists and market researchers overwhelm that perspective, pushing the idea that contentment comes best from a wallet full of cash, and a trip to the mall. Caveat emptor.

By Carrie Rattle

Carrie Rattle is a Principal at, a website for women focused on mind and money behaviors. She has worked in the financial services industry for 20+ years and hopes to inspire women to better prepare themselves for financial independence. Read More