Make People Happy
January 21, 2019
Author: Bianca Yang
I believe the fundamental human pursuit is happiness.
Unalienable rights: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
The best theory of happiness I have see so far is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. Flow is achieved when challenge matches skill. Flow is the happiness we are looking for.
The prevailing business theory is that every business, every product, everything must have a job. Everything must exist to fulfill some need or desire. Your computer helps you get work done, helps you restock household supplies, keeps you entertained, etc. Your washing machine helps you clean your clothes efficiently. Your friends keep you entertained and help take care of you. Whatever you create, whatever you do, then, must fulfill some need or desire. Or so the thinking goes.
I think the more fundamental objective is to make people happy by helping them achieve flow. Let’s look at a couple of products and brands that people “love”. Let’s also look at the idea of “saving time and money”. That’s an idea that I don’t think is going to change.
First, Costco. People LOVE Costco. I love Costco, even though it doesn’t make sense for me to shop there. I love Costco for pretty much the same reasons everybody else does: unbeatable, convenient deals. Making the decision to shop at Costco is a low effort, low skill decision. Sure, maybe you need to do a little budgeting to account for all the extra “deals” you will be picking up at the store, but the $50 membership fee is easily recouped, especially if you buy higher ticket items like vacation and rental cars through the company. Costco also helps people save time and money.
Why is saving time and money so important? It’s not just because Bezos, with his infinite wisdom, pronounced it important. My hunch is that it’s because time and money are hard to recoup. To be clear, time is impossible to recoup. Money is definitely recoupable, but the general consensus about work is that it’s a drag, so it’s best to consider money as a difficult to recover resource. This doesn’t explain everything, though. How does the difficulty, or impossibility, of recouping these items have to do with flow and happiness? Time is impossible to recover, so one can never achieve flow against time. Money is difficult to recoup, and decreases in wealth can mean painful lifestyle changes, so the challenge of making money can exceed many people’s skill levels.
When things are too hard, people get frustrated. When things are too easy, people get bored. Dealing with the expenditure of time and money is something that tends to get people frustrated. Helping them manage the flow with a more manageable amount of challenge puts them back into a flow state. Another way to think about this is perhaps that helping people save time and money means allowing them to spend those resources on other flow-inducing activities. Saving $1,000 on vacation means they have another $1,000 to use on video games or another vacation, or gardening. Saving an hour of time by booking through Costco means you have another hour to play Call of Duty with or read a book or watch an episode of Games of Thrones in. Saving time and money is so effective a strategy because they are such obnoxious resources for us to manage.
Next, Google. The sentiment towards Google has changed with all the issues around privacy and censorship in China and AMP, etc, but Google is still a service that people cannot live without. Why has Google and its related products, like YouTube, done so well? Google made searching for information exceedingly low effort. Low challenge, low skill? That’s a flow match. YouTube made searching for videos and storing videos and sharing videos super smooth. Anybody can set up a vlog, or a personal online video store. But Google also saves its users and customers time and money. Google is likely the most efficient search engine on the internet. DuckDuckGo, Bing, etc, have all improved their search results, but you’re likely to get where you want the fastest when using Google. Even if that’s not the case, the reputation is so strong that switching costs will override most attempts to leave Google. Google is also a hugely effective advertiser. You get insane reach with just a couple of dollars spent on your text ad for mesothelioma claims services. Google has made our lives more delightful by making difficult, non-flow tasks like research and advertising and video entertainment so much easier.
Third, Amazon. You know Amazon’s logo is hiding a smile, right? Amazon has been delighting customers for over 20 years now. You can track the happiness metric by looking at the amount of money that flows into their coffers every year. People spend so much money and time on Amazon because it’s the ultimate online shopping destination. It super easy to find what you want, and it’s super easy, with 1-click ordering, to get what you want. Over the years, they’ve expanded their offerings into cloud services, movies, fashion, groceries, music, so now you can get even more of what you want, sometimes before you know you want it (those darn recommendation algorithms), at amazing prices and low effort. Low challenge, low effort, saving time and money? All the boxes have been checked.
Perhaps there’s a bit of a spurious saving time and money kind of thing going on here. It may be the case that we are saving time and money on individual transactions at Amazon or Costco or Google but are spending more in aggregate. We love going to Costco so much that we end up spending 10% more on toilet paper each year. “But it’s so cheap and you get 50 rolls of premium, 40-ply at a time!” We love shopping on Amazon so much that we end up spending 50% more on Christmas gifts through the site each year. “Oh, but where else was I going to get those wooden coasters for Uncle Joe for such a great price and free 2-day shipping?” It’s so easy to spend time on Google searching for things that we now spend 20% more time doing “research” on Google, browsing the web through Google, that we would have without it. I don’t want to make any false claims about this kind of behavior being harmful. I just want to bring up the idea that our accounting for the new behaviors these services encourage may not exactly add up the way we expect.
Fourth, dating sites. We’ve talked about time and money as being prime examples of things that we aren’t usually in flow states when dealing with. But what about that other huge cause of anxiety? Relationships. It’s so easy to meet new people, to have friends, when you’re forced together in a place with social expectations like school. Once you leave school, your social and romantic interactions are completely left up to your discretion. It was hard enough to get to know people in school. Now you have to find them and get to know them. Dating services like Tinder or eHarmony or Match.com help resolve this issue with relatively low effort, relatively low skill required. You save time and money! Now you can sit at home and save up your energy and money for dates with matches!
I’ve pushed this flow as happiness concept hard in this post, but I think the idea stands up to the evidence. Great brands, great companies, great services, etc, certainly do solve people’s needs. But the reason they’ve got such a strong hold on people is because they create happiness through flow. They ask for little effort and little skill to make life easier, especially to relieve people of great burdens regarding time, money, and emotional energy.
Questions, comments, etc, can be sent to my inbox~.
In my next post, I want to talk about passive income strategies. One of the points I hope to explore is the idea of things that people find repeated value in. Flow and happiness is definitely tied to my understanding of repeated value, so I also want to develop my understanding of those concepts. See you next time.