Many scientific studies prove that happiness contributes to physical health. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's easy to get the prescription wrong.
When it comes to true happiness, at home, at work -- and, I'd add, in our investment portfolios -- meaning actually overrules money. We investors should ponder this concept. We'll likely be happier and perhaps even physically healthier if we use the power of the marketplace in ways that give instead of take.
Are the Joneses really happy?
During the last several decades, our society has taken "keeping up with the Joneses" to a decadent level. Many people will do whatever it takes to rake in the big bucks, regardless of whether their actions are sensible or even ethical. For a long while, clawing for McMansions, blue-boxed baubles, and luxury cars defined the "happiness" of the American Dream.
Granted, the Great Recession left many unemployed, struggling, and justifiably unhappy Americans. We also know from studies that having enough money to live comfortably, not to mention survive, does make people happy, and for many, it's not happening.
But amassing riches after taking care of basic needs doesn't exponentially raise the happiness level to joy. And now that we think about the gluttonous "grasping" definition of happiness, it could actually do us more harm than good.
Emily Esfahani Smith's recent piece in The Atlantic, "Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness," delved into different definitions of "happiness." An analysis of 150 studies concluded that happiness results in healthy outcomes: "Inductions of well-being lead to healthy functioning, and inductions of ill-being lead to compromised health."
Dig deeper, though. A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences differentiates between "empty" and "meaningful" happiness. Apparently the hedonistic definition is like having a massive McMansion in a tony neighborhood but finding that the echoes in sprawling but spiritually empty spaces expose a sad lack of life purpose.
Such voids don't help health, and it may even be just as physically harmful as the stress of dealing with true "chronic adversity."
Working for a better world
This applies to investment and business philosophy, too. Rosabeth Moss Kanter recently wrote, "The Happiest People Pursue the Most Difficult Problems" for Harvard Business Review's blog. In these troubled times, people can and do find true happiness through positive action, both in the marketplace and elsewhere.
This is good news for those who invest in companies that put "meaning" into their DNA, too. Workers who are "engaged" with meaningfulness will be extremely committed to their jobs. Their mission goes to a level far deeper than simply punching time clocks for paychecks.
Kanter discusses "social entrepreneurship" and making a difference, a healthy trend developing in public companies as well as in individual endeavors. Some companies built their businesses in socially responsible ways, but many are adding initiatives that will build people's sense of well-being, not to mention employees' feelings about the beauty of trying to give back. These may even help profits over the long run.
Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) is a consumer goods behemoth. Yet as one of Kanter's examples of putting purpose into work, she cited the Pampers' team's efforts to address infant mortality in Nigeria. Sending mobile clinics to impoverished areas that don't have adequate health care can save lives, including the most fragile. Healing and saving babies goes far beyond simply selling diapers for them, and puts a heck of a lot more positivity into Pampers.
There are plenty of companies that have some such lofty purposes built into their businesses to begin with. One example is Panera Bread (NASDAQ:PNRA), which has a history of promoting kindness, like donating unsold baked goods to hunger organizations at business days' ends.
Panera has been trying to raise awareness about hunger in other ways. It has opened five nonprofit Panera Cares bakeries in struggling communities. It experimented with offering a pay-what-you-want turkey chili in for-profit St. Louis stores, through which excess sales would go to hunger organizations. It recently discontinued that experiment simply because it wants to find a more effective way to raise awareness about hunger. According to management, it didn't adequately get the message across to customers, and it's going to try again in a different season.
On the other hand, the nonprofit Panera Cares bakeries are immersed in awareness messaging, and all items are pay-what-you-want. This feeds the hungry and boosts the brand.
"Happiness" -- at what price?
Some investment decisions can be deemed empty and possibly even pathologically antisocial. If there is meaning, it's negative; it's seeking profit without kindness. Can that really feel good after soul-searching?
Was it good for people's health to buy shares of BP right after the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Knee-jerk buying decisions like that -- with the justification that "Wow, that stock's cheap right now" -- strike some of us as sickening to begin with. Does it feel good to think it through and see that this is trying to profit from death, environmental degradation, and an entire region's economic livelihood?
Some industries basically require an empathy shutdown for investment. Take the for-profit prison industry. The biggest of these companies, Corrections Corporation of America (NYSE:CXW), relies on crime and punishment -- the more, the better -- to produce hefty profits.
According to sources including the ACLU, Corrections Corp. recently assured investors that economic recovery will boost the prison population.
Such a sad prospect to capture growth locks happiness out. It revels in the sadness of taking -- in this case, taking freedom and giving to some pocketbooks. This industry has actively lobbied for more lock-ups through crimes like drug arrests, which can too easily drive to victimless crimes like nonviolent possession. This should strike us all, and even frighten us, with its immediate negative aspect.
True wealth is more than dollar signs
The marketplace can provide solutions to some of the world's worst problems. It can innovate to help ward off environmental problems that poison the environment and destroy livelihoods. It can provide more jobs for the poverty-stricken and jobless, here and abroad. It can create novel ways to help the physically sick. All of these loftier goals boost economic health, and add true meaningful healthiness and happiness to the world.
No company is perfect, but increasing numbers are striving to do more good than ill. A positive portfolio provides profits and meaningful outcomes. We can all try to be wealthy in profits and in spirit by investing in the companies that are aiming for healthy purpose as well as opening our hearts to helping in our regular lives, too. That's striving for health and happiness for all.
Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.