FT : Stress + Risk = Happiness
Thursday, November 12, 2009
I recently participated in a debate entitled “The good society: virtues for a post-recession world”. A couple of my fellow panellists emphasised the importance of promoting happiness rather than material wealth as a true measure of human progress. T hey believe that advances in gross domestic product are an inferior way to achieve greater wellbeing, and that a concept such as “gross national happiness” might be a better tool. As I listened to their definitions of happiness, I realised that not many coincided with my view of what made entrepreneurs tick. I have spent decades partnering entrepreneurs, trying to understand their psychology and motivation. I find them hugely exciting to work with, because it is only thanks to their ambition and ingenuity that enterprises are started and fresh wants satisfied. There is no stereotypical personality, but one can identify characteristics that most entrepreneurs share. At heart they are highly competitive. They do not seek security as their main goal – rather, they actively seek risk, and enjoy overcoming stressful challenges. They are not sheer gamblers, but they embrace dynamism and are willing to invest in spite of the possibility of failure – to have the chance to win.
For many other people a contented existence might be summed up in Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata”, which more or less defines the opposite of the entrepreneurial life: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste … Exercise caution in your business affairs”, and so on. By contrast, entrepreneurs are in a hurry: they stir things up and disrupt; they overturn companies and ways of doing business; they invent better products and threaten the status quo; they relish upheaval because it presents opportunities to supplant the existing order. Look at how Google has used the internet to throw a huge explosive device among media companies. All this innovation and change is in stark contrast to the view espoused by many philosophers and writers that happiness means stability and tranquillity. To a restless, striving entrepreneur those calm objectives represent boredom. Perhaps a relaxed life is the right answer for the majority – but to me it would be deadly dull. Where is the stimulation in a safe career? I have rarely opted for the easy path when the alternative offered the possibility of something with more fireworks. To me achieving something novel and bold is meaningful, not practising meditation.
The economist Richard Layard, who puts himself forward as an authority on happiness, says public policy should demotivate wealth creators with higher taxation, because they exacerbate the race for status. But he also says we must eliminate high unemployment. And I suspect that these two objectives are intrinsically incompatible. Entrepreneurs, for all their rivalry and dissent, are the principal engine that can create jobs. Discouraging them will only make the problem of worklessness worse. Societies that reject material advancement, that take a degraded view of humankind as an exploiter, that demonise consumerism and adopt a fatalistic perspective on our system are condemned to stagnate. Why would a world of deliberately diminished expectations lead to increased contentment? I worry that politicians will say they are upgrading our overall “quality of life” in order to pursue more government intrusion, greater regulation and higher levels of redistribution. Happiness is about independence and freedom, and vital engagement with one’s craft in a productive way. I have faith in humanity, and applaud those who attempt to improve their lot. For millions, this involves something of a heroic daily struggle. Inevitably, that is unlikely to lead to a peaceful existence. But why should we meekly accept drudgery and disadvantage? As Teddy Roosevelt, the former US president, said: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though chequered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”