Hello, my name is Mike Rucker, and I am a fun addict.
This should not surprise anyone. I pretty much have been my whole life. Admittedly, this passion has gotten me into trouble from time to time. For me, channeling this obsession by creating better user experiences (UX) grounds my passion with a purpose. I want people to enjoy what they are doing. I want people to have more fun.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for things that are initially described as “fun” to turn into addictions — and, at extremes, pathological obsessions. For instance, neuroscience has shown us that the brain structure changes in people who obsessively play video games (but who are not yet considered addicted). In these individuals, the volume of the player’s gray matter increases in their left ventral striatum — an area of our brain associated with both reward/pleasure and addiction (Kuhn et al., 2011). This region of our brain is also known for being rich in dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter) and is connected with the pursuit of desired experiences. It should be no surprise that dopamine has been playfully described as the sex, drugs and rock and roll neurotransmitter, as all three of these activities affect dopamine in the brain — so does sugar and gambling (Avena, Rada, & Hoebel, 2008).
Considering the role dopamine plays in experiencing pleasure, it is not that difficult to understand how addictive behaviors (that release dopamine) can evolve out of initially pleasurable and fun experiences. Having fun in a healthy manner is a rewarding endeavor. Moreover, the allure of fun can motivate us, at least at the onset, to dare big and pursue worthy goals.
Too Much of a Good Thing
“Behavioral” addictions have now been widely recognized as non-substance addictions (that can also develop with or without substance addictions). Neuroimaging techniques and recent research show that it is not only alcohol and recreational drugs that are addictive. Behavioral addictions trigger the same fundamental responses in the body as, for example, cocaine (Grant et al., 2010).
A lot of common activities have the potential to become addictive, though the topic of what behaviors can be considered behavioral addictions is still open for (popular and scientific) debate (Grant et al., 2010). The word addiction has a Latin origin that translates as “bound to” or “enslaved by.” In general terms: I have been addicted to running; I am a recovering addict to travel; I would like to think I am addicted to trying to be a good father and friend.
There is perhaps a fine line between something being an enjoyable activity that brings us fulfillment and an activity that we become dependent on and/or use as a technique for escapism — a distraction that can stand in the way of dealing with real-life situations and feelings. Like Airbnb and Everlast executive Chip Conley recently discussed with me about those that get trapped roaming from one festival to the next looking for fun, “… if you just constantly go to festivals because you cannot live your normal life, or live in real life and/or you are searching for a utopian experience … festivals always come to an end. If you are going to festivals as a way to vacate in some manner, I think you need to ask yourself, ‘What could I do in my ‘normal’ life to make it better?’”
In this context, you can interchange festival attendance with whatever you do for fun. I think Chip’s wisdom applies to all of us in a broader context.
Escapism is a well-known phenomenon in psychology that is often described in conjunction with addictive behaviors. In my youth, especially during my years in high school, I levitated to mood-altering experiences to avoid my boredom and loneliness. I certainly was not alone in this pursuit. Unfortunately, many often continue down this path even when they are aware they’re not getting to the crux of their problem (Reid et al., 2011). And like many, I am still not out of the woods. I traded counterproductive vices for more productive ones … entrepreneurship, Ironmans, this neurotic writing habit. Long distance running or a 2-hour session at the gym can be paradoxically both healthy and unhealthy — just because an activity is marketed to you as healthy does not mean it is being put to use for its intended purpose. Psychologists believe that escapism can become harmful when you start splitting your world into two versions: the real version and the version that is connected with the activity you frivolously pursue (Ohno, 2016). Jesse Israel’s post on his wellness hangover does a great job highlighting this phenomenon.
Furthermore, as modern life becomes more and more stressful and demanding, there is a whole new level of “mind-programming” going on (facilitated by the media and society) that tells us we need to constantly have fun just to make life bearable. A new generation of pleasure seekers has emerged, and they are not necessarily having fun — they are redlining their psyche as they battle cry, “turn down for what.”
In their recent book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal estimate that we spend over 4 trillion (yes, with a ‘t’) dollars on various types of escapism. As such, questioning the reasons and motives for us having fun is, therefore, a relevant pursuit. A lot of my livelihood, especially as it pertains to UX design, is providing fertile ground for people like yourself to have fun experiences. Maximizing fun is a personal passion, but it needs to coexist with my personal value of not causing harm.
Hedonism vs. Ego Depletion — an Evolutionary Perspective
In my interview with Chip, Chip juxtaposes pleasurable experiences that are guided by hedonistic self-interest with experiences that give you a sense of being a part of something greater than yourself (and that move you beyond your own selfish needs) — collective effervescence. Both types of experience can be a source of fun. However, while the first takes you to your basic instincts, the latter has the ability to enable you to transcend your ego.
Hedonism and hedonistic activities have traditionally been considered a special variety of egoism. Philosophers talk of psychological hedonism. This refers to engaging in certain activities because we believe that they will lead to the fulfillment of a desire that will promote our pleasure, or, alternatively, will help us avoid pain (Garson, 2016). This type of fun has instant gratification, but it also has its faults.
Of important note, from an evolutionary standpoint, a strong argument has been made against hedonism. Philosopher Elliot Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson, the authors of Unto Others, argue that hedonists are likely not good at child-rearing and that such behavior can be energetically costly — hence evolution has probably prioritized altruists (Sober & Wilson, 1998). Natural selection has promoted behaviors that are reliable, available through genetic mutations, and energetically efficient.
Those in the constant pursuit of fun through hedonists’ means might not fare that well in the long run if they constantly run around seeking their own pleasure (without considering others, especially their offspring). When we blend psychology, biology, anthropology and philosophy — care for others and selfless behavior somewhat surprisingly emerge as important features of human nature that, according to Sober and Wilson, have developed through natural selection.
In Defense of Hedonism
Associate professor Justin Garson, a philosopher of biology from Hunter College, explains another form of hedonism, which he refers to as “reinforcement hedonism” or R-hedonism (as opposed to inferential hedonism or I-hedonism, which is the more egoistic type described above). In this type of psychological hedonism, we have fun from just thinking about the satisfaction of a desire. In Garson’s view, hedonism does not need to be linked only to your own hedonistic desires; it can expand to the welfare of others as well (Garson, 2016). For instance, you can derive great pleasure thinking about the possibility of world peace — which is a very non-egoistic desire that could be considered closer to altruism. Dr. Raj Raghunathan, professor at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas, Austin, also suggests that having fun can bring you closer to being more altruistic, happy, healthy, productive and creative. In his view, it is important to have fun, in a way that specifically works for you (for more on that, see my discussion with Raj).
Can you really have too much fun or be addicted to fun?
There is a body of evidence that too much of anything can be harmful, and any addiction has the potential to psychologically enslave you in some way. A hard truth is that our time on this rock is finite — so you probably do not need this perspective from a psychologist to intuitively know that if we overly commit to one pursuit, we will likely live an unbalanced life.
A strong indication that “fun” of any sort has become a problem is if you start having diminished control over your behavior and experience undesirable consequences, as these are common characteristics of addiction (Grant et al., 2010). Also, the distinction between fun and escapism is not always clear-cut and requires some deep reflection on your part. It is up to you to decide if the pursuit of fun has become counterproductive. Make no mistake, fun is an important ingredient of a meaningful and happy life. However, since I am advocating a life full of fun, I have felt compelled to provide an important service announcement: a dose of mindfulness might be required if/when fun gets in the way of you living. In fact, it might be one of only a handful of ways an ecstatic life can truly be reached.
I am an endless knowledge seeker, so on first pass I naturally scoff at the notion we could somehow be blissfully ignorant. AS such, on face value, “is ignorance bliss?” seems like an asinine question. My desire to educate myself on how to be happy has fueled my involvement with the International Positive Psychology Association and my study of academic thought leaders in this space — people like Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, and Barbara Fredrickson — to learn ways to be happier. However, lately I have observed that there are a lot of instances where more information leads to dismay. At a basic level, I watched my one-year-old son thoroughly enjoy a simple train set for months.
There is a great store where we live that has cheap, recycled toy train parts, so my wife and I continued to introduce train pieces and have made my son’s set more robust over the past few months. We loved doing it for him because he couldn’t get enough… until the day he did. As we continued to add disparate train pieces with the best of intentions, some trains do not fit certain tracks — some trains fit the existing track but are too tall to go under the existing bridge that came with the original set. What has ensued is confusion and frustration. I have let it go on because I think the development of problem solving outweighs the loss of bliss my son used to achieve when the set was simply enjoyable. However, this loss of bliss is observably noticeable and therefore significant. We are basically making my son unhappy by introducing new information.
Scientifically, happiness is a choice. It is a choice about where your single processor brain will devote its finite resources as you process the world. —Shawn Achor
Have you ever found yourself in a supermarket, surrounded by an aisle of different choices, wishing there was only one available? Science tells us endless options can be anxiety-provoking. When faced with choice, we use a lot of energy to make our final choice. When there is an abundance of choice, the cost is an increased chance that you will regret your final decision later. If you want to feel like you made a solid choice, you need to scrutinize all the available information you have available and then (once you process all this information) make your decision. But, as a general rule, does more information actually contribute to a more satisfactory outcome? How much information do we need to make an informed decision, engage in play, achieve flow, take action or simply be happy?
The topic of choice touches on different areas of our personal and professional life. Choice contributes to our happiness, as well as our social arrangements. We can view the argument of “ignorance is bliss” through the lenses of behavioral psychology, philosophy, politics, education and marketing sciences. The topic is provocative since it juxtaposes our general wish for autonomy with a more paternalistic and prescriptive view. In a world that is filled with seemingly constant impulses and endless options, we would often like to believe we are happier when we have all the information. However, this might not always be congruent with the desire to reduce our stress and feel balanced.
When Choosing Feels like Losing
The paradox of choice is not a new phenomenon; we can observe it in different areas of our lives, from the food we eat to who we are attracted to. Nowadays, there are so many options available to us in every aspect of our life. If you are not completely satisfied or happy, why not dump what you have and replace it (or even him/her) with another version? Why should you practice discipline and perseverance when it is so easy to find yourself a superior model to what you have now? Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote extensively about the paradox of choice and argues that Americans do not seem to be benefiting from all the choice that is available to us (Schwartz, 2004).
Various research also shows us that when more choice is available, we are more likely to be dissatisfied with what we finally choose. Jonathan D’Angelo and Catalina Toma (2016) explored this idea in their study of online dating. When participants selected their dates from a larger set of people, they were more doubtful about their dating choice a week later (when compared to those who had fewer potential partners to choose from). A similar observation has been made in marketing. Studies show that people who spend more time deliberating about a decision can later feel a sense of loss towards the options they did not pick. During what we perceive to be a careful selection process, we develop a sense of attachment to our decisions, which researchers believe might be harmful to our well-being (Carmon, Wertenbroch, & Zeelenberg, 2003). The premise “choosing feels like losing” has been introduced. Choosing from a set of options can lead us to a feeling of post-choice discomfort. Once we opt for one option, we no longer possess the other — that’s just a fact. Instead of feeling a sense of relief about finally making a decision, we let negative feelings creep in and we start to feel dissatisfied. Rebecca Ratner of the University of Maryland and her colleagues explored different strategies that can help us help others in their decision-making process. They indicate that providing good information is one of them, but restricting options or adding restrictive options are also recommended (Ratner et al., 2008). For instance, pre-committing to a choice can free us from having to face the decision later, and can also help with self-control when more options become available. It is part of the science that makes restrictive diets like WHOLE30 episodically successful. Simply put, if we can manufacture a predisposition to making (and sticking with) a decision it makes our life a lot less challenging.
When Are You Most Free to Make Autonomous Choices?
Although we all generally value autonomy, there appears to be some ambivalence surrounding this topic. For instance, in education, some studies of problem-based learning showed that while students welcomed some degree of autonomy afforded by this technique, they were also engaged during more prescriptive approaches to studying (Harmer & Stokes, 2016). It appears that paternalism can sometimes free our energy to engage in life in a more efficient way.
From a philosophical stance, there is also a vibrant debate about what constitutes choice. It is pretty easy to find critics anytime the idea of a “forced choice” is brought up. For example, in the West, we have the freedom to choose (and this is widely lauded). However, sometimes, there is the subtle (unspoken) condition that we ought to choose the right thing. If we fail to do that, we can be ostracized and, and in a way we lose some of our freedom to choose (Žižek, 1989). How many “forced choices” do we make just to remain a part of our community (or “tribe”) and conform to the expectations of our environment? In choice, too, there appears to be a degree of ignorance we are willing to accept to “keep the peace” and avoid the cognitive dissidence of malalignment with the philosophy of our peers.
So a strong scientific argument can be made that a plethora of choices can create decision fatigue. Our mind simply cannot cope with an endless amount of information; our decision capacity runs out, and at this point we run the risk of making bad decisions. Our mood can worsen when we are faced with too many choices as well. Research shows that too much choice leads to suboptimal decisions (Schwartz, 2004). Therefore, significant decisions should not be made when we are fatigued or in a bad mood. This was illustrated by a study of judicial decisions conducted at four major prisons in Israel (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011). The authors examined parole decisions made by experienced judges. It transpired that having a break (thus feeling less fatigued) influenced the judges’ ruling. More favorable decisions were made in the mornings (at the start of the work day) and after food breaks — this pattern was predictable, possibly confirming our need to rest and replenish our energy before making an important decision. It appears a good decision can sometimes be more about the timing, and less about the choices we are presented with. The saying “sleep on it” might sound simplistic, but it has some scientific credence.
Then, there is the scientific theory behind choice architecture. If you are interested in going down the rabbit hole of choice and well-being, I suggest following Brian Wansink. In various studies, Dr. Wansink has shown that if you crowd out the ability to make bad decisions by rigging your environment towards a bias to make good ones, you can steer yourself and/or others towards healthy behaviors (never the wiser that they’ve been unwittingly influenced). As I became aware firsthand in my study about workplace wellness strategies, people do not like to know their choices have been limited; however, if the reduction of choice is unobserved, one can rig the system for people to make specific decisions (arguably in their best interest) based on controlling the information available to them.
When Are You Most Free to Be Creative?
A study by Associate Professors Anne-Laure Sellier and Darren W. Dahl challenged the established belief that having more choice fuels creativity. They conducted two experiments that focused on knitting and crafting. The selection of creative inputs was increased from moderate to extensive: a bigger selection of yarn colors in the case of knitting; and a larger selection of shapes for a Christmas tree decoration in the case of crafting. Interestingly, the creative output of experienced and knowledgeable participants was negatively affected by more choice. Those who were less experienced, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be effected by the change in choice but it did not enhance their expereince either. The authors concluded that restricted choice could be better for creative success as it allows us to focus more — and actually enjoy the creative process more — particularly if already experienced or skilled in that pursuit (Sellier & Dahl, 2011).
One of my heroes, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a couple of decades ago wrote how restricting choice could reduce stress and anxiety. Choice does give us the feeling that we can be more creative. However, this feeling is just that — a feeling — it is generally an illusion. Science suggests we have more difficulty focusing and enjoying an activity when provided with an extensive choice.
Is Ignorance Bliss?
Science tends to back up why my wife and I might have been unintentional wet blankets. When we have too much information, we risk the potential of decision paralysis. We are given less room to follow our creative paths, engage in flow and — let’s face it — sometimes enjoy ourselves. Other studies by Darren Dahl also highlighted that the highest level of enjoyment is achieved when there is a right balance between restriction (e.g. providing limits around a task) and the freedom to create with autonomy (Dahl & Moreau, 2007). It is important to note that while researching this topic has in no way curtailed my thirst for knowledge, but it has garnered a new respect for the relationship our happiness has with information and choice. For many of us, happiness is a choice. We don’t need to be ignorant to be blissful, but waiting around for the right information does not appear to help any either. To contrary, in some cases it may do the opposite.
As a general statement, mTORs are cellular regulatory proteins essential for the activation of proteins specific or important to growth and cellular replication. Almost any factor important to protein synthesis affects mTOR activation to some degree by interacting with the TSC1/TSC2 protein complex. Relevant to the question, the underlying mechanisms for many tumors and cancers involve dysregulation of mTOR cell signaling pathways (usually an abnormal up-regulation of mTOR components). Thus, as an approach to controlling the growth of cancerous cell lines, the use of mTOR inhibitors has been proposed. The question or concern related to PQQ evolves from such observations, specifically the report by Kumar et al. in Anticancer Agents Med Chem. 2015;15:1297-304 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25832358). These researchers observed that PQQ exposure lessens the growth of human leukemia HL-60 Cells through Inhibition of mTOR. Thus the question – Could something similar happen in muscle?
The cells in question versus muscle cells:
HL-60 (Human promyelocytic leukemia) cells are derived from a type of blood cells, known as neutrophils. HL-60 cells proliferate continuously in suspension cell cultures. Accordingly, they are used in cell proliferation studies or studies in which cells with the characteristics of phagocytic cells, such as neutrophils, are the focus of an investigation. Phagocytic cells are cells that are recruited to the sites of infection, cell injury, and inflammation. An interesting observation is that when activated, some of their mitochondrial content gets extruded (cf. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15548627.2015.1063765) in to plasma/blood. In this regard, plasma levels of mitochondrial DNA (from phagocytic and the targeted damaged cells) can be used as a marker for the extent of inflammation in human and animal subjects. Phagocytic cells can even generate hydrogen peroxide and superoxide radicals to aid in the chemical modification of inflammatory by-products and cellular debris.
Muscle cells, of course, are different. In vivo, they do not replicate or “turn-over” rapidly, in contrast to phagocytic cell lines. Their mitochondria stay intake and are not extruded. Oxygen utilization is efficient and used for ATP production, which in part is in contrast with phagocytic cells, wherein some of the cellular oxygen is directed at “oxidant” and superoxide production. The point here is that interpretation of results related to cell signaling is cell-type and process dependent. When the only data available are derived from cells in culture, it ‘s hard to make assertive conclusions without a lot of nuance and other assumptions.
mTOR, PQQ, and Muscle
So – can mTOR levels influence muscle growth. The answer in some situations is yes. Several research groups have noted that there is a sarcopenic effect (presence of lower muscle mass and either lower muscular strength or lower physical performance) with long-term mTOR inhibitor use (e.g. for long-term cancer treatment. (cf. Gyawali et al. Muscle wasting associated with the long-term use of mTOR inhibitors. Mol Clin Oncol. 2016; 5:641-646). Importantly, only very very potent mTOR inhibitory agents have been studied. Thus, to what extent this has a direct relevance to a normal exercising person taking PQQ is not clear. Moreover, as it relates to PQQ, there are few comparative studies of using differing cells and their response to PQQ exposure. We know of only one. Min et al. reported (J Cancer. 2014; 5:609-24, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25161699)
PQQ exposure enhanced apoptosis (programmed cell death) in tumor cells (3 types of tumor cells were studied) but promoted no apoptotic changes in the normal cell lines derived from renal and umbilical-derived cells. Accordingly, an answer to the PQQ/muscle question is, if there is an effect, it is probably modest, if at all. Importantly, exercise “trumps” most known dietary factors and nutraceuticals taken as supplements to optimize muscular function or maintenance.
As a final comment, for questions such as the one posed, going to the resveratrol literature is sometimes helpful. In many respects PQQ and resveratrol (RV) influence similar cell signaling pathways. A PubMed search identified over 50 papers addressing RV, tumor growth, and apoptosis, i.e. RV suppresses tumor growth. In contrast, there are dozens of paper suggesting RV improves many aspects of muscle function. For PQQ, although the literature is not as extensive, the available reports suggest similar findings.
In an active individual, is PQQ going to do much independent of the effects of exercise? Few external factors promote muscular or mitochondrial function as well as exercise itself. The mTOR cell signaling pathways are clearly essential to muscle function, but any mTOR inhibitory response that PQQ might have is probably overridden by other factors. For example, PQQ has been shown in animal studies to have clear positive effects on neonatal growth, anti-ischemic/cardio-protective effects, neural protective effects, an ability to enhance fatty acid metabolism via mitochondrial oxidation, and anti-inflammatory effects. Rather, than increasing performance per se, the benefits of PQQ, if any, are more likely related to recovery following an episode of intense activity. In this regard, some mTOR suppression may have some utility.
Businesses are continuing to look towards viable workplace wellness strategies, and these programs are increasing in popularity, despite inconclusive evidence regarding their return on investment and effectiveness. Analysts are so bullish on the growth of workplace wellness programs that the sputtering consumer wearable market is banking on their success by speculating on the opportunities being made available as large enterprises continue to expand their employee well-being programs through technology.
According to a government-funded RAND study in 2013, about one in every two American employers offers some form of initiative that promotes employee wellness (Mattke et al., 2013). Going into 2017, this saturation is probably higher. Corporate wellness stakeholders often want to know how much money they will save if they introduce or expand a wellness program for their employees. They look for hard data to support their decisions, and many decision makers continue to rely on return on investment (ROI) as a quantitative measure to gauge program efficacy. However, because proving program ROI has been elusive, it has been suggested by those in corporate wellness trade organizations that other factors should be considered when assessing the long-term benefits of these programs. As an alternative to ROI, there has been an attempt to introduce value on investment (VOI) to capture some of these program’s intangible benefits. These “intangibles” include subjective measures such as: contributions to knowledge, collaboration, innovation, presenteeism, retention and employee engagement (Hight, 2012; Norris, 2003). The contrived VOI model has basically become essential in attempting to financially justify funding and investment in most programs (Norris, 2003).
Workplace Wellness Research for Small and Mid-Size Businesses
For the most part, the primary focus of academic research regarding workplace wellness programs has been large enterprises. However, the findings of these studies are often not generalizable to companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. There is a significant and growing need for models and strategies that can benefit smaller organizations. This need is especially significant considering that a majority of employees in the American workforce serve small and mid-sized companies (McPeck, Ryan, & Chapman, 2009). My recent study “Workplace Wellness Strategies for Small Businesses” attempted to fill the knowledge gap that exists in this area. My purpose was to determine what common strategies are being used by small to mid-sized business (SMBs) that had both effective and viable workplace wellness programs.
Workplace Wellness Strategies in Small and Mid-Size Businesses (SMBs)
Four organizations participated in the study: a beverage distributor, a boutique hotel, a general contracting firm and a service-based company. I conducted in-depth interviews and studied company artifacts. The data collected was compared for similarities, differences and patterns (a comparative case study approach), and data analysis was performed according to the standards of thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). This process provided me the opportunity to uncover and better understand the commonalities of effective and viable SMB workplace wellness strategies that were demonstrated by these four companies.
My findings found 19 strategies used by these effective programs. Five overreaching concepts are identified that helped organize these strategies:
One of the common characteristics (“concepts”) of the programs studied was their ability to be innovative. The positive company culture within the businesses themselves was another commonality of successful programs. The employee-centric concept referred to the company’s desire to care for the well-being of its employees. All companies that participated in the study also worked proactively to create healthier work environments and provide healthier options for their employees. Finally, the concept of altruism referred to the company’s inherent desire to help others, and included the presence of a selfless leader running the workplace wellness program.
These five primary concepts each had corresponding strategies presented as themes. For instance, innovation was connected with non-traditional approaches, constant iteration and refinement, ideas that were internal to the company, thoughtful use of technology and the “fail fast” concept (often found in lean methodology). Company culture presented themes that include employee influence and involvement, authenticity and leadership that did not directly get involved (in program design), but instead provided autonomy to the right people within the business to run the programs effectively. The concept of employee-centric got expressed through various holistic approaches to employee well-being, starting with the employee’s well-being as a foundation (in contrast to considering economic motives), as well as through shouldering the financial burden of employee health care costs and tailoring their wellness approach to the needs of the employees. Concern for the external and internal corporate environment was shown in themes that described the designation of physical space for well-being considerations, company community involvement and the provision of healthy options for the employees. Altruism related to a selfless program leader, appreciation of program feedback and a program budget that was based largely on recommendations rather than mandates.
Why is this SMB Workplace Wellness Study Important?
I am proud of this study and believe it provides new insights into the characteristics of successful workplace wellness strategies. While some of the themes that emerged will feel familiar to my contemporaries, several rather surprising findings were identified as well. A better understanding of these factors — combined with validation of the more common strategies already well-established — this study gives SMBs programs a new, unique map to improve their workplace wellness strategies. What I have documented is a set of strategies that transcends the cookie cutter advice commonly disseminated by workplace wellness providers (generally tailored for big business) because their motive is to move large corporate clients into their sales funnel.
A poignant example of this is a theme that surprised me: that some of the most successful program ideas were internal. This is contrary to the established belief that workplace wellness ideas get cascaded down from vendors and brokers that offer employee well-being services at scale (Hughes et al., 2011). Although my professional role is working for a provider (Active Wellness), my study was conducted as a doctoral candidate, and in taking an unbiased look at these programs the data suggests health promotion vendors (catering to big businesses) might not be the optimal providers of workplace wellness strategies to SMBs. Another interesting assertion I make is challenging the common wisdom that successful programs rely on involvement from leadership. Historically, it has been generally advised that managers should personally promote wellness initiatives, act as role models and engage with employees in wellness (O’Boyle & Harter, 2014). My study, however, did not support this established view. In the case of the four companies that participated, wellness thrived in environments where leadership passed the responsibility for wellness programs to the right person within the organization. That person was given the autonomy to implement the program in a viable way based on the culture of the organization. Intuitively, one might posit managers within SMBs might not always be the best qualified to lead by example. Running SMBs often is fairly stressful and requires managers to play multiple strategic roles. Therefore, these individuals in many cases should not necessarily champion wellness initiatives if they are already struggling to maintain their own wellness due to high levels of stress (Swaby, 2016).
My sincerest hope is that the findings of this study break new ground and can fuel a positive discussion about the importance of creating healthy workplaces and supporting employees in small and mid-size business — so these businesses can support employee well-being as effectively as larger enterprises. If you would like to learn more about this study on workplace wellness strategies, please feel free to reach out and/or you can view the study in its entirety over at the International Journal of Workplace Health Management by clicking here.
Sources & further reading:
Braun, V., and Clarke, V. (2006), “Using thematic analysis in psychology”, Qualitative Research in Psychology, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 77–101.
Professor Raj Raghunathan specializes in psychology, marketing, as well as the philosophy of happiness and decision making. He graduated from Birla Institute of Technology and Science and completed his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management. In 2000, he earned his Ph.D. at the Stern School of Business, New York University. He is a Professor of Marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. Prof. Raghunathan developed an online course called A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment, a 6-week course on Coursera platform. The course includes knowledge from the fields of psychology, neuroscience and behavioral decision theory. It has had over 75,000 enrollments and has been featured as a Top 10 course offered by Coursera. In 2016, Raghunathan also published the book, If You Are So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? Raj’s book explores how to become happy and draws on the concepts Prof. Raj calls ‘happiness habits’ and ‘happiness sins’. Raj has received several National Science Foundation Career Grant Awards. He is an associate editor at the Journal of Consumer Psychology, guest associate editor at the Journal of Marketing Research and is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Consumer Research.
1) The mechanisms of a happy and fulfilling life can now be explained using science. How do you define happiness as an academic? Does it have quantifiable components or is it truly a subjective measure?
Somewhat surprisingly, happiness is both a subjective experience and measurable. The subjective part comes in two ways — the things that make different people happy, and the types of emotions with which people implicitly equate the term “happiness”. The idea that different things make different people happy is, of course, straightforward. Going sailing may reliably make some person happy, while for others, it won’t float their boat (so to speak).
The idea that different people equate happiness with different terms is a little more subtle. Prof. Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina finds and suggests (based on work by Dacher Keltner, a researcher at UC Berkeley) that “positivity” comes in 10 main varieties including joy, love, serenity, hope, awe, gratitude, laughter and interest. To me, happiness is the same thing as what Prof. Frederickson calls “positivity.” In other words, in my book, you are happy so long as you are experiencing one or more of these (and other) positive emotions.
What is really interesting about all of this is that, as Prof. Ed Diener and his colleagues have found, the simplest way to measure happiness is essentially by asking people how happy they are across a few items (like, “all things considered, would you consider yourself happy right now?”). This is a highly reliable and valid method. For instance, people’s subjective reports of happiness are highly correlated with some objective correlates of happiness, like serotonin (positive correlation) or cortisol (negative correlation) levels. Likewise, people who report higher levels of happiness tend to have a thicker left pre-frontal cortex, and also tend to be thought of as being happier by their close friends, etc.
So, in a nutshell, what might appear at first blush to be a problem for happiness research, namely, that happiness is too subjective, turns out to be not such a big problem after all.
2) In your work, you suggest that being creative and having fun are habits that should be cultivated to reach higher levels of happiness. Since fun is a very subjective concept (i.e. what is fun for one person, is not necessarily fun for somebody else) how do you suggest fun might be studied more rigorously?
As I mentioned in my response to the previous question, while it is true that what is fun for one may not be fun for another, what we subjectively experience when we say we are having fun is more similar than dissimilar across people. So, for example, even if my idea of fun (say, going on a hike) is quite different from that of yours (cuddling up with a book), you will understand what I mean when I say, “Going on a hike is really fun.” You might say, “that’s not what I would call fun, but hey — different strokes for different folks!”
The point is that it’s important to have fun — in whichever way that works for you. Why? Because you are likely to be more creative, more healthy, more productive and more altruistic when you are having fun (more generally, when you are happy) than when you are not.
3) Your work points out that people who are more educated and successful are not necessarily happier. However, one could argue that with expanded education comes broader knowledge and awareness of critical issues (e.g. global warming, poverty, discrimination, injustice, the division of people), and this insight could have a negative effect on one’s sense of happiness. Can one have a thirst for universal knowledge and increase their happiness at the same time? What, in your opinion, is the relationship between seeking truth and happiness?
It is true that more knowledge and more awareness can lower happiness levels. There was a study that a few of my marketing colleagues (including Ziv Carmon and Klaus Wertenbroch) conducted in which they showed that those who spend more effort and thought in coming to a decision about which product to buy are generally less satisfied with the product than those who make it based on lower levels of effort. A main reason for this is that, when you know more, the more you know what else is possible; so, you are less happy with what you have.
The mechanism to which you allude in your question (to conclude why better informed people may be less happy) is a related one. You suggest that being informed and knowledgeable about all of the ways in which the world is screwed up may be a buzz kill. True. And this certainly seems like an important reason why the smart-and the-successful are not so happy. But I also think that there’s merit to the argument that some of the very things that make us smart or successful — like a need to be superior, the desire to control others or outcomes, or that of engaging in elaborate analyses — when taken to unhealthily high levels, can also undermine happiness levels.
A final reason why success lowers happiness has to do with how access to the yardsticks of success — fame, money, power, etc. — can make us more self-centered and materialistic. Several findings show that being self-centered and materialistic are not good form for obtaining happiness.
Great question. It’s not that thinking through problems and overcoming emotions is always bad. Clearly, we have all experienced situations where our emotions have hijacked — or at least derailed — our decision-making process. Impulsive consumption behaviors (e.g., overeating) are all examples of this. So, one big reason why many of us become suspicious of emotions is because we do not want to commit this mistake again. But in an attempting to avoid the mistake of being too impulsive, many of us run the risk of becoming “mind-addicted”.
I think society too plays a big role in instilling mind addiction. Take schooling. Children almost never get to learn about how emotions and instincts can be useful in decision-making. That is, pre-college education almost exclusively encourages the “mind” route to solving problems and making decisions.
On top of that, most of the goals we are encouraged to pursue, from individual ones (e.g., saving enough for retirement, losing a certain amount of weight) to societal ones (e.g., increasing GDP) are quantitative in nature. So, we end up never pursuing qualitative goals (like being happy, or enhancing levels of trust in society). This overly quantitative (vs. qualitative) focus also makes us more prone to relying on the mind to solve problems, getting us increasingly out of touch with our instincts and feelings.
A final reason for mind addiction may be that women are not as well-represented in positions of leadership. So, to the extent that listening to, understanding, acknowledging, and utilizing emotions is a more feminine trait than a masculine trait, society reinforces mind addiction.
5) Mindfulness has become a very popular concept recently, and you often mention it in your work as being a habit that can support happiness. Purportedly, Maslow never published the final version of his hierarchy of needs pyramid in which self-actualization is followed by self-transcendence. Do you think that mindfulness practice might ultimately prove to be a useful tool towards self-transcendence? Or, alternatively, do you see this practice as more a simple, yet very effective, evidence-based cognitive technique to help identify that a lot of what makes us unhappy is merely a waterfall of mindless thoughts and we have more power over these than most believe?
Good question again. I personally think mindfulness has the potential to both offer the “lower order” benefit of reducing stress and enhancing happiness and the “higher order” benefit of self-transcendence. What I mean by self-transcendence (and I imagine you do too) is not something that is necessarily mystical or spiritual. Rather, it’s just the subjective experience of not perceiving oneself as separate from something that we would “normally” consider external. So, for example, when we are so involved in an activity that we lose track of time, or do not feel self-conscious (the critical voice in the back of the head is gone), we merge with the activity to experience a state that Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously called “flow.” Flow is a transcendental experience in the sense that there is a subjective feeling that one has merged with the activity in which one is involved.
Likewise, being in love is self-transcendental, because one feels this sense of merging with the object of one’s love.
In a similar way, mindfulness can provide a transcendental experience — providing one is able to do it correctly, which may require practice. By “doing it correctly,” I mean doing what is often considered the main aim of mindfulness — “being aware without judgment”. Being aware without judgment means being aware from the perspective of what might be called “bare attention”. Bare attention is very different from mind attention. Mind attention is what leads us to judge, categorize, comment, etc. on whatever is going on. Bare attention, on the other hand, means just being aware of the object of one’s attention without the accompanying commentary. It is difficult to do, but can be learned through practice. Once one is able to successfully take the stance of bare attention, one experiences this transcendental sense of being merged with the object of observation, resulting in what Douglas Harding called a “headless experience”. Sam Harris describes this experience very well in his book, Waking Up, as well.
Chip Conley began his journey in creating “joy” by transforming a seedy motel in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco into the legendary Phoenix hotel. Under the umbrella Joie de Vivre (translated to mean: the exuberant enjoyment of life), the endeavor grew to 40 unique hotels spread across California. He has authored several books, including Emotional Equations, PEAK and The Rebel Rules. Currently Chip serves as the Head of Global Hospitality & Strategy at Airbnb and the Chief Strategy Officer of Everfest, a company that connects the festival community online.
1) Now that you have immersed yourself in the world of festivals, what are the commonalities that make these experiences so impactful and life changing? For instance, there are elements that distinguish the Rise Festival from say, an Outside Lands. What are the essential elements of exceptional festivals that set them apart from a run-of-the-mill collective experience?
There is a French sociologist named Émile Durkheim, and in 1912 he wrote about the nature of pilgrimages. He coined the expression “collective effervescence” that really describes what makes a festival different. He used this term in the context of religious pilgrimages, but I actually think a festival where you become part of the installation — in an environment where people are somewhat out of their customary social environment — that is where transformation tends to happen. When you go to a concert, generally you go there for the day and then you go somewhere else. Collective effervescence happens when your sense of ego almost evaporates and what it is replaced with is a sense of common mission, and a common connection, with other people — that’s the beauty of a festival. The more digital we get, the more ritual we need. In this context, ritual is the IRL experience vs. the URL experience. The URL experience is what we do online, IRL is “in real life,” and I think that the more we are possessed by our gadgets, the more we need to have opportunities for connection in real life. Furthermore, there is no doubt that habitat influences our behavior and what we are willing to accept. A particular festival may have a set of guiding principles (e.g. Burning Man’s 10 Principles). What is really great when a festival does have principles — and they are well-advertised and promoted — is as an attendee you know what you are getting yourself into and also what is expected of you to participate.
2) You are well known for creating physical space and visceral experiences that create joy. Like any good master, you have pulled elements from other disciplines ranging from positive psychology to physical art. What is one of the most profound lessons you have learned along the way? Perhaps one you found the most surprising about the craft of creating joy?
I have always loved throwing parties. I throw the grand opening parties for my hotels, and every five years I throw a party somewhere in the world for just my friends. I did this last year in Baja with 125 friends. It was great. I just threw a party for 20,000 people in Los Angeles for Airbnb. What would normally be considered a conference, we reimagined as a festival and broke conventional rules. This was the third event of this type for Airbnb, and this time we wanted the format to be a bit uncomfortable at first. Not uncomfortable physically, but more like the attendees did not know what they were getting themselves into. A level of curiosity like, “I do not feel like I am in a normal environment.” This level of stress can actually help people to find parts of themselves that they did not know exist. We had the event in a somewhat sketchy area of Los Angeles. There are historic, beautiful theaters that we used as part of the installation. We took over five historic theaters, we took over about seven different retail spaces, and at least three parking lots. We used this environment for workshop spaces, conversation spaces and creative spaces for people to connect. What I believe is that what is remarkable — what creates joy — is when something surprises you and then it delights you. There can be surprise and disappointment or there can be surprise and delight — when it is surprise and delight, it is unexpected. Unexpected delight is memorable. I think interesting juxtapositions do this very well. When juxtaposition is done well, our brain is literally going through a process of having to imagine two things together, for instance, art and spirituality. The blending of ideas can lead to illumination. You see something in a way you never thought of before. The best way to describe someone who is a great festival producer: they are a curator. So, you try to curate an experience, create a habitat for people to have peak experiences. When there is nice mix of unfamiliarity and you push through boundaries — joy comes with that feeling that some level of accomplishment, some level of progress, has taken place. This growth allows you to feel a sense of exhilaration.
3) In your book, The Rebel Rules, you talk about the benefit of sabbaticals to avoid burnout. For many, these opportunities will only manifest a handful of times in a lifetime. As such, in your experience examining both successful “rebels” and those with an affinity for wanderlust, have you identified any strategies for those who embark on soul-searching expeditions to help maximize their outcome?
Creating space (whatever space means in the context of some individual freedom) and seeing what emerges is pretty important. Now, you literally could do that on a weekend. You could say, “Okay, this weekend I am going to put an office message that just says: I’M NOT CHECKING EMAILS THIS WEEKEND.” You hide your phone. For two days you go digital free. You go through a digital detox and maybe you have nothing planned, you literally just allow spontaneity or serendipity to rule those two days. That process might actually start to bring some things up for you, including fear. A lot of us like structure, a lot of us like to have a calendar that is full because it lets us know, “Okay, this is what I accomplished today.” There are a lot of people that need to ‘accomplish’ things to feel alive. So, I think not everyone needs a six-month sabbatical — at least not as a first step. Even if you have the opportunity to take a sabbatical because your life has created a transition, it might be foolish to assume that you know what you are going to get out of a sabbatical. For me, my sabbatical was not really even a true sabbatical, but more along the lines of “what’s juicy for me right now?” For me it was festivals, and I started going on that path, and I went to five festivals in Asia in the winter of 2013 and came back starting Fest300. Then, all of a sudden, out of that emerged the founders of the Airbnb approaching me and saying, “we want to turn our little tech company into a hospitality company, will you help us do it?” I have been doing that for almost four years now. Sometimes you have to make space to grow; I might not have taken the call from Brian Chesky four years ago if I had not taken time for renewal. When you create space, you are in a better place to take the blinders off, which gives you the opportunity to see things you might not have seen otherwise. So making space is one strategy. A second strategy is meditation. I try to meditate twice a day if I can. That experience is my form of a daily sabbatical, because it allows me to decompress and disconnect. It does not have to be meditation — some people like taking afternoon naps, for others it is going for that four-mile run that they do every day. Whatever it is that helps you to break with the linear mind. However, there is not a prescription that is right for everybody. I think for me, knowing my tendencies, having a really open field is probably wise because if I am too prescriptive about what I want at the end of a six-month sabbatical, the end result will be a linear to-do list, which defeats the purpose. With that said, realize your sabbatical probably should be the opposite of what you normally have. For me, I need space to be open to new ideas. For someone else, they may need a sabbatical because they are so lost that the purpose of their sabbatical is more oriented around a mission or some level of achievement.
I think hedonism in moderation is appropriate, self-interest is not necessarily a bad thing. However, festivals can become an addiction, just like so many other things in life. I think one of the things that Burning Man has done quite brilliantly is creating 10 principles that define this community. The main event and other events around the world that are sanctioned to be Burning Man affiliated help this community to hold ourselves accountable when we see people not living up to them. No one is perfect of course, and the Burning Man principles are not right for every festival. The problem with a lot of festivals is they lack principles. Often when you lack principles what you get is the lowest common denominator. Without an inherent culture, you get something that takes people to their basic instincts. Getting back to your first question, I think the part that is truly beautiful is when you see that collective effervescence happen. Collective effervescence means that people are losing their sense of ego and their sense of identity and, in the process, feeling connected to something bigger than themselves. I think that if principles are articulated well, and these principles are lived out in such a way that they help people move beyond their own selfish needs (in the process of experiencing the festival), then principles have the potential to create a better legacy for the event. If an event is something that is purely hedonistic — and it is important to note that there are festivals that survive and do quite well within that environment — you diminish the ability to somehow feel like there is something bigger than your own personal, hedonistic needs. Great festivals elevate people and help people to transcend their own petty grievances and desires. A great festival is a community of people experiencing something together. So, if it’s a collection of individuals as opposed to a community of like-minded people, the risk is, if you look at Maslow’s hierarchy, pretty low on the pyramid with regards to experience. At these type of events the moment that somebody else is attracting you as an individual to something over here, or a new shiny object there, whimsy just takes you over there because you don’t feel any connection to the purpose of the event. Festivals are at their best when they really do help people to feel connected to something bigger than themselves.
So the issue you have highlighted is not a festival problem — the definition of addiction is using something as a distraction, as a means of not feeling something. Festivals can play this role. If you just constantly go to festivals because you cannot live your normal life, or live in real life and/or you are searching for a utopian experience… festivals always come to an end. If you are going to festivals as a way to vacate in some manner, I think you need to ask yourself, “What could I do in my ‘normal’ life to make it better?”
5) If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps in the pursuit of creating joy, but was at the beginning of their journey and was looking for mentorship, what three pieces of advice would you impart on them to begin acquiring the mastery to be successful in this pursuit?
1) Understanding who you were as a little kid always helps, because weirdly there are clues in your childhood that help you understand what it is that gave you that sense of timeless wonder. Timeless wonder is usually a pretty healthy place to seek out in that Joseph Campbell “follow your bliss” approach to life. So, start by doing a personal archeology project about your childhood. Talk to your friends, talk to your brothers and sisters, your parents, whoever you spent time with as a child. Look at pictures of yourself at childhood and get a sense of what it was that gave you bliss. How can you manifest that in your adult life? I was always fascinated about Walt Disney and how he created Disneyland. I was fascinated by creating experiences for kids in the neighborhood, so… I would do just that. I would create a restaurant in my mom’s dining room for instance. There are clues there — find them.
2) Look at who you admire. Who are the people out there in the world as adults who are living their life in such a way that they could be a model for you? Who is actually having joy in how they experience their life? Who is doing it in a way that gives them a sense that they are living their calling? This does not have to be just in the work world; you could live your calling as a political activist, you could live your calling as an Ironman athlete, you could live your calling as a grandmother. Figuring out what it is that gives you that sense of passion in life and seeing it in other people — this helps you develop a better picture of what life might look like for you.
3) The way to bring joy to people is helping them to feel like they are a kid again. The Celebrity Pool Toss has been going on for 25 years now — a fundraiser we do at my first hotel, The Phoenix. It is a fundraiser for TNDC’s afterschool program for kids. We have created a fundraiser based upon the high bidder getting to toss a celebrity in the swimming pool of the hotel. The reason that it has lived for 25 years now — raising over $7 million for afterschool programs — is because it allows people to act like a kid. Auctions are a bit fun too, but the process of actually throwing someone in the pool is very childlike. I think providing people that sense of being able to break out of their normal formality — helping people feel less contained. Burning Man is a somewhat extreme example. Getting the chance to toss people in the pool is a very simple example, but still effective of reconnecting with a sense of freedom that might have gotten lost in adulthood.
A word of caution for those looking to create an event. Some people find joy in being spectators, others in being participants. Some events are better suited for everybody to be a participant, some are suited for some people to be participants and some to spectate. I think a key to success is to make sure people know what they are opting in for. So, if you are creating an event with the aim of creating joy — if your idea centers around everybody participating, you better make sure the attendees know that in advance.
Most of us want to have fun, it just seems like it is not as easy as it used to be. The reasons are many: guilt (because others aren’t having fun), perceived inappropriateness (because others around us cannot have fun) or lack of time (because our commitment to others won’t let us have fun). Yet, science gives an encouraging nod that we need to make time for fun and should perhaps prioritize it.
Since the term “fun” can be ambiguous and is often used in different contexts, let us first look at the standard definition of the word. Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines fun as: amusement, especially lively or playful. Staying true to the definition we generally connect the word fun to things that are entertaining and enjoyable to do. Fun is also sometimes used interchangeably with play — although there is a distinction as fun is argue that play is a state of mind; a certain attitude we can incorporate into any and every activity (Brown, 2009).
It is important to keep in mind that what is fun for you, might not be fun for somebody else. Therefore, fun can be difficult to investigate using standardized scientific methods. As such, scientific conclusions about the benefits of fun come from subjective observations and less rigorous studies. Nonetheless, there are enough studies that indirectly link to the concept of fun and play that a case can be made that we all need fun.
Here are five reasons science suggests you should have fun:
Fun improves your relationships, both at work and in life
Research shows that when we have fun with others, these experiences have a positive effect on building trust and developing communication. Having fun gives us an opportunity to connect and be creative. When we laugh together, this sends an external non-verbal message that says: “We are alike, we share values” (Everett, 2011). It can also make us look more vulnerable, but at the same time approachable and friendly, which can help build connections and bonds. Drs. John and Julie Gottmann, relationship experts from the Seattle’s Gottman Research Institute, have been studying happy and unhappy couples (and their patterns of behavior) in a systematic way. They found that couples who are happy know how to have fun together. It appears that when we have the ability to create and partake in acts of humor and affection, our conflict resolution skills improve as well.
Studies show that fun activities at work can improve our relationships with co-workers. These strong bonds developed with our colleagues have been linked to improved performance and productivity (Kansal, Puja, & Maheshwari, 2012).
Fun makes us smarter
According to science, one way to improve our memory and concentration is to have fun. Partially, this has to do with the stress reduction that happens when we engage in something we enjoy. However, the benefits of fun activities seem to stretch further than that. The British Cohort Study — a study that has been following 17,000 people born in 1970 — found that reading for fun improves our language skills, and more surprisingly our proficiency in math as well. It appears that fun activities that introduce us to new ideas and concepts foster self-directed learning. The rewards we gain from these experiences might expand beyond the obvious benefits. Scientists are now also exploring if reading for fun can also protect us against cognitive decline as we age.
Fun reduces stress
You probably do not need science to inherently know this already: engaging in enjoyable activities can be an especially powerful antidote to stress. It has been recognized in several studies that spontaneous laughter has a stress-buffering effect that helps us better cope with stress. According to one study, individuals who laughed less had more negative emotions when compared to those who laughed more. In contrast, those who laughed more showed fewer negative feelings even when stressful situations increased (Kuiper & Martin, 1998). Interestingly, this same study found that there is no correlation between having a good sense of humor and displaying stronger or more intense emotions. As such, therapeutic laughter programs are now being developed and evaluated, and are sometimes offered as treatments for depression, stress and anxiety (Kim et al., 2015). It appears that there is some truth to the adage, “laughter is the best medicine.”
Finding fun in physical activity balances your hormone levels
It has been well-established that high stress levels negatively influence our hormones and neurotransmitters (especially cortisol and noradrenalin). Stress also affects our endocrine, metabolic and immune functions. Hormones can have an amazing effect on our mood — this is true for both genders (Koelsch et al., 2016). Certain hormones, such as cortisol, insulin, testosterone and estrogen, can be particularly influential and cause havoc when we have an imbalance. One way to naturally balance hormones is to engage in pleasurable physical activity (e.g. Abbenhardt et al., 2013). In other words, adaptation is not reliant on intense physical activity but rather consistent recreational exercise. When it comes to exercise, find what fun means to you and bake it in to your routine.
Fun can make you more energetic and youthful
Stress is draining — it can suck the life out of us, making us tired and cranky. When we effectively reduce our stress levels, this can often provide us with a new boost of vitality. Having fun and playing have traditionally been connected with children and the early years of our development. However, many philosophers and psychologists emphasize the importance of play as we get older. Plato professed that life must be lived as play, and George Bernard Shaw famously said: We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
Fun at Work
Having fun at work might be just as important as having fun in your personal life. Everett (2011) concludes that since we will spend more than 90,000 hours of our lives at work, we might as well have fun there. Some of the benefits of playing on the job include:
– Higher recruitment and retention rates. Organizations that nourish creativity and playfulness in employees have less difficulty recruiting and retaining good staff, and it is an encouraging trend that more modern organizations are balancing work and play than in prior decades (Everett, 2011). For example, here in the Bay Area Google is known for having a fun workplace and is also a very desirable company to work for. Sponsoring fun activities has also been recognized as a measure to prevent burnout (Meyer, 1999).
– Increased job satisfaction. Employees must feel satisfied to be productive. There are many factors that contribute to job satisfaction, which logically also correlates to overall life satisfaction. When we can laugh and have fun at work, we can also build better relationships and help create connections with our workmates. Doing fun things together creates a joint history with our fellow employees. When we have fun together we tend to relate to and identify with our coworkers better. Some authors believe that “teams that play together, stay together,” so it is important to create organizational culture that supports that (Berg, 2001).
– Increased customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction is generally closely linked with employee satisfaction. Workers who have something to smile about are usually better equipped to make customers smile than their melancholy counterparts. Fun seems to be contagious — as shown by studies looking at work environments. For example, when a fun work philosophy was adopted at Sprint, this resulted in their call center agents handling 30 percent more calls, and customers expressing an increased level of satisfaction with their services (Karl & Peluchette, 2006).
Everett (2011) also points out that fun should not be made mandatory. It ceases to be fun then, and can actually contribute to feelings of stress among employees. It is important to consider that people’s perceptions of fun (and what fun means to them) may vary and that they do not necessarily want to have fun in a certain way, at a certain time.
[FUN FACT]: Did you know that according to a study from 1998, adults only laugh on average 17 times a day (Kuiper, & Martin, 1998)? If you have a good joke, leave it in the comments so we can help push up this average.
Have you ever thought what you want on your tombstone? Or wondered what gives you the drive to hustle? Are you the benevolent type, but still have enough ego that you want to be remembered for all the good you did in the world? There are many forces that help drive us to pursue, and the desire to leave a legacy is one of the strongest.
This inherent drive to leave a legacy can manifest in a range of ways: from a desire to have children to wanting to lead a visionary movement that transforms a society. Although the manifestation of the process might differ between individuals, most of us seem to have a desire to create a legacy — to leave something behind when we go. Our desire for legacy can be biological, material, and/or it can be expressed as our values and hard-won knowledge that we pass on to family and friends (Hunter & Rowles, 2005).
What is the Meaning of Legacy?
The word legacy comes from a Latin word legatus, translated as ‘embassador, envoy, deputy.’ In the late 14th century, an old French word legacie was used to describe a body of persons sent on a mission. We can therefore look at legacy metaphorically that when we create a legacy, what we are really doing is appointing our spokesperson for the future. Most of us — either explicit or unknowingly — have a desire for either symbolic or literal immortality (i.e. literal immortality is some belief that there is an afterlife). This seems especially strong in those of us that understand death is inevitable (Sligte, Nijstad, & De Dreu, 2013). Our legacy, if adequately left, transcends the realms of our physical life and brings symbolic immortality.
As our awareness of mortality grows, it brings into focus internal concerns and questions about why we exist. For many, this quest for purpose begins once we realize that the opportunity to leave our mark is finite. For others, this realization can lead fear — a threat to one’s sense of self that we will likely soon be forgotten. Thus, people try to negotiate what us scientists call ‘mortality salience’ in different ways (Sligte, Nijstad, & De Dreu, 2013). When reminded of our impending death, we often look for ways to transcend that feeling and employ different psychological mechanisms to reach symbolic immortality. For instance, we are compelled to connect with influential social groups, because a group’s existence generally transcends the existence of a single individual. Furthermore, groups also bolster our self-esteem and nurture our belief that the world meets the standards and values within our worldview — a rationalization that everything will end well. This has been explored in depth by Terror Management Theory or TMT, which was proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski and Sheldon Solomon (1986).
To create legacy some of us — I fall into the category —turn to our creative side. By introducing new ideas, designs, novel products and original solutions into our current reality we possess the potential to influence societies (and dare I say the world) in a way that will outlive ourselves. Studies have shown that creativity is often used as a force of legacy, especially when the expression of creativity is socially valued — after all, we love our friends… our peers… our ‘tribes’ and most of us either explicitly or secretly want their recognition (Sligte, Nijstad, & De Dreu, 2013).
Why Do You Want to Leave a Legacy?
The crux of legacy is that we look for ways to be existentially reassured our life mattered. We bargain with death as we go through the psychological cycle of grieving our inevitable non-existence (Ross, 1969). We want to leave a legacy because before we can psychologically accept the reality of our own physical annihilation, we put up one hell of a fight. Science suggests a desire to leave something behind when we pass naturally increases as we age (Newton, Herr, Pollack, & McAdams, 2013). Those of us that have had long and productive careers seem to be challenged the most by the process of aging (Wexler & Long, 2009). Intuitively this makes sense; if you worked hard all your life — inevitably making personal sacrifices along the way — you want to believe your life amounted to something in the eyes’ of others because you will not be around to tell your story. You want some recognition for living a dedicated life. Again, various studies suggest the closer to death we get, the more we crave this immortality. A study of women that were faced with a life-threatening illness showed that all subjects consciously started the process of legacy transmission (Hunt, 2007), which could be interpreted that legacy closely links with our relationship to death and mortality.
Many authors also think that the wish to create a legacy is connected both with generativity and narcissism (Newton, Herr, Pollack, & McAdams, 2013). Generativity is a psychological concept, usually regarded as a positive one — generativity often emerges in midlife and can be connected with parenthood or other social roles, such as mentoring. Erikson (1974) defined it as “…the establishment, the guidance, and the enrichment of the living generation and the world it inherits.” Erikson viewed it as a concept that is often focused on the next generation and an inherent individual care for its well-being. Narcissism, on the other hand, is usually viewed as a more negative concept (though there is a distinction between normal and pathological narcissism). Generativity is focused on others, while the concept of narcissism focuses on one self. We could therefore conclude that wanting to leave a legacy on some level is associated with narcissism since you do not need to be remembered to help society. It appears that legacy is likely a combination of both selflessness and narcissism (Rubinstein, 1996).
Many people indeed associate a need for legacy with ego; an act of ego beyond death. In contrast, the desire to selflessly change the world is viewed as more altruistic in nature — those that do things anonymously and do not wish to be recognized for it. Nonetheless, some point out that legacy has the potential to go beyond the ego and be weighted in altruism. It can surpass cultural constraints and become a broader aspect of human development that is a psychological driver of greater good (Hunt, 2007).
One thing about legacy that science seems to agree on is that this desire is somewhat universally seeded in us. Since it is often connected with having children and passing either goods, values, knowledge and/or wisdom onto them, being childless can (in some people) create a feeling of despair and/or sadness as they feel they are no outlets to leave a legacy (Rubinstein, 1996). It was observed that some childless women looked for other ways to meaningfully influence and support others (e.g. family members, community), or alternatively they wanted to create a legacy that related to the whole human species. This desire can sometimes drive very old people to participate in, for example, antinuclear protests even if building more nuclear power plants probably isn’t going to influence them anymore. Some studies show that older people, it can be more important to pass on values and beliefs than material possessions (Hunter, 2007). It is clear that legacy means different things to different people, but that for most of us it is the pursuit of symbolic immortality that drives us.
Sources & further reading:
Erikson, E. H. (1974). Dimensions of a new identity. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
I have generally been an advocate of behavior change science. Designing healthy habits and routines can be an effective way to elicit change in the appropriate environment. However, similar to some of the legitimacy issues executive consulting faced when “life” coaches hit the scene, a wave of unqualified behavioral “designers” have been able to find an audience due to the increased ease at which garbage can be disseminated thanks to the power of the Internet. An important disclosure is I am one of those peddlers, so I am chucking big rocks at my big glass house. That said, it is long overdue to air some dirty laundry — so here we go…
Many popular behavior change interventions are designed for short intervention-behavior lags — i.e. the desired behavior of the user takes place almost at the same time as the intervention is administered. For instance, you see your Fitbit on your arm and get reminded to walk, so you get up from your desk and take a phone meeting outside while walking; or a more common example, a beep in your car nudges you to fasten your seatbelt, you hear the beep and you buckle up. But one of our many dirty little secrets is that these interventions are not particularly useful after the “treatment” has been administered (Rogers & Frey, 2014). For instance, taking the seatbelt example, one study showed that if drivers were reminded to fasten their seatbelt immediately before they drove off, their compliance was significantly better than if they were reminded 5 minutes earlier (Austin, Sigurdsson, & Rubin, 2006). Moreover, and more importantly, a delayed prompt (when there was a 5-minute lag between the prompt and the driver entering the car) the intervention was no more effective than receiving no prompt at all (i.e. the study’s control group). A few minutes seems to be enough for our attention to wander off and for another stimulus to take over — in other words, if an stimuli is not administered in real-time the effectiveness of the behavioral intervention diminishes — if (what people of my sort call) a “trigger” happens after the action that needs changing is taken, the intervention is usually a lot less effective.
Therefore, what behavioral designers and marketers often try to do is alter our thoughts in real time. Real-time stimulus is pretty effective and can acutely change our behavior in the short-term. These tactics are frequently used in conjunction with framing our choice as riskaversion. For example, if you are going to the beach and you get told that by not wearing sunscreen, you will have a higher chance of developing skin cancer, chances are you are more likely to buy sunscreen (for evidence of this see: Detweiler et al., 1999). But, it is questionable at best if you will actually change your habit of generally not buying sunscreen before going out in the sun; in the sunscreen study the perception of risk was only changed in that moment. Changing thoughts in an enduring matter has proven to be much more difficult. Behavior interventions are supposed to be able to bridge time, but if the intervention is not administered just before the target behavior occurs, this is unlikely to happen. For instance, a study that looked at Biggest Loser contestants showed that during the show — when contestants were bombarded with different inputs, interventions and coaches — participants lost considerable weight. Six years later however they gained back, on average, 70% of the lost weight (Fothergill et al., 2016).
The hard reality about behavior change is it is not easy to create persistence — although there are different pathways that have been connected with the process for lasting behavior change. The problem is these complicated pathways are rarely designed well in novel behavior change models. Instead designers look for dramatic results so they can market themselves and their intervention. That is the bullshit part, so what can you do about it?
In their research paper, Todd Rogers and Kerin Frey (researchers from Harvard University) describe some of the features that are likely to bridge time. These include feeling socially accountable (e.g., not wanting to let down family and friends), linking performance with the intervention, pre-committing to a certain behavior and/or deliberately changing perceptions and consequential thoughts (Rogers & Frey, 2014). The importance of this last one (deliberately changing perceptions and consequential thoughts), has been shown to be extremely important for lasting behavioral change. This is why cognitive-behavioral therapy is touted as an evidence-based, efficient technique for changing habits — science continues to support the idea that deliberate practice creates new and lasting cognitive patterns and pathways (Pearson, Lipton, Cleland, & Yee, 2002).
The premise of self-licensing is that when you feel you have invested legitimate effort into something, an internal self-licensing cue can get produced that justifies a negative action, many times in the form of a hedonic action of consumption or self-gratification. Ever remember a time you rewarded your 30 minutes of cardio with a milkshake Jamba Juice. At least one study showed that a self-licensing cue leads to increased snack intake (Witt Huberts, Evers, & De Ridder, 2012). Self-licensing is a distinct behavioral mechanism that has been shown to be associated with unhealthy behaviors — distinct from other self-control failure mechanisms in the sense that the behavioral breakdown is actually masked as a reward.
The rub for you is the phenomenon of self-licensing (sometimes referred to as moral licensing) is widely recognized. Good behavioral designers know when people perform well they will feel liberated to engage in these behaviors (Merritt, Effron, & Monin, 2010). Why do you think most health clubs have a juice bar? Science suggests that even if you simply imagine doing something altruistic, you are more likely to indulge. If you, on the other hand, did not imagine doing a good deed, you are more likely to choose prudent behaviors (Khan & Dhar, 2006). It appears that when we feel virtuous this can often influence our future behavior in a negative way — because, come on, we all like a pat on the back once in a while.
False expectations regarding the future also seem to influence our choices. For instance, if we believe we will have to make a certain choice twice, this influences our decision and might make us more self-indulgent. Studies of consumers performed by Khan and Dhar (2007) showed that participants were more likely to choose an unhealthy snack (a chocolate chip cookie) over a healthy snack (low fat yogurt) if they believed they will have to make the same choice the week after. In other words — in our minds — just projecting we might do something healthy has us doing dumb shit in the present moment. The best advice I have got for you here is to be mindful and simply not do dumb shit. If you are reading this, chances are you are smart, so look at what you are trying to accomplish and gut check yourself to see if you are self-licensing. Since this phenomenon is common with those trying to lose weight I’ll use gym goers as an example. One, your treadmill is lying to you (see: Putting Very Little Weight in Calorie Counting Methods) — if you are looking to create a calorie deficit you are probably already overestimating the calories you have burnt exercising. Two, that fruit smoothie you think is a healthy reward for a job well done — it likely comes close to the caloric intake of a banana split. Not that I am suggesting you drink soda as an alternative, but keep in mind that if that was your guilty pleasure after a hard workout, you would likely be taking in 66% less calories than your average juice bar alternative.
The concept of self-licensing is similar to what some call ego depletion. Ego depletion and willpower have been blogged to death by folks like me so I won’t go too deep here. I am already stoked you have made it this far. The short version though is willpower is seen as a muscle that can get exhausted when we use it a lot (Baumeister et al., 2008). When our willpower’s capacity is temporarily used up, ego depletion causes us to make less restrained choices (like snacking on cookies or cake, instead of more healthy options like fruit or salad). Moreover, and what fascinates researchers is, when we use willpower resources in one area of our lives, this can backfire in seemingly unrelated areas of our lives. For instance, experiments have shown that when people tried to resist the temptation to eat sweets, they subsequently gave up faster on difficult mental exercises (Baumeister et al., 1998).
If you have read this far then by now you either agree or disagree with me that behavior change is incredibly complex and influenced by multiple factors and circumstances. However, to make these complex concepts comprehensible we have really smart thought leaders in this space dumbing down ideas at the cost of holistic comprehension. Take the very popular behavioral model proposed by BJ Fogg (BJ Fogg’s Behavoral Model) — this model has been accused by many that study behavior change as somewhat overly simplistic (although my guess is that for BJ simplicity was his intention). BJ’s model focuses on three elements of behavior: motivation, ability and trigger. In the model, motivation and ability need to be at certain thresholds for a target behavior to be ‘triggered’. BJ also defines subcomponents of each element — in his model, his three core motivators are: pleasure/pain, hope/fear, social acceptance/rejection. What I see as missing in BJ’s model is a road to long-term behavior change, as most of these levers are acute and episodic. The notable exception is social pressure; as I alluded before social pressure has been shown to be a useful method in some cases when we want to cement a certain behavior (we will not go too deep down the rabbit hole of social contagion here, but the science is interesting for those interested). One scientific example is a study that examined people who thought their neighbors could see a report of their energy usage. This group was more likely to reduce their energy usage, and more surprisingly the effect stayed measurable even years after the initial intervention was removed (Allcott & Rogers, 2014) — meaning these folks were still energy conscious even after the reports that their neighbors knew what they were up to stopped coming to their mailbox.
To be fair to BJ, he clearly knows the role environment contributes to our behavior, but the environment’s importance is downplayed in his popular model — and this model is constantly referenced by would-be behavioral designers. In the information regarding his Tiny Habits protocol BJ does mention three things that can change behavior in the long-run: an epiphany (very rare, like: holy shit, I just had a heart attack I should work out more), change of context (hey, what do you know? environment) and taking baby steps (aka BJ’s 2nd baby after his B=MAT model: Tiny Habits).
The truth is BJ just repackaged stuff from Kurt Lewin, that Lewin himself probably repackaged from someone else. We in the business all do this. As a gestalt psychologist, Lewin believed that a person’s environment determines their behavior, which he expressed with his formula: B= f (P, E). Behavior —in his view — is a function of a person (P) and their environment (E). In one of his original books, Lewin actually originally proposed that behavior is a function of a person’s entire situation: B=f(S) …later Lewin expanded situation (S) into person and environment (Lewin, 1936). Lewin’s contribution to behavior change was an emphasis on all the different elements that need to be considered to attempt to understand our behavior. Another gestalt psychologist, Kurt Koffka, summarized this in his famous (though often wrongly translated) saying: The whole is other than the sum of the parts. In other words, it is folly to approach behavior change using a purely reductionist approach. Lewin (1936) found we are often affected differently by the same physical environment, so even though I am admittedly bullish on them, even environmental changes fail us sometime.
However, in my opinion environmental interventions are where we are seeing the highest return on investment with regards to behavioral design. If you have not already, go down the rabbit hole of Brian Wansink’s work. Wansink is continuing to show us through his research how environmental design can influence our behavior. For instance, he popularized mindless eating ideas that suggest we often eat things without being aware of its nutritional value or volume (Wansink, 2004).
A study published this year in JAMA, described a randomized control trial that looked at the efficiency of weight-loss interventions. The hypothesis was that technology-enhanced weight-loss interventions will result in greater weight-loss compared to standard interventions. Surprisingly, the hypothesis was rejected. Participants who received a wearable device and an accompanying Web interface to monitor their diet and physical activity lost less weight compared to those who only received the standard intervention (Jakicic et al., 2016). Other researchers, too, concluded that when it comes to changing behavior, wearables might not be as beneficial as we once believed. I do believe wearables have potential, but it appears they cannot drive health behavior change alone (Patel, Asch & Volpp, 2015). There is a big gap between recording information and behavior change — to be honest after studying this now for over half-a-decade I believe the available data suggests that tracking devices probably cannot bridge this gap. Furthermore, it can take decades for a product to recover from a halo effect (Kerger et al., 2016). To be clear, some wearable devices can indeed deliver change (I am especially bullish on condition specific wearables). Also, some consumer products prove to be useful tools, because (1) they are often bought by people who are already motivated to change and (2) successful behavioral interventions can be built around them (Patel, Asch & Volpp, 2015). Look: the key to sustainability of behavior change is to transform external motivation into internal — all of us know it — the problem is that it is a bit tricky.
Reality: we need to believe and be enrolled to some degree in our own behavior change, or we are generally just wasting our time. “Destination addiction” refers to those that are always chasing something, but find no fulfillment in the process of change. Take for instance someone who buys a wearable because they believe that tracking their progress will add enjoyment to something they really do not enjoy doing. A lot of my life is spent evaluating these wearables. Many of these devices actually do the opposite (i.e. they add dissatisfaction) by adding unneeded friction to a process that is difficult to begin with — in extreme cases these devices even risk changing our identity (Lupton, 2015). Furthermore, whether supported by a wearable of not, canned behavioral interventions run the risk of missing the real cause of a problem because many only focusing on symptoms (for instance, personally I am fat because I drink too much, and I drink too much because my baby cries; how is my Fitbit going to fix my crying baby? I am joking of course, but you get the point). Rigged protocols and behavior change technologies that run on static algorithms cannot always perform a deep and comprehensive assessment about your individual situation. It is rare that a single behavior change model applies to a large population. Also, behavioral interventions that use technology and online platforms often reduce the amount of human contact you are exposed to (to be fair to hardware and software designers, investors want to know a product is scalable and human invention is rarely scalable). What does minimizing human interaction mean for the future behavior change through technology? I am not totally in the hater camp — some studies show that online therapy can be just as effective as face-to-face contact, plus it is more scalable and affordable (Mohr et al., 2012) — these are truths. However, the jury is out about the long-term effects these interventions can have, specifically their lasting effect on the human psychology and the process of socialization we have discussed throughout. Online interventions are very different to personal interventions. From what I can tell online modalities are not evaluated with the same amount of rigor as face-to-face practice. Also, individuals involved in the delivery of such models are not necessarily competent practitioners, especially since interactive computer-based communication has yet to provide an apples-to-apples comparison to face-to-face verbal exchange (Childress, 2000).
So what should you consider when it comes to evaluating behavioral interventions and their appropriateness? Perhaps some of the more obvious things include transparency regarding the intervention so you can determine fit, level of the interventions intrusiveness and the restrictions the intervention will have on your freedom. Our choices are often limited or eliminated altogether when certain goods or behaviors are banned or restricted — when our intrinsic drive is not truly altered and/or the intervention relies on artificial prohibitions, there is a good chance it can backfire (recidivism).
You see, if we can admit we are gaming ourselves, then at least we can enjoy the game. If we look at the world through the philosophical lenses of James P. Carse who wrote the book Finite and Infinite Games, poor behavior change protocols could be described as finite games. Their purpose is to reach a change, to end the process and win (losing weight, for example). When we rig the system in this fashion however, we get the results I previously highlighted in the Biggest Loser study. The game is over and we level set to the mean (i.e. back to our previous state). After all, most change comes with the potential for relapse. In my experience, behavior change protocols rarely have contingencies for this strong possibility. As an example, 80 to 95 percent of people who give up smoking or alcohol relapse within the first 12 months (Brandon, Vidrine, Litvin, 2007). I am not giving extra weight to the idea of Infinite Games by concluding with this concept, but do understanding that:
True change is not a destination; and,
we (and our users) might as well enjoy the ride.
These two ideas (that I hold as truths) will help us architect behavioral interventions for ourselves and others that have real lasting impact and will not fail us in the long-term.
Man, this post was a lot of words. I would love to stop talking now and learn from you in the comments below. What do you think?
This quarter’s Business, Innovation and Entrepreneurship interview is the compilation of getting to discuss “big data” analytics with four exceptional thought leaders at the Motionsoft Technology Summit this year (2016). These four gentlemen in no particular order are: Jafar Adibi, Ph.D., the President, Co-founder, and CTO of re|unify; Jeffrey Cooper, the Senior Manager of Business Development at Samsung; Mark Newman, the President of Heads Up Analytics, and Keith Catanzano, a Partner at 2River Consulting Group. The answers below are summations of their respective answers, as such they are not represented as verbatim but edited for readability and context.
1) When a company is either building a data model (or working with a third party for this type of service), what considerations should an operator have regarding the crossroad of complexity and usability? There are scenarios where too many disparate and incomplete data sets can make it difficult to find the signal from the noise; what are the trade-offs as the amount of available business intelligence information continues to increase? And what considerations should we take into account to maximize any investment in mining data?
[Jafar Adibi]: You need to figure out what problem you are trying to solve. Clients will come to me with data, rich sets of data, and say, “Jafar, now go figure out something to do. Find something interesting.” Generally, this is a waste of time. People believe finding correlations (any correlations) are going to help their business, but that is often not the case. When you identify your problem, we are better set up to solve it. There are different analytic methods for classification problems, association problems, and other questions that are not necessarily answered through correlative means. Getting to the right question will help you establish what data sets are important.
Then you need to figure out your budget. There will always be noise in your data, especially data from business intelligence. We can build a model to take the noise into consideration. However, using more data is obviously expensive, so that goes back to what are you trying to solve for. We can exclude data that will not answer your question, which saves you time and money. As such, you want to keep return on investment (ROI) in mind as you think about the question you are asking. Ask yourself, “If I answer this question, how much money with I gain/save?” The answer to the ROI question gives you a ballpark on what it might be worth regarding your investment in a data model.
2) It seems to me that a lot of ad hoc advice about using data for business intelligence is disseminated on broad-based assumptions derived from general population data. However, is this not one of the follies of “Big Data”? Companies are basing important decisions on arguably misleading benchmarks, rather than creating a narrative specific to their population (or at least a sample from their specific population); What are strategies to ensure we are making the best decision based on our company’s unique attributes?
[Mark Newman]: The most important thing is to trust your own expertise. You should intuitively know the customers you are trying to attract. You should have an idea of what strategies you are trying to pursue. You should already know what the important problems are you need to solve. What you don’t want to do is look to data to validate some preconceived answer to your problem. Instead, you want to devote your own educated guesses as to what to do — and then you want to use data to test those rigorously to keep yourself honest.
I think there are two ingredients to doing that. The first is to agree with your colleagues on the definitions of the terms that you are using in your data. If all the stakeholders do not agree on the definition of the numbers, then you all are not going to have an organized lexicon/narrative to work with. You have to agree on key metrics that you are going to use to allow for the monitoring of health and progress within your organization.
The second ingredient that you want to have is to follow an experimental approach that is constantly evolving. Your customers and prospects are going to react differently to your products and services over time. Reasons:
They might have more experience with you as your brand matures
As consumer groups mature, they change their goals
Your previous pitches are now stale, and customers react to them differently
Different competitors in the marketplace
What works today does not work tomorrow. Instead of some one-and-done, super solution to what you are trying to accomplish — instead you want to have some kind of innovative, incremental approach in the beginning. If you follow that, then over time, the data is going to have a narrative that reflects who you are, and what you are trying to do, and what works best for you.
3) Until recently, most data aggregation efforts have told a fairly unsophisticated narrative, and inspired relatively unremarkable initiatives in an effort to capitalize on data mining. How can we improve our use of data? And, how can companies do better at making data more actionable?
[Keith Catanzano]: What is the question the company is trying to answer? It is important to not just say, “How do you make data actionable?” We are probably all guilty at some point of looking at a data model and saying, “Look at the results, they’re awesome!” I think intriguing insights can be challenging in terms of making data actionable. There is a ton of data out there. Once you find ways to bring yours together, there is a lot you can see using data by way of insights. At some point you need to do something with the insights. In order to do that, obviously, it’s important to know who your customers are [assuming trying to influence their behavior is your goal], but also why are they customers. However, in this use case the why is more important than the who. The “why” is ultimately what you are going to try to make actionable, because to take action you are going to need to pull some type of lever to influence consumer behavior. There are lots of ways to work with communication or outreach in an attempt to accomplish this, but the effort requires the company to take a deliberate approach regarding how data is used to take action.
It is also important to note that making data actionable is generally not a one-shot deal, and architecting a campaign that changes an entire group’s behavior in some way probably will take a series of events that includes multiple levers I mentioned. So to make data more actionable, an organization should sit down and say, “What is the level of energy I want to put into solving or addressing this problem?” And that’s probably both a financial decision and a brand decision. For instance, a brand manager might ask, “Is this the kind of consumer group that we want to continue to attract? Yes; OK, well … indicators show we may be struggling with this particular group, so let’s double down because from a brand perspective, that’s how we want to be seen.” An alternative scenario here is the data suggests (to the brand manager) that too much effort is being spent focusing on the wrong group. Without asking the right questions, the data just suggests that marketing is ineffective. To finish, a company really needs shared responsibility to make data truly actionable. Ultimately, as an organization you determine what resources you want to put against data analytics, but knowing what question(s) you wanted answered first is important to making data actionable.
4) How will health club and health club member data evolve over the next several years — what will prove to be important signals for our industry in addition to financial, transactional and activity data?
[Jeffery Cooper]: So besides activity data from wearables, there will be a lot of contextual data the health clubs can now potentially get. With corporate wellness taking off you are going to see deep integration with insurance companies and insurance data. I believe, along those lines, health clubs will also be integrated more with the medical industry. As prevention becomes more associated with a basic level of fitness, I believe you will see medical data become relevant.
In that regard, I think prevention of chronic diseases is eventually going to drive a lot of people toward health clubs from the medical side of things. Right now, in most cases, doctors cannot write a prescription for a health club, but that could change as more complex sensors begin to validate the efficacy of fitness interventions.
Genomics data is another revolutionary area. You already have things like 23andMe, but there is a company Helix, which has been recently funded. Their idea is to sequence your genes, and license this data back through health care providers and fitness applications. With genomic data, consumers can make better choices (and health clubs can cater to them better). With this data, people can ask:
Am I suited for bodybuilding?
Am I suited for endurance?
From the limited time I have, where am I going to see the best results?
As science becomes more advanced, these companies will snapshot your genome once, and then as the science learns more and more about the genome — health clubs can take preemptive, proactive actions from that data to keep their members healthier longer, keep them out of the hospital and improve their overall quality of life.
5) Why does “Big Data” often fall short on delivering on its value promise?
[Mark Newman]: Personally, I feel that part of the problem is the way output data get reported. I feel that in data science to deliver a static report, it is potentially a sign that we have not done our job properly. The reason for that is because when we deliver a page of numbers, there is often no context to the end-user. When you are able to create/refine a business question, you generally make the presumptive problem simpler than it first appeared. Before you set off looking to get value from data, your organization should come up with your desired thresholds and metrics. Then instead of looking at static reports that, at best, will give you trailing indicators — build a dashboard that gives you real-time intelligence based on the most important metrics for your business. This dashboard should be something that your employees can always go to — not just some report that gets delivered on your desk — but something that is readily available on an ongoing basis. You also need to evaluate and monitor the efficacy of this dashboard on an ongoing basis. For instance, if you have a forecasting dashboard and there is a forecast your company is trying to meet, is the dashboard valuable and helping you meet your forecast?
I believe both dashboards that monitor things that drive your business forward, as well as insights that are actionable, are at least two things that give you some evaluation of whether “Big Data” is helpful and valuable within the context of your own particular situation. The other thing is that you really want to be doing analyses all the time. You want your data strategy to evolve past sending out graphs and numbers — to actually be working to build a story of what’s going on in your organization — and back up your story with reliable and meaningful communication so every stakeholder is seeing the same thing and you can all agree that your chosen data model(s) is providing value and is meaningful within the context of your particular business.