Will Search for Meaning Be Big Business?
by Daniel Pink
Monday, October 17, 2005
In the middle of the 20th century, Americans fretted about the missile gap. A few years later, we argued with each other across the generation gap. Today, we're grappling with what I call the "abundance gap," a widening gulf between material prosperity and overall satisfaction.
The numbers tell the story. Over the last 50 years, Americans' standard of living has soared. Per capita GDP has nearly tripled. What once were upper-class luxuries have today become middle-class staples. For instance, before World War II, an automobile was essentially a rich person's toy. Today, the U.S. has more cars than licensed drivers.
Or consider another aspect of the American Dream: Two out of three Americans now own the homes in which they live. And, as Greg Easterbrook reports in his excellent book "The Progress Paradox," 13 percent of homes purchased today are second homes. What's more, our dwellings are so crammed with goods that we're running out of room. That's why an entire industry has emerged -- self-storage -- whose sole purpose is to house our excess stuff. The self-storage industry is a $17 billion-a-year industry -- larger than the motion picture business. That's abundance.
And yet this array of material riches hasn't boosted our happiness. Survey after survey has demonstrated that Americans are scarcely more satisfied with the way their lives are going than before the explosion of prosperity. We tend to equate wealth and well-being. But a growing pile of evidence reveals that past a certain (and surprisingly low) point, more money and more things don't produce greater satisfaction.
Liberated by prosperity but not fulfilled by it, Americans are slowly refocusing their lives away from the material and toward the meaningful. As Nobel-prize winning economist Robert William Fogel has written, prosperity has "made it possible to extend the quest for self-realization from a minute fraction of the population to almost the whole of it."
Indeed, the abundance gap illuminates many aspects of American life. It explains, in part, why Oprah is a cultural phenomenon. Her advice and philosophy concentrate less on accumulating wealth and more on generating meaning -- "living your best life," as she puts it. It explains why once fringy practices are migrating to the mainstream. Fifteen million Americans now do yoga, and 10 million meditate.
And the abundance gap explains why the best-selling nonfiction book of the past decade -- by far -- isn't a personal finance guide. It's Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life," which has sold a whopping 23 million copies -- the publishing equivalent of hitting 109 home runs in a single season.
For entrepreneurs and investors, the abundance gap has two important consequences.
First, to recruit talented people, organizations must now offer purpose along with a paycheck. Since more Americans -- especially Baby Boomers -- have embarked on Fogel's "quest for self-realization," the way to attract talented individuals and keep them happy is to offer a sense of significance. As GE CEO Jeff Immelt has said, "The reason why people come to work for GE is that they want to be part of something larger than themselves."
Second, the abundance gap represents an enormous business opportunity. Companies that aim to close the gap are poised to do quite well: For example, health care ventures that focus on wellness; travel operations that offer customized, meaningful experiences; publishing and education companies that provide materials to help customers lead those purpose-driven lives; consumer products companies that also aspire to some higher social purpose; and so on.
Now that so many of our basic material needs have been satisfied, and often exceeded, there's a premium on products, services, and experiences that close the abundance gap and that help people in their search for meaning.
Those are the kinds of businesses that will likely make you richer. But here's the best part: They're also the kinds of businesses that could make all of us happier.