Coca-Cola Really Does Sell Happiness

One aspect of the emergence of positive psychology and the trendiness of happiness has been to see businesses incorporating happiness into their business models.  Zappos’ business is based on “Delivering Happiness,” Huggies has it’s “be happy” campaign and Coca-Cola’s “Open Happiness” video commercials have been hugely successful.

At least in the case of Coca-Cola, their claims about selling happiness in a bottle appear to be grounded in reality.  A study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that fast food and soft drink consumption was positively correlated with children’s risk of being overweight, but negatively correlated with unhappiness.  In other words, junk food and soda are making our kids fatter, but happier.

A lot of wellness professionals will not like this research.  We prefer it when things like health, success and happiness all come tied together in a neat little bundle.  But life doesn’t always work that way.  Sometimes, it is more important to deny ourselves short term happiness in favor of more meaningful long term objectives (like health.)

In fact, many scientists point out that a meaningful life isn’t always the same as a happy life.  In a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers attempt to identify areas where happiness and meaning do not intersect.

To be clear, there is a lot of overlap between happiness and meaning, but there are a lot of differences too.  In setting out to identify those differences, here is what psychologists found:

Meaningfulness is more focused on the past and the future, while happiness tends to happen in the present.

Happiness was more associated with being a taker, rather than a giver.  i.e. “Happiness seems intertwined with the benefits one receives from others.  Meaningfulness is instead associated with the benefits that others receive from the self.”

Meaningfulness was more associated with worry, stress, anxiety and arguments.  Meaningfulness seems to involve focusing  on “things one regards as important.”  These are often things we are willing to fight for or suffer for (see my article on the meaning in Les Miserables or another one on the “parenting paradox.”)

Meaningfulness was also more prominent in people who identified with the simple tasks of life, such as commuting, cooking, cleaning, maintaining the house, waiting on others, reading for pleasure, napping, balancing finances and emailing (none of which had any correlation with happiness.)

There are two things I take away from this kind of research.  The first is that moment-to-moment happiness should not be our top priority.  The authors suggest that “happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life” and that “positive psychology [should] focus some of its energy on understanding meaningfulness.”

But my other takeaway is that much of the debates about “happiness vs. meaning” in psychology are semantic.  There are plenty of articles and research studies like this one, suggesting that the “pursuit of happiness” is misguided.  And they define happiness as a fleeting experience of positive emotions (and/or absence of negative emotions.)

But I don’t think this is how people really “pursue happiness.”  When people say they want happiness they don’t only want to feel happy “in their life.”  They want to feel happy “about their life” (see Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk on this.)  They want to live a life they feel good about, not one that feels good.

Living a life you feel good about might mean sacrificing some positive emotions along the way.  It might mean doing chores, changing diapers, worrying about the things you care about and fighting for the things you believe in.

But whenever you want to feel good for a fleeting moment, you can always “have a Coke and a smile.”

by Jeremy McCarthy

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E-book available:  The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing.


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4 Responses to Coca-Cola Really Does Sell Happiness

  1. Marie-Josee Shaar May 7, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    Sorry J, but I’ll be one of your wellness friends who doesn’t like the claim that junk food and happiness go together! A quick search of junk food and depression will produce a LOT of articles pointing to the contrary (including articles from Science Daily, Mayo clinic, etc).

    Yes, a soda is full of carbs, and carbs facilitate serotonin production, which makes us feel happy. So there may be a quick link here, but it fades very quickly and pales in comparison to the link towards depression.

    So I like your conclusion that we shouldn’t pursue moment-to-moment happiness, but take a longer-term view much better. With food as with other habits. 😉


  2. Dan Bowling May 7, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    Kahneman writes extensively about “experienced” happiness, or EQ (experience quality) which is just what it sounds like – moment to moment positive affect. Also, if you move pass “broaden and build,” positive emotions are mostly temporary moments of what most people would call happiness. In this regard, without addressing MJ’s sincere are very real concerns about health, stopping for a few minutes on a busy day to have a Coke (or diet Coke), really is a “pause that refeshes” many people emotionally and psychologically. Coke’s martketing has been all about this since 100 years ago. Interestingly enough, Pepsi has exactly the opposite effect (conflict alert – I live in Atlanta, and
    spend much of my career at Coke!).

  3. Luis M Neto May 8, 2013 at 6:20 am #

    I have been involved with Instituto de la Felicidad an educational and scientific based Coca Cola sponsored organization aimed at the dissemination of pratical happiness tips (most needed) for the general population in Portugal, a country plagued by a huge economical (and values) crisis. In our work, the main idea addressed in conferences, talks writings and several educational activities was always that, when you drink a Coke, most of the time you are with friends, and you aren’t drinking alcohol. When drinking alone (Coke or alcoholic beverages) you are stressing the hedonic component of happiness. Drinking it with friends you are stressing the eudaimonic and meaning making dimension and on the way to a life that is good, not only enjoyning the ‘good life’ of little hedonic, meaningless and individualistic pleasures.

  4. Leona May 8, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    MJ, I’m with you. I looked at that study and their conclusion in their abstract (“Current and future policy/program interventions that aim to decrease fast food and soft drinks consumption of children to reduce childhood obesity may be more effective if these interventions also focus on ways that could compensate the increase in degree of unhappiness among children.”) implies that the link between soft drink consumption and unhappiness is causal; it is only correlational. A second flaw is that it was the parents who were asked to assess the (un)happiness of their children, not the kids themselves. This may be a third variable effect. I’m going to generalize terribly here, but as an example, it may be that more diligent parents who pay attention to diet and limit soft drink consumption are more attuned to the natural ups and downs of their children’s emotions, hence are more likely to respond more affirmatively to “how often does your child feel sad, unhappy, or depressed,” while a less-attuned parent (who may not limit soft drink consumption – again, I know this is a gross generalization so cut me a little slack here!) may have a longer leash with their child’s diet but be less in-synch with their child’s emotional health.
    Jeremy, I love your exploration of the link between moment-to-moment positive emotion and happiness and meaning – I had not really explored this topic in much depth but now you’ve motivated me to look into it more. I especially like your line, “Living a life you feel good about might mean sacrificing some positive emotions along the way.” Well-stated!

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