Why can't smart people make money?

"Life is hard and no beer in the fridge"

Author: Moderation: Til Knipper |
Photo: Klemens Horvath
Matthias Horx and Jürgen Kluge in conversation about happiness, progress and unpleasant truths.

Mr. Kluge, as a physicist, can you even relate to the term happiness?

[JÜRGEN KLUGE] Sure, physicists are human too.

Would you like to try a definition so that we know better what we are actually talking about?

[SMART] Happiness is a very individual thing: what is sin ul to one is a nightingale to another. Happiness is also relative: on a hot summer day, a cold drink can create a moment of happiness. Making the right decision in business can make you very happy, but also when you have found the right solution to a problem in physics.

Mr. Horx, you are a futurologist and a happiness researcher and have written books with titles such as “Instructions for optimism about the future”. Do you share Mr. Kluge's assessment?

[MATTHIAS HORX] The subject of happiness can be approached on many levels. We have gained knowledge from various sciences that enable us to describe the phenomenon. For example, we know what endogenous drugs are released when people feel happy and how they do so. But the central misunderstanding of many people is that they consider happiness to be a static state: They want to be happy over the long term, which inevitably leads to unhappiness. Happiness always needs its opposite: scarcity, problems. Happiness only arises when you master something. Create something new. Everything else is satisfaction.

"Unfortunately, optimism leads people to take too great risks"

Jürgen Kluge

What would be the opposite of happiness? Bad luck, depression, pessimism or envy?

[HORX] In German, luck has two different meanings: Firstly, "Glück haben" in the sense of "have a pig" when you win the lottery. This is of course something different from the English "Happiness", so a certain basic satisfaction. Second, we tend to romantically exaggerate "happiness", to define it as an eternal intoxication. I prefer the English term “well-being”: It means that I can influence my own fortunes. In our original state as pure physical beings, we would all be constantly depressed. But because life is hard, we have to die anyway and sometimes there is no beer in the fridge, evolution has set it up in such a way that we remain optimistic when in doubt.

[KLUGE] The tendency to optimism also leads to people taking great risks against their better judgment, trusting that everything will go well. Horx: But life is bland without risk. There should still be people who get married and have children. Kluge: I was thinking more of company takeovers, two-thirds of which go wrong, as you know. But that doesn't stop the responsible manager from trying it again and again.

So Heiner Müller's saying is true: "Optimism is just a lack of information."

[SMART] Yes and no, because this unshakable optimism is what makes life beautiful.

[HORX] As a society, we in Germany tend to prefer a pessimistic view. I think that has to do with the traumatization in the Third Reich. Our parents and grandparents have seen how thin the layer of civilization is that separates us from barbarism. Traumatization always means: you are afraid that the worst will come back. Therefore, we are unduly afraid of the future.

[KLUGE] But are we not very successful in Germany with this scare-mongering? I like to call this “progress through panic”, based on the Audi slogan: “Vorsprung durch Technik”. We tend to panic, fear-driven discussions in Germany, but strangely enough, the situation often changes for the better afterwards.

Does it help if the pursuit of happiness is constituted as the Americans did in their Declaration of Independence?

[HORX] The American Declaration of Independence does not formulate a claim to happiness, only the right to strive for it. The problem today is rather that US society has grown into an exaggerated expectation of happiness and refuses to act rationally in times of crisis. The experience of limits and difficulties polarizes society there in a dangerous way.

[SMART] You have to be able to endure the tension between the two perspectives of hope and fear. The bigger it is, the better you can see reality. The tepid middle of the compromise doesn't help now. Does it help if the pursuit of happiness is constituted as the Americans did in their Declaration of Independence? Horx: The American Declaration of Independence does not formulate a claim to happiness, only the right to strive for it. The problem today is rather that US society has grown into an exaggerated expectation of happiness and refuses to act rationally in times of crisis. The experience of limits and difficulties polarizes society there in a dangerous way.

How can such a progressive optimism be anchored more firmly?

[HORX] I don't think you can change those who are afraid of the future. Fear is also too big a business to be able to counter the media pressure to paint everything black. But we can network better as “skeptical optimists”. We can form some kind of conspiracy for the future.

[SMART] Are we just doing too well?

[HORX] No, it's not that. Every individual and every society always has its problems. Just as the desires are infinite, so are the problems. That's a good thing. If we were really fine all the time, we would all be banging in front of us in a Huxleyian soma state. But when we think about happiness, my core definition is: Achieving goals that you have set yourself is the prerequisite for experiencing happiness. This applies to individuals, societies, but also to companies. And this is where the concept of vision comes into play in the true sense of “foresight”.

[SMART] So despite everything, you are an optimist and believe in progress, just like me. Horx: Basically, you have to decide what to believe in. And I just believe in the future. What always surprises me: that despite the many pessimists and bad talkers, Germany always does quite well in the happiness researchers' rankings. The Germans are not as unhappy as they are. I always call this apocalyptic philistineism. In the middle of a
alarmist mood, always to fear the worst, we feel right at home.

[SMART] Is happiness actually saturated?

[HORX] We know the phenomenon of "hedonistic adaptation" from psychology. Everyone has already experienced it: The new car is great for the first four weeks and triggers feelings of happiness, but then gradually it fades away. This applies to happiness in general: it cannot be preserved.

For some time now, there has been a debate in western industrialized nations about whether gross domestic product (GDP) continues to be a useful measure of a country's prosperity and economic strength. Instead, happiness indices are brought into play, and the Kingdom of Bhutan already has gross domestic happiness. Can happiness be measured?

[KLUGE] Even if you know the weaknesses of GDP, it remains a useful yardstick. However, there is nothing to prevent the use of additional parameters when assessing a country. At the top of the list should be commitment to the environment and the state of social systems. Horx: There are already established indices such as the Human Development Index, which measures, among other things, access to education, the state of the health system or questions of equality. These are reliable indicators that also ensure better comparability between poorer and richer countries. I find this discussion about a happiness index very exciting on the one hand, but on the other hand it has something dangerous when I relate it to the individual level: Do I really want to measure how much I love my wife? There are factors that are so complex that we shouldn't take any measurements.

But if state institutions determine what makes us happy, doesn't that also threaten our freedoms?

[HORX] Of course that always depends on the interpretation of the results. There is even a Ministry of Happiness in Bhutan. You have set yourself the goal of improving the participation just mentioned. If this gives each individual the opportunity to shape their own life as much as possible, that is of course a gain in freedom.

[SMART] Ministry of Happiness still sounds a bit threatening. If you think this through to the end for Germany, there would probably also be a happiness police in this country that monitors happiness under the threat of fines.

Happiness often also has something undeserved. Take the Haniel family as an example. Those who are born into them have a certain head start. Is that luck, or can it be a burden too?

[SMART] First of all, this is a starting point for which one can do nothing. For example, I am grateful that I grew up in peacetime and had a happy childhood. In this regard, the chances are unevenly distributed. Happiness and your own satisfaction then depend on the rate of increase. Here we are back to participation and the creative options. But that applies to rich people as well as to poor people. The Haniels have many family members who use their money to set up foundations, promote regional and national social projects or make their art collection accessible to the general public. You seem anything but unhappy about it.

[HORX] Hans Magnus Enzensberger once formulated the somewhat perfidious sentence: “Money alone does not make you unhappy.” The problem is, if you are born into prosperity, you have less leverage for a self-designed ascent. It is more difficult to experience that you have to work hard for success.

[SMART] I wouldn't buy this satiety guess. You don't have to set smaller goals just because you're starting from a higher starting point. Why should there be a cap? Disregarding scientific limits, I would say: The sky is the limit.

[HORX] This is one of the central debates in happiness research. One camp says there is this degree of material dependency, and the other follows your view, Mr. Kluge. Happiness can of course always be increased, if only because it eludes a definitive definition. The challenges of increasing happiness in an affluent society are more complex than in Bhutan, for example.

"We in the executive suite are often so self-centered that we perceive everything as our own success"

Matthias Horx

How important is happiness in the sense of "luck" for a professional career?

[KLUGE] It plays a very, very big role in professional life that is often underestimated or suppressed. When you have to make important decisions, you often only have 70 percent of the information. If you then have a gut feeling of 60 to 40, in the end it is of course a question of luck whether you are betting on the right horse. But people in the executive suite in particular are often so self-centered that, in retrospect, they perceive everything as self-controlled and responsible successes. This is nonsense, of course, because you are dependent on so many coincidences and external factors that you cannot control all of them.

[HORX] In English there is the difficult to translate term “serendipity”. That is the happy coincidence, for which one also has to be ready. You experience this again and again both at work and in private relationships: When it comes down to it, you have to be prepared for your happiness.

[KLUGE] We pessimistic Germans also have an expression for this: taking on the cloak of fate.

Moving: The video for the interview

more on the subject

Do you know Jigme Singye Wangchuck? No? Too bad. He was once the king of Bhutan and coined the term "gross national happiness" in the late 1970s. A radical alternative to the feeling of happiness based purely on economic factors. Not a bad idea. You can read more about happiness here.

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Mr. Horx and Mr. Kluge about happiness

Matthias Horx and Jürgen Kluge talk together about their thoughts on happiness.

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more on the subject

Do you know Jigme Singye Wangchuck? No? Too bad. He was once the king of Bhutan and coined the term "gross national happiness" in the late 1970s. A radical alternative to the feeling of happiness based purely on economic factors. Not a bad idea. You can read more about happiness here.

People
Mr. Horx and Mr. Kluge about happiness

Matthias Horx and Jürgen Kluge talk together about their thoughts on happiness.

Read post