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In Davos, elites strike deals and seek happiness

The World Economic Forum has dedicated a series of sessions to the quest for happiness, well-being and mindfulness.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche during the session 'Morning Meditation' at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 23 January 2019. Picture: World Economic Forum

DAVOS - A roundtable on solitude, an empathy conference, a meditation workshop: the annual gathering in Davos sometimes appears more like a group therapy session, nudging global elites towards happiness.

"I am sorry. It is full," a hostess tells dozens of suit-clad business types who have been waiting to take part in a roundtable on "the neuroscience of happiness".

The popularity of the event is thanks to professor Laurie Santos, whose class The Psychology of the Good Life at Yale University attracts hordes.

The World Economic Forum, which each year gathers thousands of business tycoons, political leaders and pundits in the swanky Swiss ski resort town of Davos, has dedicated a series of sessions to the quest for happiness, well-being and mindfulness.

Outside the closed door of Yale's happiness conference, Enrique Zambrano, who heads the Mexican company Proeza, told AFP he aims to help his employees develop "as a whole", and not just as workers.

$75,000

"If the employees are more satisfied and more engaged they are more productive," he said, stressing that there are simple, fundamental truths that can help in his quest, like paying his staff properly.

"You cannot be happy if you don't have enough to eat."

Participants at these conferences are encouraged to share their feelings or discuss their family life. Does targeting some of the planet's wealthiest individuals indicate that money may not buy happiness?

An often cited study by Nobel Economic Prize laureate Angus Deaton and others showed that making more than $75,000 per year - an amount believed to cover all basic needs - does not increase an individual's happiness.

Mixing hard-nosed business and the pursuit of emotional contentment is not to everyone's taste.

Alain Roumilhac, head of Manpower France, baulks at the mention of companies who are appointing ‘Chief Happiness Officers’.

"In a company, we must help people to resist pressure," he said, warning that such new positions, which first popped up in Silicon Valley, should not become a gimmick.

"Happiness is a private affair," he told AFP.

Instead of offering yoga classes, he said companies should provide concrete measures to avoid ‘burn-out’, including allowing employees a flexible work schedule and helping them "find a meaning for what they do".

Psychologist Edgar Cabanas and sociologist Eva Illouz say the appeal of conferences aimed at helping business executives find personal fulfilment came as no surprise.

"The financial and business elite is vastly interested in happiness as it has turned into a global, powerful and very lucrative industry, which generates billions of dollars in benefits each year," they told AFP in a joint email.

"The market plays today a very decisive role in the way people understand their own happiness," added the authors of the book "Happycracy. How the Science of Happiness Controls our Lives."

HAPPINESS 'EASILY EXPLOITED'

"People are encouraged to be autonomous, optimistic, and flexible, to engage in risk-taking behaviours, and to be resilient in order to personally and emotionally deal with all the contingencies that derive from very precarious, competitive and unstable working and economic conditions," they said.

Two Swedish professors of management, Carl Cederstrom and Torkild Thamen, have studied a sports goods company where management introduced obligatory workout hours and physical fitness tests for employees.

Their study, published in the Harvard Business Review, showed sales swelled 27% over the next three years.

But the rate of employee departures from the firm also shot up, from eight to 25% between 2014 and 2016, they found.

Cederstrom, who is also the author of the book The Happiness Fantasy, warned that the focus by employers on their staff's wellbeing allows them to "achieve more control over employees".

"Now even in work places where people work for the minimum wage they are expected to be happy," he said.

He said that many elites harbour a "naive illusion" that poverty can be resolved through personal fulfilment schemes.

"Happiness is such a vague idea that it is easily exploited."

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