Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Positive Design: An Introduction to Design for Subjective Well-Being

Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Positive Design: An Introduction to Design for Subjective Well-Being

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the past, TV commercials for the Dutch national lottery traditionally featured ordinary people enjoying expensive luxury products after winning big on the lottery. (Picture a local farmer driving a Lamborghini: see www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWWkysK7FGo.) The message was straightforward: "Money generates happiness because it enables you to buy the products that you can only dream of with your current bank balance."Although these campaigns have varied over the years, that message was consistent for at least a decade. Surprisingly, the most recent campaign communicates a very different message. The commercial shows people who are engaging in interesting social activities or giving a helping hand to others. (Imagine a young man helping his grandmother to fulfill a dream: see www.youtube.com/watch?v=st5SL4JiH0g). The new message has become more nuanced and more truthful: "Money generates happiness because it provides you with the means to pursue meaningful goals and to help your loved ones to do the same." In other words, the lottery is no longer seducing us to buy tickets by addressing our desire for material goods, but by addressing our desire to be meaningful.

The new commercial representation of human happiness in lottery advertisements is by no means a coincidence. It is in line with the gradual but persisting transformation from a materialistic to a post-materialistic value system that is taking place in many Western societies (referred to as the "silent revolution" by Inglehart, 1971, 2000). A materialistic perspective assumes a direct relationship between happiness and material wealth, as seen in the original lottery commercial. Post-material values, however, give higher priority to the fulfilment of personal goals such as belongingness and self-expression. This assumes a more indirect relationship between happiness and material wealth: Material wealth can support individuals in their pursuit of happiness, but it is not a direct source of happiness in itself, as expressed in the new lottery commercial. This change of focus from material to more personal values also aligns with the findings of psychologists examining the conditions for human flourishing (Seligman, 2011; see also Positive Psychology). Numerous studies have confirmed that it is not personal resources that make a person happy, but rather how those resources are exploited (for an overview see Biswas-Diener, 2008).

This idea of material wealth as a resource for happiness opens up a different perspective for design, given that consumer products are also resources. A smart phone, for example, is a resource used to listen to music, organise work, or show consideration through thoughtful text messages: activities that can be meaningful by providing joy, personal direction, and even virtue. The concept we wish to advance in this paper is that if products function as resources that address meaningful goals, then they can contribute to users' happiness: It is not the products nor their material value, but what we do with products that can make us happy. The seven design examples provided illustrate that design can enable, stimulate, and inspire engagement in meaningful activities. We are excited by the idea that design can spark inspiration and empower people, and we believe that it is possible to design for happiness.1

In recent years, inquiry in the domains of psychology, philosophy, economics, and politics has shown a heightened interest in the science of happiness, or subjective well-being (used interchangeably here). This particular focus on (long-term) human happiness has now entered the arena of design. Clearly, we cannot assume that products, luxury or otherwise, automatically contribute to individual happiness. Someone who lives with an abundance of smart phones, TVs, dishwashers, cars, and computers is not necessarily happy, and likewise, someone who has to do without these resources is not necessarily unhappy. Equally, we cannot assume (as is sometimes done in the domain of positive psychology) that products make no salient contribution whatsoever. …

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