If you want to be happy, be less efficient

More profit does not equal more happiness.  Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash

Being pulled in different directions is typical of modern life.  No sooner have you started one activity than another sucks you in.  And so on, until you have forgotten what it was that you first wanted to do.  It almost seems deliberate… anyone would think that governments benefit from their citizens being disorientated and passive.

In particular, the predominance of just-in-time and just-enough-resource systems means that we are always part of activities which involve not-enough-time and not-enough-resources.  Efficiency demands that systems are built in this way.

Or does it?  This article is a brief examination of efficiency systems, and how they may be letting us down, in our private and commercial lives.


Imagine a bus service that wants to maximise its profitability.  It needs to become optimally efficient, so it seeks to make sure that it does three things:

  1. Charges its customers as much as it can
  2. Pays its drivers as little as possible
  3. Keeps its buses as full as possible
In terms of finances, this may maximise profit in the medium term.

But let’s look at the happiness of an owner, a driver, and a customer.

  1. Owners will become richer, but their relationship with drivers and customers will get worse and worse.
  2. Drivers will become poorer, but harder working.  They will look more productive, but their happiness will decrease and mental illness increase.
  3. Customers will become poorer (through higher prices), but more frustrated (experiencing full, less frequent buses)

Welcome to the modern economy. Everything is designed for maximal efficiency; but the effect is that relationships lose quality, and people become less happy.

The perfectly efficient economy is, by definition, an economy with relational dysfunction between owners and staff, more mentally ill staff, and more frustrated customers.  It’s inherent in the system.


What if we don’t want this?  What if we want to measure life a different way?

To lose this unhappiness, we would have to choose different key performance indicators.  To maximise happiness of all parties, we would have to encourage three things:

  1. Price moderation towards customers
  2. Generosity towards suppliers
  3. The deliberate introduction of spare capacity in performance networks

How does this translate into a personal life?  To fight back against the unhappiness caused by an efficiency-based economy, I suggest three rules for life:

  1. When you do something for others, be generous, and don’t expect too much in return
  2. When others do something for you, be generous, and give back more than expected
  3. Make sure you build spare capacity into your life, so that you are not always rushing around
Put simply, to maximise happiness, expect nothing, give well, and make space for others.

It’s the direct opposite of the efficiency economy, but it can create much greater happiness.


Some would say that if everyone did this, then business owners would take advantage and become even more greedy, seeing an opportunity in staff who didn’t fight back.

But this is a misunderstanding.  While this would certainly be the case in a dictatorship, in a democracy people can club together to ensure they help each other structure a society with generosity and spare capacity built in.  In this kind of society, disabled people can play a greater part, and no one is left out.

In a competitive world, we are hoodwinked into believing that everything has to be ultra-efficient.  But if enough people start behaving a different way, then things can change for the better.



In our super-efficient economy, we can seem to be forced into bad relationships, frustration and resentment.  But we can choose to become generous and relaxed, by stepping back from the profit principles on which efficient economies are based.  Eventually, if enough people change their behaviour, society can become happier.