‘Happiness’ is certainly a hot topic. In early October the Daily Mail reported that Britain is the fifth happiest nation (based on a 30 country study by NOP). At around the same time, the Sunday Times asked readers to examine their own levels of happiness (October 2005).

This recent flurry of media interest is by no means out of the blue. In fact, the subject of human happiness is threatening to revolutionise both psychology and economics — attracting significant funding in recent years — and asking questions of long-held assumptions within these disciplines. Inevitably, brand owners have also become interested in the topic and some, like Cadburys, have even adopted it as their brand positioning.

In light of this trend, at McCann Erickson we have begun to ask whether a consumer’s personal happiness, or lack thereof, influences their consumption choices, brand relationships or responses to advertising. Might it even lead us to a new type of consumer segmentation?

In order to explore this theory further we employed an unconventional approach to qualitative research. The recruitment process moved beyond traditional demographic and behavioral recruitment criteria towards an evaluation of emotional mindsets.

Using the work of professor of psychology Martin Seligman to inform our recruitment questionnaires (www.authentichappiness.com), we were able to recruit ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ groups. Fascinating differences between the two emerged.

Topline findings suggest, for example, that ‘unhappy’ respondents prefer hyperbolic expressions of happiness in advertising. This is indicative of the fact that they seek to be taken out of the ordinary and so use advertising as a source of escapism.

Geoffrey Miller (author of ‘The Mating Mind’) raised a very interesting point in conversation with a colleague when he wondered why researchers on confectionary products never ask at what stage female respondents are in their menstrual cycle (despite links between hormonal changes and consumption levels).

The nation is becoming obsessed with happiness and if an individual’s level of happiness influences their brand choices and responses to advertising then perhaps we need to look beyond frequent-purchasing female C2DEs to get to the heart of why people respond to brands and products in the ways they do. Perhaps, in short, we should be asking whether or not our respondents are happy.