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Gallup CEO Jon Clifton Examines Behavioral Economics and Elements of Well-Being that Impact Happiness at President’s Speakers Series

Jon Clifton at the President's Speaker Series

On Monday, April 10, Jon Clifton, chief executive officer of Gallup, discussed themes from his latest book, Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It, at the President’s Speaker Series event held at Smothers Theatre on the Malibu campus. Clifton’s book examines the meteoric rise of worldwide negativity over the past 15 years and the fundamental factors of an individual's well-being. 

President Jim Gash (JD ’93) opened the discussion and invited Byron Johnson, executive director of Pepperdine’s Center for Faith and the Common Good and visiting research professor of religion and civil society at the School of Public Policy, to introduce Clifton. Johnson has worked with Clifton for 23 years at the Gallup organization and shared that he was introduced to the Clifton family by George Gallup Jr., the late Gallup executive. 

“It has been such a treat to plan and conduct important surveys over the years together on religion and civil society,” shared Johnson. “We have collaborated a lot and are going to collaborate a lot more in the future. I hope this isn't the last time we see Jon on campus.”

Clifton began his talk by discussing behavioral economics and the rise of affectivism—how much of consumer behavior is based on emotions versus rational thinking. Using brain scans, buying behavior, and customer interactions, Clifton shared that 70 percent of purchasing is based on emotion and only 30 percent is based on price. 

“If you are ever running an organization, the most important thing to keep in mind is how your customers feel,” said Clifton. He shared an anecdote about a bakery he worked with in Washington, DC, where a woman who spent hundreds of dollars at the bakery each month never returned following a rude encounter. “If you think of her rational buying behavior, nothing changed. The ingredients, the wait time in the line, the price . . . nothing changed except for one thing—somebody disrespected her, and she vowed to never go to that place again.” 

The real-life example shifted the discussion to Clifton’s main area of focus—that emotions have the greatest impact on human response and will dictate overall happiness based on key elements of people’s lives. According to Clifton, individuals that experience a higher rate of satisfaction compared to those that experience a lower rate of satisfaction have five things in common, but with opposing impacts. Clifton’s five elements of well-being include social (the importance of quality relationships and the negative impact of loneliness), financial (while money doesn't buy happiness, it is difficult to be happy without it), physical (what you eat and how much physical activity you engage in), community (the significance of belonging to a group of good people and meeting basic needs for survival), and work (if you are miserable at work, that misery will spread into other areas and the people in your life). Clifton explained, “If all these things are present, it's hard for people not to be thriving in life. If all these things are absent, it’s very hard not to be suffering.”

As the discussion concluded, Clifton highlighted an excerpt from his book that demonstrated how an individual’s emotional state in the workplace determines their happiness. “One of the greatest lies ever told about work is, ‘Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,’” he said. “That’s a false assumption because the definition of work is the exertion of mental or physical activity to accomplish something. You will have days of stress and worry and may have days of pain when you are trying to accomplish something. You will [never] have a total absence of negative emotions [when working], but if you have a great job, negative emotions cannot be the soul of that job.”

Following Clifton’s discussion, President Gash posited that being part of a spiritual community plays a role in worldwide happiness and asked about Clifton’s plans to study that aspect of personal well-being.

“When we think about traditional notions of religion, we find that there are countries thriving in terms of their well-being but have a negative relationship with religion,” Clifton shared. “The less religion that they have, the more likely they are to be thriving. But when you look [more closely] within the country, you see the more religious individuals are more likely to be thriving. I can't say we fully understand it, but we are working with Byron [Johnson] on a massive project to better understand causality.”

A full recording of the event is available on the President’s Speaker Series website.