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Happiness is using the brain the right way

WEST NEWTON -- Daniel H. Pink had a fairly abstract point to make -- namely, that Americans don't seem to be getting any happier even as their material wealth is the envy of the world, leading to what he calls an ''abundance gap."

So as a dozen employees of a product-design firm looked on, Pink bounded out of his chair and tried to illustrate his argument by rapidly scribbling arrows on a whiteboard. ''Being a left-brained kind of guy, I have to do it as a chart instead of as an interpretive dance," he explained, deadpan.

Pink, and the rest of us, might want to work on those dance skills. In the world envisioned in his recent book, ''A Whole New Mind," the competitive edge will belong not to the linear, logical, analytical ''left-brain" lawyers and accountants and computer programmers who have long held sway but to the creative, empathic, ''right-brain" artists and caregivers who have traditionally enjoyed less social status, or at least smaller paychecks.

It may seem hard to believe, since we are all up to our screen-reddened eyeballs in an Information Age that seems to be all about left-brain dominance, but Pink insists that a ''Conceptual Age" is upon us. Thanks to a combination of globalization, outsourcing, and technology, many traditional white-collar jobs are either disappearing or being shipped overseas. When coupled with a growth in ''nonmaterial yearnings," he says, that paves the way for a US economy in which an MFA will be a more potent credential than an MBA, and growing clout will be wielded by creators, inventors, and storytellers.

Even gamers, weekend painters, and would-be screenwriters possess right-brain skills that, while perhaps undervalued at the moment, ''will end up being more and more economically valuable," according to Pink, in part because they cannot be easily outsourced, unlike, say, accounting. ''More people are intrinsically motivated to do these sorts of things than they are to do spreadsheets," he said.

Beyond economic factors lies a growing quest for satisfaction and meaning that matters more to many people than the size of their paycheck. ''Extrinsic motivation might get you through the week, but it won't get you through your life," said Pink, 40, a contributing editor for Wired magazine who worked as a speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore. ''There's a growing alignment between what people do for joy and what's good for the economy."

Human evidence for his argument was gathered before him in a conference room at Design Continuum, in the form of an individualistic array of design strategists, marketing coordinators, and ''envisioners," who think of ways that new products can fit people's needs. (To be sure, there were also a few mechanical and industrial engineers, who presumably are no slouches in the left-brain department). With 75 employees in its West Newton office and offices in Milan and Seoul, the firm designs consumer and medical products for such clients as American Express, BMW, Cambridge Soundworks, Andersen Windows, Master Lock, Samsung, and Johnson & Johnson.

The employees who convened to hear Pink had read ''A Whole New Mind" (published in late March) and had copies before them. They were mostly in their 20s and 30s, all casually attired, none more so than vice president of program development Ed Milano, who wore shorts and sneakers. As Pink spoke, Milano and several others opened small containers of clay that rested on the crescent-shaped conference table and began kneading the clay into the shape of sword-wielding figures or intricate buildings. From the way they described the creative challenges they face on the job, they seemed to love their work; from the way they stretched and molded the clay, they clearly felt the itch to design something. After a while, Pink also picked up a chunk of clay and began kneading it as he talked.

None of this detracted from the liveliness of the 100-minute conversation, which ranged across themes large (the search for meaning in an era of unbridled prosperity; the worldview of workers in agrarian or industrial economies compared to those in a post-industrial era) and small (how toasters and toilet brushes benefit from a design aesthetic; whether all those people ostentatiously toting yoga mats around are actually doing any yoga).

During a tour of the firm before his talk, Pink displayed the eager attention to every detail of an author seeing the ideas of his book in action. Bicycles hung from the ceiling in one room, slickly designed cellphones lined a shelf in another, and a large speaker that looked like a piece of furniture stood in a third room. At the sight of a printer that creates three-dimensional objects from drawings, Pink muttered: ''Just amazing. It so accelerates the cycle time of any product development." He shot constant questions at Milano -- ''Are you doing a lot of rapid prototyping?" -- and seemed intrigued when he entered a room where an employee was working on a newfangled, dome-shaped umbrella dubbed the ''nubrella." Pink suggested to Milano that the firm consider making a two-person version, asserting that the umbrella field is ripe for innovation.

Later, during the session in the conference room, Pink elaborated on his use of the left brain/right brain hemispheres as a metaphor for the emerging economy he foresees. In his book, he describes design as ''an essential aptitude" of the Conceptual Age, so perhaps it was no surprise he seemed to be on the same wavelength as the employees of Design Continuum (one of whom he features in his book). However, several spoke in less-than-enthusiastic terms about the cover design of Pink's book; Sean Brennan, an envisioner, informed the author: ''I judge all books by their covers." Pink solicited their ideas for the paperback version.

The author listened as much as he talked. One designer argued that ''there have always been opportunities for right-brained thinkers to change the world," citing Gutenberg as an example. Milano told Pink that there is a left-brain ''rigor" to the work of Design Continuum, creative though it may be. ''You're arguing with yourself," Milano told the author, to which Pink joked in reply: ''No I'm not. Yes I am." Others argued that a synthesis of left-brain and right-brain qualities is the ideal, a point Pink readily conceded. Another employee freely scribbled elaborations of Pink's thesis on the whiteboard, writing ''Value being a good provider" over one arrow and ''Value being a whole person" over the other. When senior industrial designer Roy Thompson talked of attending a wedding recently where the guests included lawyers and accountants who seemed to hate their jobs, and speculated it is because ''they're not using their right brain, which is what makes them human," Pink replied simply: ''Amen."

By the end of the session, Pink had exchanged a lot of ideas with a roomful of bright people -- and, not so incidentally, fashioned a little baseball glove out of clay. Senior design strategist Rajesh Bilimoria promptly demanded: ''Right-handed or left-handed?" It was left-handed.

Don Aucoin can be reached at

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