Misery by Mollyeh11Misery by Mollyeh11 on Flickr

There are certain companies that, when I know I have to deal with them, a big wave of dread washes over me. In fact, there are INDUSTRIES that bring on this feeling. Industries like airline, car rental, telecom, cable, banks and storage always bring this on for me. Most of them are necessary evils. If I want to go anywhere that is far away, I'll need to book a flight (Oh! The horror!). If it's not a transit accessible city, I'll need to book a car (Nooooooo!). Then there is which cell plan to go with? The bad deal, the worse deal or the no deal?


The other day, I stood at the counter of a rental car company and, after arguing with her over the rapidly escalating costs of my rental, said to the woman behind the desk, "It must be awful to work in a capacity where you deliver misery all day. Don't you dream of the time when you can actually deliver joy?"

She looked at me without irony and said, "Ma'am, I'm not sure what you are getting at, but it's not my job to answer those types of questions."

I know it wasn't her fault...that she is instructed to add up all of those charges and make sure I don't feel like I have a choice other than to pick the most expensive package (Alex Frankel's account of working at Enterprise Rent-A-Car was very revealing), but I did wonder if coming to work everyday disempowered her, too.

I started to think about what it is that causes the miserable experiences. In my case at the rental car agency, I had reserved a car for a good deal online, but the 'extra' costs just kept adding up until I was paying 3x the price I had booked for. And I really had no choice in the matter. I don't own a car, so I had to take their full insurance package. I had both a lack of choice and the barrage of hidden costs, which made me feel entirely powerless and rather duped.

As I went through my recollection of the many times I had felt this way, it dawned on me: There is an axis of misery producing industries out there. Industries that not only fail to deliver happiness, but they effectively BLOCK it and cause misery.

The elements of misery are:

  1. Lack of choice
  2. Being duped
  3. Inhumane treatment/being treated like a number

Which are the EXACT opposite of:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Competence
  3. Sociality

...the 3 elements of a business model based on delivering happiness.

Lack of choice takes away autonomy. Being duped makes one feel incompetent. And being treated inhumane/like a number totally disconnects one from any possibility of social connection. The axis of misery works against happiness in awful ways, leaving us forever dreading further interactions with these industries (and the companies within them).

There really should be a tax on the companies that play into the proliferation of misery. If we measured social capital and the GNH (Gross National Happiness) alongside GDP, we could see just how much of a drain these companies have on our well-being and tax them accordingly.

The good news is that companies within this industry do not have to act in this manner. In fact, if they flip the misery upside down and, instead, implement the happiness business model, they will not only carve out a good number of loyal customers, they will probably also become leaders in their industry.

A great example of who has done this is Southwest Airlines, one of the longest running and consistently profitable airlines, even during major downturns in the industry as a whole. Southwest has been the topic of many books and much customer love over the years. After 9/11 when most airlines were getting bankruptcy protection, Southwest sailed right through, virtually unscathed.

What could that rental car have done for me? A couple of things:

  1. Been upfront with the full costs of rental WITH the extras, including insurance. Zipcar is a total pleasure to rent because everything is included in the $7-12/hour that I sign up for. No extras. No surprises. I know exactly what I'm in for.
  2. Treated me with dignity. I DO have a choice and when a good choice presents itself (like a Zipcar in the city of arrival), I take it. Anyone who comes up with a rental car model like Zipcar's will make a mint.

My autonomy, competence and sociality would be restored and I would be loyal to this company for life, spreading the word to everyone I know who travels. As customers, we need to also start demanding this. We really must put a stop to the Axis of Misery. It's evil and threatens our way of life. ;)