The King Midas Syndrome

Luigi Bruni on the Economy of Communion

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MILAN, Italy, JULY 2, 2004 ( A business theory of happiness is feasible. Some economists have attempted it.

Among them is Luigi Bruni, who promotes the so-called economy of communion, which arose within the Focolare Movement.

Bruni is a researcher of political economics at the University of Milan-Bicocca. He is concerned with commercial thought and the ethical and anthropological principles of commerce. He is the author of “L’Economia, la Felicità e gli Altri. Un’Indagine su Beni e Benessere” (Commerce, Happiness, and Others: Research on Property and Well-being), published by Città Nuova.

Q: What is the economy of communion?

Bruni: The economy of communion is a project that involves some 800 businesses in many countries of the world and which proposes to live commercial activity as an expression of communion.

Those businesses that adhere to the “economy of communion” make a commitment to abide by its theories.

Net revenues are held in common in keeping with three objectives: reinvestment in the development of the company, diffusion of the culture of giving and of love, assistance to people in financial difficulties such as indigents who in our case are in contact with the Focolare Movement community.

The economy of communion was planned and launched in Brazil in 1991 by Chiara Lubich, founder and president of the Focolarini.

Q: Can this type of commerce be applied by a family or individuals, or is it only communitarian?

Bruni: In the literal sense, it is aimed at companies, not at individuals or families. In any case, its culture and commercial concepts are universal, as it is about trying to apply the logic of the Gospel to the management of commercial goods.

Consequently, a family can also be inspired by the culture of communion in its relation to property and wealth.

In fact, if we analyze the life of a family closely, we realize that the economy of communion is very congenial to it, given that it uses its own resources for the same objectives of the economy of communion: after guaranteeing the support and typical investments of a family — house, clothes, food, etc. — the resources are allocated to cultural formation — suffice it to think of the educational expenses — and to those who have no income: children, youngsters, persons in need.

The economy of communion is based on the culture of giving, gift and reciprocity. When a family functions well, it is the natural image of these principles.

Q: In many countries, the acquisitional capacity has increased but not happiness.

Bruni: The main paradox is that the increase in individual return does not lead to an increase in well-being. What is more, some studies seem to show an inverse relation between wealth and happiness, and this is a paradox.

But the most profound paradox is that goods that are not shared with others rarely add to well-being. And present-day society is totally centered on the individual’s consumption, without others or against others. This being the case, goods cannot be transformed into well-being.

We fall into the syndrome of King Midas: We die of hunger for meaning and happiness, even though we are surrounded by gold.

Q: Is a theory of happiness in commerce possible?

Bruni: There are many of us who try to make a contribution in this regard. I am very interested in these paradoxes of a wealth that instead of making us better off, makes us fall into the snare of unhappiness which we don’t get out of because we don’t even realize we have fallen into it.

The typical example is work: Many of us work too much, but we don’t succeed in taking the time to realize it.

The theory of happiness in commerce attempts to awaken those who are asleep in the comfort of the consumer society. If it succeeds, it will already have done something meritorious.

As A. Sen, Nobel Prize [winner] in economics, says, “We are unhappy and not free, but we don’t know that we are so.”

Q: Consequently, commerce is important, but happiness is more so. How can these two ideas be reconciled?

Bruni: They can simply complement one another. On one hand, the increase of wealth can entail much unhappiness. On the other, it is very difficult to lead a good life when one does not have enough to eat or to live adequately.

Because of this, the first name given in Naples to the commercial theory was “science of public happiness.”

Thus, if the first objective of commerce is well-being — and not wealth in and of itself — as understood by the spirituality of communion, we should not be surprised that a commercial project does not make of property an end but a means for a good and happy life. Here is where I see the feasibility of linking commerce and happiness.

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