The Quest for Enlightened Capitalism

How to reconcile the market economy with mindful principles

After turning to mindfulness practices while recovering from a near-death experience, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini came upon an idea: that a happier, more satisfied workforce would be good for the company’s bottom line. He introduced yoga and meditation classes to his employees and, when a study revealed that participating workers were thriving, he raised the wage of his lowest-paid staff by one-third. Aetna shareholders pushed back. But Bertolini’s intuition was correct: His moves resulted in greater returns on the company’s stock.

Can Aetna’s example be adapted on a wide scale? New York Times columnist David Gelles, who has extensively covered the rise of mindfulness in American corporations, isn’t so sure. "Shareholder capitalism, which is how most companies operate, creates certain conditions and incentives [i.e. the desire to make as much money as possible] that make it really hard for the values put forth by a mindfulness practice to find a home," he said last week at Asia Society, where he appeared in conversation with Bertolini. Whereas "no one cares if Google gives away free food or has meditation classes, because they spit out cash every quarter," a smaller company producing less revenue may not have the same permission from Wall Street to put employee well-being ahead of profits.

"Aetna is the exception that proves the rule," Gelles said.

Bertolini isn’t the only CEO to see a connection between employee well-being and business success. He's part of a trend of corporate leaders that look beyond the bottom line in evaluating the health of their companies. Unilever, for instance, has affirmed its commitment to reducing its environmental footprint, while BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has called for companies to focus on their societal impact. Doing so isn’t mere altruism: It’s also a nod to the growing value placed on health and well-being among younger Americans.

"If you can't describe your mission as 'people, planet, then profits,'” Bertolini said, “[The millennials] tune out and go somewhere else."

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