Harvesting Happiness Instead Of Chasing It
April 16, 2014

Chasing Happiness May Actually Make Us Less Happy

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Every day, it seems, we are bombarded with advertisements, memes and well-meaning emails telling us how to "be happy." Despite this, a new study led by Stanford University reveals that chasing happiness may actually make us less happy.

The new research, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, does, however, point to effective ways to find happiness. One such path is through concrete, specific goals of benevolence instead of similar, but more abstract goals. For example, making someone smile or increasing your recycling rather than making someone happy or saving the environment.

When you pursue concretely framed goals, the researchers say, your realistic expectations of success are more likely to be met. Broad and abstract goals, in contrast, are more likely to have unrealistic and unachievable expectations.

Jennifer Aaker, a social psychologist and the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, led the team which included her former doctoral student Melanie Rudd — currently an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Houston — and Michael Norton, an associate professor of business at Harvard University.

The pursuit of happiness is so essential to the human condition that it was even written into the US Declaration of Independence, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." Achieving happiness is considered a hallmark of psychological health, and yet it remains more mysterious and elusive that most people might imagine.

Aaker said, "Although the desire for personal happiness may be clear, the path to achieving it is indefinite. One reason for this hazy route to happiness is that although people often think they know what leads to happiness, their predictions about what will make them happy are often inaccurate."

Focusing on elevating the happiness of someone else is one underappreciated way to increase one's own happiness. How one elevates another's happiness, however, is up for debate. Is personal happiness increased more by some acts of benevolence than others?

Intent on finding an answer, the researchers conducted six experiments involving 543 participants. The data was collected from laboratory studies and national survey pools, with the participants' level of abstraction of "prosocial" goals as a critical factor of interest. When you engage in voluntary behavior intended to benefit someone else, you are committing a prosocial act.

According to the findings, prosocial acts associated with concretely framed goals lead to greater happiness for the givers as opposed to abstractly framed prosocial goals. This is true, the researchers say, although it seems counterintuitive.

In one experiment involving bone marrow transplants, the researchers focused on whether giving those who needed a transplant "greater hope" (abstract), or giving them "a better chance at finding a donor" (concrete) created more personal happiness for the giver. They found that helping someone find a donor created a greater sense of happiness for the giver. The research team says that this was driven by givers' perceptions that their actual acts better met their expectations of accomplishing their goal of helping another person.

Smaller gaps between one's expectations of achieving the goal and the actual result when one's goal is framed more concretely are what lead to the higher levels of happiness, according to the research team. In other words, abstract goals are more unrealistic, and therefore cause less happiness.

Being prosocial is not always a good goal, they warn. Sometimes, people attempt prosociality in ways that are less than optimal.

Rudd explained, "Discrepancies between aspirations and reality can be critical factors that, in extreme cases, may even lead the act of helping to eventually becoming a source of unhappiness."

Chasing abstract prosocial goals with the expectation that their relentless giving will result in large and fast changes for the better can cause people to suffer from "helper burnout" when their goals fail to materialize. This can have a very negative effect on happiness.

The team says that givers should be encouraged to "reframe their prosocial goals in more concrete terms" to better calibrate their expectations. This would increase personal happiness.

The research team sees business implications for their research as well. Marketing or products aimed at helping customers achieve abstract goals might be a poor business decision. It might be wiser to reframe these goals into specific, concrete terms.

A good example of concrete goals in business marketing is Tom's Shoes — which promises to deliver a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold.

"Concrete initiatives such as this may be a more realistic way to accurately set consumers' expectations from the outset and leave them happier in the end," Aaker said.

As the search for personal happiness continues, the researchers suggest that prosocial behaviors provide a clear path.

Aaker explained, "A prosocial act can not only boost the happiness of the recipient, but it can boost the happiness of the giver as well."

"However," cautioned Rudd, "not all prosocial goals are created equal."

The research team intends to continue their work, searching for a deeper understanding of how to harvest happiness, as well as how to avoid unhappiness traps along the way.