Jennifer Aaker

The General Atlantic Professor
Jennifer Aaker
Jennifer Aaker
To be able to take my research and my connections to help save lives — that was extremely gratifying.
November 27, 2023

Recently, four-time NBA champion Stephen Curry shouted out Stanford GSB General Atlantic Professor Jennifer Aaker in a podcast. The hosts had lobbed a few big questions Curry’s way: How does he maintain excellence on the court and in his various endeavors off it? Does he believe it’s possible to find balance in life while consistently shooting for greatness?

Curry spoke about the importance of continual self-assessment and mentioned a short questionnaire Aaker had created and shared with him to guide him in these regular assessments. The questionnaire is comprised of five deceptively simple questions based on decades of Aaker’s behavioral research into human happiness, meaning, and potential.

One of the questions, ‘What was I put on this planet to do?’ draws from Aaker’s years of research on the importance of connecting to meaning and purpose in one’s life — and the ways in which this differs from pursuing short-run happiness. Another, ‘What elevates me?’ taps into her work on awe and how it can expand our perception of time and enhance daily well-being. A third question, ‘Do I have space for beauty, humor, and spontaneity?’ is rooted in both her book, Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life (coauthored with Naomi Bagdonas), and in forthcoming research about the transformative power of making space for life’s beautiful moments. The podcast’s hosts wrapped their conversation on a note inspired by Aaker — they asked Curry to share a recent beautiful moment.

Aaker considers it imperative that her research yield practical, real-world takeaways and practices that anyone could implement. Hence the five-part questionnaire — and her ongoing brainstorming of exercises to help people benefit from her findings about the drivers of human thriving.

However the relevance of Aaker’s research will extend far beyond its usefulness as reflective journal prompts; now, her findings are informing the future development of AI.

Aaker has partnered with Stanford’s Fei-Fei Li, co-director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) to teach a class called Designing AI to Cultivate Human Wellbeing. For her part, Li says that the partnership with Aaker has sparked new insights about the future of AI and how it ought to be shaped.

“Because of the framework of human well-being that Jennifer and I try to infuse into our curriculum and our conversations,” Li says, “I go back to my own research and discussions with colleagues with a focus on how to make sure our core AI technology can eventually deliver these kinds of positive values to humans, and society.”

The Right Kind of Impact

As a teenager, Aaker wanted to become an oncologist. Her grandfather had died of cancer, and she developed an early conviction that this was how she could make the positive impact on the world that she intended to have.

As she worked her way through school, however, her natural proclivities for the subjects of math and ponderous questions about the human condition steered her in a different direction. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then a PhD in marketing, with a minor in psychology. Still, she retained her driving desire to find a way to make a positive impact.

For the first decade or so of her research and teaching career at Stanford, Aaker’s work was largely marketing-focused, examining topics like dimensions of brand personality, the cultural factors mediating effective marketing, and the evolution of consumer-brand relationships. But gradually, she began to broaden out into more universally pressing questions, like how do we make the best use of our time? Under what circumstances does helping others help us feel better? Is it possible that even negative experiences contribute to a more meaningful life? How does one look back on past failures (and successes) to fuel forward progress and potential?

As she began making this transition about 15 years ago, she was working on a stream of research about how social media does (or does not) foster and drive collective action. Aaker identified herself as falling into the skeptical camp when it came to social media — that is, until one of her students, Robert, told her a story about his best friend, Sameer, a newlywed in his early 30s who had recently been diagnosed with leukemia.

Robert and Sameer’s friends and family had learned that, like many fighting leukemia, Sameer’s only chance of survival rested in finding a bone marrow transplant from a person with a near-perfect genetic match. The highest probability was in the same ethnic group. They went on to discover that, while European Americans have an 80 percent chance of finding their match, ethnic minorities in the U.S., like Sameer (who was South Asian), face much slimmer odds.

Robert explained to Aaker that he had leveraged social media platforms to organize hundreds of bone marrow drives with a goal of registering 20,000 South Asians in just a few weeks. He had exceeded this goal — and found a perfect match for Sameer. Unfortunately, Sameer had relapsed within three months of his transplant and passed away, perhaps in part because the match hadn’t come fast enough.

Aaker remembers her reaction upon hearing Robert’s story: “All I could think was, what could I do now?”

She brought the question to her husband. Together, they collected stories like Sameer’s: inspiring examples of individuals and organizations that had created infectious action with few resources. They gathered the stories — and takeaways about what had helped the viral projects take off — into a book called The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change.

Aaker considers it imperative that her research yield practical, real-world takeaways and practices.

“But what I realized was, I don’t really care about selling books,” Aaker says. Like her teenage self, she was driven to make an impact. “What does interest me is trying to help save the lives of people who might not have the tools, the money, the skills, or the contacts themselves.”

So for the next year, Aaker brought Be the Match trucks along to her book events and asked attendees to sit for a cheek swab afterward so they could be entered into the bone marrow registry. This yielded 113,000 new registrants, saving the lives of over 200 people.

“As someone who was always attracted to oncology, to be able to take my field, my research, and my connections to help save lives — that was extremely gratifying,” Aaker says.

She worked closely with 17 people who needed bone marrow transplants, running additional drives and visiting them in the hospital. Tragically, all but one of these 17 passed away. The sole survivor was named Amit Gupta, and as Aaker got to know Amit, she realized she was feeling buoyed by the force of his humor.

“In my own burnout and depression after this — because it was soul-crushing — Amit was showing me that there is power in humor, there is power in levity,” Aaker says. “I was seeing that if you don’t have enough humor and levity, you will burn out. That put me on a new research journey around understanding the behavioral science of humor — when and why it works.”

Building Eras

Aaker acknowledges that she thinks of her research as being dividable into distinct “eras” of about five years each. Incidentally, one of her research findings has been that what’s most important to us tends to change every five to 10 years. “That was not a surprise to me, personally,” Aaker says, “because I think subconsciously or not, I did try to create these different eras in my life and also in my research.”

Often, she’ll be drawn to a particular area of research because she has a whispering intuition about what the research literature has left underexplored or what the current research and wisdom were simply getting wrong.

Aaker is sometimes categorized as part of positive psychology, and while she does see herself as aligned with that field in some ways — after all, the overarching focus of positive psychology is the study of human flourishing — it’s also true that much of Aaker’s work has been more of a reaction against positive psychology than a part of it. A large swath of positive psychology prioritizes feeling happy, and Aaker has sensed that this prioritization can backfire — as other research has also suggested.

“I saw parents that said, ‘I just want my kid to be happy,’” Aaker says. “Or I saw people getting depressed when they realized they were low and thought they should be happy, and then were doubly depressed because they weren’t. That got me thinking about whether there might be a difference between short-run happiness and what’s truly meaningful.”

In 2012, Aaker co-authored a breakthrough paper, Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life. Aaker and her colleagues studied the type of people who fell into the last two groups — high on happiness but low on meaningfulness and high on meaning but low on happiness —and found important differences in how they led their lives. Those in the happy group tended to avoid negative emotions, described themselves as relatively self-oriented, and spent more time thinking about how they felt in the moment. In contrast, those high in meaning spent more time helping others, being with friends or taking care of children, and thinking about the past, present, and future.

As Aaker conducted this research, she continued to reflect on the values reflected in our rapidly advancing technology — and wasn’t always heartened. Most of our tech tools, she has said, are geared around creating small explosions of short-run happiness.

“The result is clickbait rather than substance; life hacks rather than holistic solutions; echo-chambers than generate radicalism rather than understanding,” she said in a talk she gave to Stanford HAI in 2020. “And we are more susceptible than ever to short-term design serving up a stream of addictive content. Like junk food, technology serves up a sugar rush but fails to nourish us.”

Aaker’s next endeavor: helping to make the next wave of tech — especially the dawning age of AI — more nourishing.

The Meaning of AI

By now, Aaker has spent many years teaching classes that integrate her findings regarding human potential with tech themes. She taught The Power of Social Technology, followed by Designing for VR/AR: Scaling Empathy in an Immersive World. But the possibilities — and concerns — presented by new and forthcoming AI place an even greater need to bring Aaker’s topics of research to bear on technical conversations.

She partnered with Li to create and teach Designing AI to Cultivate Human Well-being, a hybrid class composed of half engineering students and half GSB or Doerr School of Sustainability students.

Aaker notes that the top reason students report signing up for the class has nothing to do with the technical aspects of machine learning — it’s to better understand human well-being.

As the final class project, students work in interdisciplinary teams to propose AI-enabled solutions that tackle significant social challenges. One student group proposed an AI tool to improve nurses’ workflow so they could spend more time with patients. Another group sought to ease opioid addiction among veterans and imagined an AI bot that could help build out support networks for at-risk veterans and track milestones.

Aaker’s newest class springs from her newest stream of research. (“The way I learn is by teaching a new class,” she says. “That’s why I shift.”) Sustainable Human Behavior, which she co-teaches with GSB marketing professor Szu-chi Huang, is built from research she’s been conducting for the past few years (also with Huang) about the power of a “beautiful mindset” and a “journey mindset.”

The idea for the new research was sparked in the thick of the pandemic when Aaker began regular Zoom sessions with her friend Safi Bahcall, a physicist and the author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. The two fell into the regular practice of sharing recent beautiful moments they’d experienced and continued for years. Aaker noticed that in curating and sharing these moments, she was discovering new truths about her own subjective experience. She wanted to dive deeper. Now, research projects are in the works about the relationship between beauty and health, how creating space for beautiful moments changes how we experience time, and when and how to create space for beauty in life.

“What we’re doing with this beautiful mindset research is diving more deeply into people’s subjective experience,” Aaker says. “Now, think about how interesting that is relative to AI — AI is not going to be able to have subjective experiences, at least for a while. This idea of what defines the human subjective experience is going to be a blossoming topic for the next decade or so. And I’m hoping this window of research will be able to add to that conversation — in a way that anyone could feel connected to.”

Photos by Winni Wintermeyer

Jennifer Aaker
The General Atlantic Professor
Orinda, California, USA
PhD in Marketing, PhD Minor in Psychology, Stanford Graduate School of Business, 1995
BA in Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, 1989
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