Career & Success

Are We Happy Yet? The Unexpected Links Between Happiness and Choice

Research shows that “attitudes toward happiness are highly malleable, and, in fact, easily influenced.”

November 15, 2011

| by Alice LaPlante



Carnival revelers participate in an afternoon parade in the Ipanema neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. (Reuters photo by Jorge Silva)

The key to happiness lies in the choices you make, or so they say.

Yet, new research by long-time collaborators Jennifer Aaker, Cassie Mogilner, and Sep Kamvar suggests that people don’t make choices based on a single or shared notion of happiness. In “How Happiness Impacts Choice,” a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research, by Cassie Mogilner (The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania), Aaker (Stanford GSB), and Kamvar (Stanford University Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering), they conclude that people’s relationship with happiness is a complex one, subject to factors both demographic (age) and psychographic (living in the present versus focusing on the future). Still, people’s individual experience of happiness can be influenced in systematic ways, and can lead to predictable choices.

In their 2010 collaboration, Mogilner, Aaker, and Kamvar identified two types of happiness. Some consumers define happiness as an “arousing” or exciting emotion. Others experience it as a calm, peaceful feeling. In their 2011 work, these researchers concluded that people can toggle back and forth between these two distinctly different experiences. Depending on which view of happiness they favor at a given moment, people will make different choices.

Based on earlier studies, the researchers believed that attitudes toward happiness — as either exciting or calm — depended largely on the individual’s age. “The Shifting Meaning of Happiness,” published in early 2011 in Social Psychological and Personality Science, summarized those findings. For that paper, the researchers analyzed 70,000 independent instances in which online bloggers wrote about feelings of happiness. Younger bloggers were much more likely to describe situations that reflected the happiness-equals-excitement mindset. Older ones tended to subscribe to the happiness-equals-peacefulness point of view. “We knew that as we grow older, our priorities change. But what we haven’t known is that our definition of happiness also changes — in systematic and predictable ways — over the course of life,” said Aaker.

Yet, why would these effects hold? Why is it that people’s definition of happiness changes as they age? The results of six new studies answer this question. As people age, their temporal focus changes — whether they are likely to be focused on the here and now or on the future. And it is this temporal focus that drives the basic effects. “We now think that individuals’ views of happiness depend far more upon their sense of time than their age per se,” said Aaker.

In one of the six studies, the researchers recruited young adult volunteers — individuals who they expected would perceive happiness as an exciting experience. They told half of the volunteers to focus on the present, and to relinquish thoughts of anything but the current moment. That group of volunteers was later far more likely to define happiness as “peaceful” than the volunteers who were not led to focus on the present moment.

As a result, “we now believe that attitudes toward happiness are highly malleable, and, in fact, easily influenced, simply by shifting the timeframe people consider,” said Aaker.

Businesses with the hope of enhancing happiness (both employee and consumer) should first consider which type of happiness — calm or exciting — their products are most likely to evoke. And indeed, those types of businesses are diverse. Consider BMW’s global “Stories of Joy” campaign that includes a website where consumers can upload homemade videos that demonstrate the joy of driving. Whiskas created the “Happy Together” online community as a place people could share happy moments with their cats. Based on Mogilner, Aaker, and Kamvar’s most recent research, these brands could be more effective by “preparing” consumers to experience happiness in a way that puts the campaign in the best light.

BMW’s campaign clearly hopes that consumers will view happiness as an exciting state. To maximize its effectiveness, BMW should push consumers to take a long-term, future view of happiness. Alternatively, Whiskas’ website portrays happiness as an exceedingly peaceful emotion. It should provide contextual cues that encourage consumers to savor the present moment.

Since happiness doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, marketers should consider what types of consumer they want to reach. They also need to consider how to convey happiness. As a benefit of using the product? As an aspect of brand personality? Even the colors they deploy in advertisements and collateral matters.

In one of the other studies detailed in their most recent paper, the researchers presented 50 consumers between the ages of 19 and 68 with a list of colors, objects, people, activities, and brands. The consumers indicated which items on the list excited them, and which ones calmed them down. Hot colors like red tended to excite participants. Cool colors like blue promoted a sense of peacefulness. Nike, Target, and Apple brands were deemed exciting, but Johnson & Johnson, Lululemon, and Borders evoked calm feelings. Even certain types of people (kids, friends) and activities (dancing, running) were considered exciting, whereas other types of people and activities (spouses, parents, reading, yoga) induced calm.

To fully leverage investments in “happiness” campaigns, companies need to forgo generalized or generic ideas of happiness and focus on the real experiences their customers seek.

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