Cultivating happiness often misunderstood

Posted on April 19, 2014

The paradox of happiness is that chasing it may actually make us less happy, a Stanford researcher says.

So how does one find happiness? Effective ways exist, according to new research.

One path to happiness is through concrete, specific goals of benevolence - like making someone smile or increasing recycling - instead of following similar but more abstract goals - like making someone happy or saving the environment.

The reason is that when you pursue concretely framed goals, your expectations of success are more likely to be met in reality. On the other hand, broad and abstract goals may bring about happiness' dark side - unrealistic expectations.

As the researchers point out, the pursuit of happiness is one of the most essential quests in life, and happiness is often considered a hallmark of psychological health. But it is more mysterious and complex than most people might imagine - and not always readily achievable.

One underappreciated way to increase one's own happiness is to focus on elevating the happiness of others. But, how exactly do you do that? Are some acts of benevolence better able to increase personal happiness than others?

To answer this question, the researchers conducted six experiments involving 543 people from laboratory studies and national survey pools. The level of abstraction of one's "prosocial" goal was the critical factor of interest. Prosocial acts are defined as voluntary behavior intended to benefit someone else.

The results show that acts designed to improve the well-being of others will lead to greater happiness for givers when these acts are associated with concretely framed, prosocial goals as opposed to abstractly framed prosocial goals - despite people's intuitions to the contrary.

The results have implications for the world of business. For instance, marketing or products that claim to help consumers achieve abstractly framed goals – like making someone else happy - might not be the best business decision. Instead, it might be wiser to reframe these promised goals in more specific, concrete terms.

Ultimately, people seek to be happy, and one clear path toward happiness is through prosocial behaviors.

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 researchers hope that future work will yield a deeper understanding of how to harvest happiness - such as by helping others - and how to avoid any unhappiness traps along the way. Sometimes, people pursue happiness ineffectively - as in giving to well-intentioned but broadly defined causes - which may leave them dissatisfied.


Source material from Stanford University

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