Formula for happiness

Feb. 15, 2012, 3:02 a.m.

In “Formula for happiness” (Feb. 15), The Daily incorrectly reported that Aaker designed the iPhone app. In fact, the app designer and developer are Jason Chua ’11 M.S. ’12 and Tim Shi ’13. 

Leading researcher talks time, money and happiness


Formula for happiness
(Courtesy of Jennifer Aaker)

Abstract monochrome paintings and leafy plants give the office in the Graduate School of Business (GSB) a calm feeling suited for a leading researcher on happiness.


Jennifer Aaker Ph.D. ’95, the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at the GSB, is a social psychologist and marketer. Her research is centered on the science and data behind pursuing personal happiness. An iPhone application designed by Aaker now allows users to track and analyze their happiness.


“Rather than trying to be happy or get happier, we work to design environments that enable happiness,” Aaker said of her team’s work.


After receiving her doctorate in marketing from the GSB in 1995, the happiness expert became interested in the relationship between emotions and goals. In her studies of mixed emotions, she discovered that negative emotions are often both functional and beneficial.


“We have some newer work that shows that people like feeling mixed emotional appeals because it reflects real life,” Aaker said.


Aaker looked at the type of goals people pursue and how they pursue them, comparing the effectiveness of a variety of goals across different cultures. This research on both emotions and goals laid the groundwork for her larger stream of work on time, money and happiness.


Aaker published “ The Time-Ask Effect: The Happiness of Giving ” in 2008 with co-writer Wendy Liu, assistant professor of marketing at UCLA. The pair looked into participant willingness to donate to charitable causes by comparing participant response to requests for time with response to requests for money.


“We found that when you ask for money first, people step away,” Aaker said. “But not if you ask them for their time.”


According to Aaker’s findings, people believed in a link between happiness and donating time, and as a result were more inclined to donate their time. This led Aaker to an even broader finding — the idea that happiness can be a mechanism that fuels action.


“The idea that something will make you happy drives powerful decision making,” Aaker said.


Aaker began to research how the meaning of personal happiness changes as one ages. Along with Sep Kamvar from the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering at Stanford and Cassie Mogilner from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania,   Aaker identified two primary types of happiness — excited happiness and calm happiness.


Kamvar, Mogilner and Aaker found that the younger generation defines happiness as excitement, while the older generation defines it as calmness.


“Our research suggests that you have to define the context — their culture, their age, their setting,” Aaker said. “Once you know that, you can define happiness.”


As a result, definitions of happiness shift in regular ways depending on context. However, Aaker said, this does not mean that one’s happiness cannot be manipulated. She described an exercise in which the experimenter used “small manipulations” to collect information on varying definitions of happiness. Subjects were asked to breathe deeply or focus on the present for a given period of time, and were then asked what happiness meant to them.


“Your meaning of happiness can shift, and you, as a 17-, 18- or 19-year-old, tend to view happiness as [a] 40-year-old [would],” Aaker said.


Students can thus take control of their happiness levels to make the most informed decisions. When caught up in a moment of angst-ridden excitement, Aaker recommends adopting a frame where happiness and peacefulness are more equated.


“I would expect individuals who are more conscious of these two meanings of happiness would be more likely to recognize the influence of happiness on decision making,” Aaker said. “Would that make them happier overall? I’m not sure.”


Aaker’s approach to happiness differs from the clinical work done by Dr. Fred Luskin from the Stanford Prevention Research Center and Carole Pertofsky, director of wellness and health promotion services.


Luskin and Pertofsky teach a class on happiness, whereas Aaker’s work focuses on designing companies and brands with happiness in mind. Students taking her GSB course this quarter, Designing Happiness , take a very data-driven approach to happiness, with marketing as the main concern.


“What we try to do…is give students first-hand knowledge of these types of insights and enable them to analyze data,” Aaker said. “This in turn helps them design stronger companies and brands.”


Aaker’s new iPhone application, the Designing Happiness Tool Kit, makes quantifying happiness accessible. Users take a “moment of happiness” and quantify it on a ten-point scale.


“Your stream starts to collect your moments of happiness — all geo-tagged and time-tagged,” Aaker said. “Eventually, you can start to see this interface and collect moments that you associate with happiness.”


“A lot of times you walk around not knowing whether you’re happy or not,” she added. “Just taking a moment of happiness makes people recognize, ‘Oh yeah, I am happy right now!’ ”

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