How to be happy: Remind yourself that you want to be happy

June 6, 2013
June 6, 2013

We do not expect to hit life milestones—getting a promotion, raising a child, running a marathon—without a fair bit of gumption and at least a tentative game plan. But we often fail to put the same amount of effort or planning into less tangible goals—even important ones, like being happier. Why is this?

Philosophers and academics alike have long held that the realistic, concrete steps that lead to achievement in other areas of life simply do not work for happiness. “What we predict will make us happy doesn’t always make us happy,” explains Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management. And the very things that everyone agrees might bring us happiness—good health, for instance—are often hard for us to control. Yet, argues Goldsmith, happiness is not an entirely futile pursuit; there are life changes we can make to demonstrably improve our happiness.

A fortuitous disagreement

The line of research arose, surprisingly enough, from a friendly disagreement between Goldsmith and her father, a successful executive coach and a believer in the quantified life—“the idea that if you monitor your progress toward your goals, you’re more likely to achieve them,” says Goldsmith. Her father had become convinced that regularly asking and answering the question “How happy was I today?” had made him happier.

But Goldsmith was skeptical. When we ask ourselves how happy we were today, there is a risk we will wonder, well, how happy should I have been? And, as Goldsmith puts it, “the disparity between how happy you think you should be and how happy you actually were makes you sad.” Past research has borne this out: “In the psychology literature there is [plenty] of evidence suggesting that happiness monitoring actually has deleterious consequences for your happiness.” However, Goldsmith did suspect that rewording the question so that it focused on one’s own role in being happy—rather than forces outside one’s control—might mitigate some of the negative consequences.

So Goldsmith and her father embarked upon an extensive pilot study to see which of them was correct. Hundreds of participants from Fortune 500 companies were emailed one of three daily questions: 1) a happiness monitoring question, “How happy were you today?”; 2) a variant that focused on behavior, “Did you do your best to be happy today?”; or 3) a control question that did not mention happiness at all.

The father-daughter duo found none of the deleterious consequences reported by other researchers: participants who simply monitored their own happiness actually reported feeling modestly happier several weeks later. But it was the variant that focused on personal behavior that “really hit it out of the park,” says Goldsmith. “So I was right, but my dad was also kind of right, and the literature seemed kind of wrong.”

From family feud to controlled experiment

Would the happiness gains caused by behavior monitoring hold up under more rigorous examination? And why hadn’t Goldsmith and her father observed any negative consequences of happiness monitoring? It was time, Goldsmith decided, to bring the research into the lab. She teamed up with David Gal, also an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, Raj Raghunathan, a professor at the University of Texas, and Lauren Cheatham, a graduate student at Stanford University.

The researchers decided to replicate the pilot study in a better-controlled environment. Again, daily questions went out to participants over email. And once again, participants who had monitored their happiness for a few weeks reported very modest happiness gains compared to participants who had not. But as before the biggest boost in happiness—a boost the researchers have since found in several other studies—came from receiving the daily question about doing one’s best to be happy.

So why does receiving a daily question about happiness make us happier? For one, it reminds us that we want to be happy. “We’re bringing happiness up in terms of salience, making it more top of mind for people,” says Goldsmith. “Throughout our day we make trade-offs. Do I go to the gym or do I go to the movies with my fiancé? Because I’ve got a goal of being a good partner, but I also have a goal of working out.” And when goals conflict, “the goals that are the most salient are usually the ones that we make our trade-offs in favor of.”

This salience—particularly when the focus is on what we are doing to become happier—leads to changes in behavior. In another, similar study, the researchers determined that 38% of participants who made behavior changes focused more on positive events in their life, 16% made an effort to have positive interactions with others, 9% engaged in productive activities, and 9% simply worried less. Interestingly, nobody reported buying things to make themselves happier.

As for the lack of negative consequences of happiness monitoring, the researchers suspect that the longer duration of their studies is to thank. Previous research had only looked at the effects of monitoring over very short periods of time—sometimes as short as the length of a song. But five minutes is simply not enough time to make the kind of behavior changes that lead to gains in happiness.

Small changes, big implications

Importantly, it is not just happiness that can be boosted by a daily prompt. Other behavior-focused questions like, “Did you do your best to have positive interactions with others?”, “Did you do your best to set goals today?” or “Did you do your best to make progress toward your goals?” can also be effective. This should interest firms wanting to increase employee productivity and engagement. Instead of asking an employee once every six months how engaged she is with her firm, the researchers recommend, a manager might send a daily prompt like, “Did you do your best to be engaged with the firm today?”

So how can we add this daily introspection to our lives? A Post-it note on the computer is one option, as is a peer coaching system where friends (or strangers) commit to call or email each other with a daily question. Goldsmith, Gal, and their colleagues are also collaborating with a website called AskMeEvery.com, which emails interested parties a daily question of their choosing. Responses are recorded so that users can hold themselves accountable.

But, such a plan is not for the faint of heart. We have to be able to handle the fact that most days we do not do our best to be happy, says Goldsmith. This makes daily introspection humbling—not unlike stepping on a scale. It should also go without saying that a daily reminder to prioritize happiness is not going to be sufficient to steer someone away from the brink of depression. Still Goldsmith wholeheartedly recommends the practice. “We all want to be happier,” she says, “and if there’s something so simple we can do every day to improve our happiness, it’s a big deal.”

Reproduced with permission of the Kellogg School of Management and Kellogg Insight. © Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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