Almost everyone wants to be happy, but surprisingly few people know exactly how to make themselves so.
A growing body of research has identified one reliable path to greater personal happiness: engaging in a rewarding activity—particularly one that involves doing something nice for someone else. Acts of kindness not only benefit the recipient but also “create a pleasurable ‘helper’s high’ that benefits the giver,” says Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jennifer Aaker, who has studied the phenomenon with University of Houston’s Melanie Rudd and Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School.
Indeed, studies show that people who regularly do volunteer work report greater happiness and less depression than those who don’t; performing five random acts of kindness a day for six weeks has been shown to boost happiness, as has spending money on others rather than on oneself. “Telling people to do good things for others appears to be a good strategy for personal happiness,” says Aaker. “But what is less clear is the best way to create that ‘helper’s high.’”
To pinpoint what kinds of generous acts produce the biggest spike in happiness, Aaker and her coauthors looked at the types of feelings generated by various good deeds. Their new research shows that the way people approach performing acts of kindness can have a dramatic effect on the happiness they experience. In a nutshell: It’s much better to frame philanthropic goals in concrete terms than in abstract ones.
The authors demonstrate that givers with a specific, concrete agenda—trying to make someone smile, for instance—experience greater happiness than those pursuing a more abstract goal, like trying to make someone “happy.”
“This insight is important because nearly all of us are trying to make other people in our lives happy. Parents often say they just want their kids to be happy. Equally common is a desire to make our partners, family members, and friends happy,” says Aaker. “But few of us know exactly how to bring happiness to the people in our lives. Our new research sheds light on what we can do.”
The paper, published this spring in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, details the experiments the researchers ran to test their main hypothesis: That concrete philanthropic goals increase the giver’s happiness more than abstract ones.
To test that premise, the researchers recruited 50 participants and gave them a $5 Amazon gift card in exchange for performing one of two assigned tasks: to make someone happy, or to make someone smile. The participants had 24 hours to complete the task. Then they were asked to describe how they approached their assignment, and how happy it made them.
The results showed that no matter what method the participants used to achieve their goal—giving someone food or a gift, telling a funny story, lending a helping hand—the participants instructed to elicit a smile reported greater personal happiness than those asked to bestow happiness. These results confirmed the benefit of pursuing concrete goals over abstract ones.
Next the researchers explored why this effect occurs. They hypothesized that concrete goals create a smaller gap between the expected and actual impact of one’s actions. In other words, framing a goal in concrete terms makes a giver more realistic about their prospects of success. When expectations are too high, it can lead to disappointment and less happiness. But when you frame a goal concretely, you become more focused on how to achieve that goal. Also, when a goal is framed concretely, the standards of success are clearer.
In this case, you actually can see someone smile—whereas whether you actually made someone happy is often a mystery. So in a second experiment, the researchers repeated the conditions of the first—but asked one additional question: How well did the outcome of the performed act meet the participant’s expectations going into it? In this case, the “smile” group reported not only more happiness than the “happy” group, but also a closer correlation between what they expected and what actually transpired.
Other experiments showed that these outcomes were not affected by the relationship between the giver and the recipient — it made no difference whether they were friends, or for how long they’d known each other—or by the perceived “size” of the kind act; those working for a smile and those working for happiness saw their gestures as equivalent in value. And they made their recipients equally happy. Neither did changing the substance or nature of the goals alter the results; participants asked to perform the concrete act of recycling more materials reported greater happiness—and a closer match between expectation and reality—than those tasked with the vaguer goal of “supporting environmental sustainability.”
Likewise, those asked to help patients requiring a bone-marrow transplant through a concrete act—finding a suitable donor—experienced more personal fulfillment than those asked to help by giving them “greater hope.”
Lastly, the researchers tested their supposition that people are poor predictors of which charitable acts will bring them the greatest happiness. They revisited the “smile” versus “happy” experiment but this time asked participants to predict how happy they would feel 24 hours later, after they had completed their task.
Two interesting results emerged. First, participants evaluating just their own condition—either concrete or abstract—inaccurately predicted the same degree of happiness as those pursuing the other. Second, those weighing both conditions incorrectly anticipated that the abstract goal of making someone happy would create greater personal happiness than making someone smile. “People do not recognize that acts performed in service of a prosocial goal that is framed concretely (versus abstractedly) will more effectively cultivate personal happiness,” they write.
The authors hope their paper can offer practical solutions to the growing problem of donor fatigue or “helper burnout.” Volunteers who seek amorphous goals such as changing the lives of others are destined to experience disappointment and frustration, “making helping a negative rather than a positive influence on givers’ happiness,” they write. “Encouraging givers to re-frame their prosocial goals in more concrete terms might generally reduce helper burnout.”
Furthermore, it can inspire a cycle of doing good deeds for others. As Rudd explains, “When we experience a bigger helper’s high, we not only feel greater happiness in the moment, we may also be more likely to give again in the future.”
For Aaker, the relationship between charitable giving and happiness is more than academic. She grew up in a home where service to others was a fact of everyday life; her mother spent 45 years as an elementary school teacher, while also volunteering for the American Cancer Society, Meals on Wheels, and Caring Hands. Since retiring from teaching, she has been working full time at Hospice of the East Bay, says Aaker. Meanwhile, her father “is the biggest giver I know. Well, outside of my mother.”
When she was growing up, her parents encouraged her and her two younger sisters, now an elementary school teacher and a social worker, to think about doing one concrete thing each day that would improve the life of someone else.
Aaker has continued to improve the lives of others through her behavioral research, which helps illuminate how people can attain lasting and more meaningful happiness. “People want to get happier, but often don’t know the best path to do that,” she says. “Generally, we find that it is more effective to get out of our own heads, and orient ourselves to others.” A small smile can make a big difference—to the giver as much as the receiver.
This was originally published on Stanford Business and is republished with permission.