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.”