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The Happiness of Giving (Enhanced
with a Wireless Connection)

By Dr. Jennifer Aaker
Professor at Stanford University

Not long ago in Colombia, a thirty-something engineer logged on to Facebook to begin organizing a protest against the Revolutionary Armed Forces. Within a week, he mobilized more than a million people to take to the streets, generated needed publicity for the release of hundreds of hostages, and ignited the largest mass demonstration in the country's history. In another case, on another continent, a young Saudi woman studying art in New York tapped YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook to spur the government to discuss—and consider lifting—a ban on women drivers in the Kingdom. And in the United States, Barack Obama, then a little-known senator from Illinois, fueled an online grassroots campaign that directly led to him becoming the first African-American President of the United States (and the most popular living figure on Facebook).

A decade ago, it would have been unfathomable (not to mention technically impossible) to imagine a world in which every citizen had the equal ability to very publicly respond to global events and easily share charged political opinions. It would have been unreasonable to expect that widely circulating the ideas of individuals you had never heard of, and had certainly never met, could spark real-life actions and result in unprecedented impact. And yet that's exactly what happened.

Today, we are in a new world—a dramatically smaller and more interconnected world—that's threaded tightly together by technology. Practically anyone, anywhere, can capitalize on incredible social networking tools, which are easy to master and offered for free. We are seeing these technologies play a role in events every day all over the planet: mourning the murders at Virginia Tech, assembling anti-government protests in Myanmar, responding to the contested presidential election results in Iran, and getting necessary funds to the people of Haiti.

The trend of leveraging social technology for social good is a sustainable one, not only because social media will continue to rewrite the ways we do everything, but because doing good taps into something fundamental in our psyches. It makes us feel good—and that means we'll continue doing it. (Think Pavlov.)

The focus of my research has been on happiness, and in particular the dichotomy between what people think makes them happy (power, status, hot cars, trips to Disneyland) versus what really makes them happy. They are rarely aligned. As a result, how people spend their time and money—indeed, how they behave and the habits they adopt—don't always cultivate happiness. Research shows that the happiest people have stopped chasing happiness and have instead started chasing meaningfulness (sprinkled with brief moments of fun, laughter, excitement). This change in direction leads to sustainable happiness—the kind that actually enriches one's life for the long haul.

People's happiness depends on a balance between the duration of happiness (immediate pleasures vs. more durable and lasting happiness), as well as the psychological depth (shallow pleasures vs. deeper more meaningful pleasures). Generally speaking, people frequently create inaccurate forecasts of what really makes them happy because they have an association between happiness and short and shallow rewards as opposed to long-lasting and deeper rewards. Increasing research suggests that individuals consume with the goal of "becoming happy" or "getting happier," but that they rarely attain that goal through their purchase behavior. Your mother was right: money doesn't buy happiness. Charitable giving, however, has been tied to reported states of true happiness. In other words, eudemonia, or true happiness and well being, is the result of an active life governed by intrinsic meaning, self sacrifice, and self improvement. Although it all sounds a little sanctimonious (and conjures mental images of Gandhi and Mother Teresa), it's been illustrated by research too many times to simply ignore as self righteous and annoying.

Take this experiment in which two groups of people were separately given discrete goals: "to create happiness in the world—for yourself and others" versus "to create meaning in the world—for yourself and others" (a third group served as a control and wasn't given any goal). The "personal happiness" chasers were miserable relative to the "create meaning in the world" people. These findings suggest that once you align people's personal goals with creating meaning in the world, they become much happier.

Although most people (in finance, anyway) still believe that creating meaning or good in the world doesn't align with profit-making, we have seen many people and organizations (Nike, eBay, Google, Facebook, Starbucks. and salesforce.com) create a "golden quadrant"—aligning the work they love with their business model—go on to yield organizations that were much stronger, more sustainable, and actually created greater good.

Let's back this up with something in psychology referred to as the ripple effect. In economics, the ripple effect is used to show how an individual's increase in spending increases the incomes of others and their subsequent ability to spend. In sociology, one can observe how social interactions can affect situations not directly related to the initial interaction. In charitable activities, it explains how information can be disseminated and passed from community to community to broaden its impact.

The general research I do in this area demonstrates how time can expand when people recognize that they're doing something they love and that the process of doing it makes them happy. We're not just talking about time psychologically expanding but also physically expanding, since people actually feel that they have more hours in the day and often in fact become more productive. Think of this as a twin to the adage "time flies when you’re having fun." A positive ripple effect results from that small action, which particularly when inspired by emotions such as happiness, fun, or empathy, can have a positive significant impact on others and over time.

Importantly, when the epicenter of the ripple effect is based on deep meaning (or something that you believe will make you happy, both in a deep and long-lasting way), a multiplier effect occurs. Others around you feel the emotion that you're feeling and become more strongly mobilized. This phenomenon has been referred to as emotional contagion, or the tendency to catch and feel emotions similar to and influenced by those of others. In a recent study of more than 4,700 people who were followed over 20 years, researchers revealed that people who are happy significantly boost the chances that someone they know will be happy. The power of happiness, moreover, can span another degree of separation—improving the mood of that person's husband, wife, brother, sister, friend, or next-door neighbor. Happiness is contagious.

The easiest way to catch happiness—and spread it—is by doing good. And, with social media, that's easier than ever. Anyone can use these tools to do something that really matters (no offense to the dancing cats and exploding Pepsi bottles). Want happiness? Focus on what's important to you, be it inspiring people to make a change for the environment, raising money to fund research on a disease, or organizing necessities to send to victims of an earthquake. Reach out on the social graph and tell everyone you know. It's as simple as a few clicks to tap into the energy of your whole community, and collectively, you can make a difference (and make everyone feel a whole lot better when they go to bed at night).

Together we can make social good go viral.

Dr. Jennifer Aaker

Dr. Jennifer Aaker is a General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Her teaching focuses on the power of social technology, and her research focuses on time, money, and happiness. Jennifer has received numerous honors and awards, including the A. Michael Spence Faculty Scholar Award, the Society of Consumer Psychology Early Career Award for Outstanding Research, the Journal of Consumer Research Outstanding Reviewer Award, the Fletcher Jones Faculty Research Scholar at Stanford, the Distinguished Teaching Award at Stanford, and the Citibank Best Teacher Award at UCLA, among others. She is also the author of The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Good (forthcoming—fall 2010).