Defining Happiness to Build Brands: Happiness or Meaning? September 2016
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A common prescription in many cultures is the biblical notion that "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). In the secular realm, Harvard University psychologist Ellen Langer, after completing 40 years of pioneering research in the area of positive psychology, concluded her recipe for a successful life: GLADO—that is, to be generous, loving, authentic, direct, and open (see http://www.ellenlanger.com/blog/). In the realm of branding, work by Jennifer Aaker (professor of Marketing at Stanford University) and her colleagues has shown that for-profit organizations that also create a perception of warmth—for example, through corporate social-responsibility initiatives—inspire feelings of awe in consumers (see "Non-Profits Are Seen as Warm and For-Profits as Competent" in the February 2010 Journal of Consumer Research).
In what they coined the "time-ask effect," researchers Wendy Liu (University of California, Irvine) and Jennifer Aaker found that the happiness of giving to others relates more directly to the dimension of time than to the dimension of money. Specifically, Dr. Liu and Aaker found that asking the question "How much time would you like to donate to the American Lung Cancer Foundation?" induces an emotional mind-set and a feeling of connection to the cause, in comparison with the question "How much money would you like to donate to the American Lung Cancer Foundation?" which induces an economic, or value-maximization mind-set. Thinking about the experience of giving time to a cause feels more meaningful than does thinking about giving money. Interestingly, when people consider volunteering time before considering donating money, donations amounts are larger than when people consider donating money only.
One interpretation of the time-ask effect is that the definition of happiness is different for givers of time than for givers of money. Giving time may be more personally meaningful than giving money. Giving time also relates more fundamentally to experiences, which people perceive to be self-relevant, whereas giving money is a material act generally devoid of much context or meaning (see the second report in this series "Experiential versus Material Happiness"). Psychologist Roy Baumeister of Florida State University and his colleagues examined the distinction between a happy life and a meaningful life directly in a survey. For example, in addition to measuring happiness using statements such as "In general I consider myself happy" and "Compared to most of my peers, I consider myself happy," they measured meaning with corresponding items, such as "In general I consider my life to be meaningful" and "Compared to most of my peers, I consider my life meaningful." The researchers found negative relationships between feeling bored and feeling happy and between feeling bored and having a meaningful life. For example, people who feel happy and that their life is meaningful are rarely bored. One way to reduce boredom may be to volunteer time to causes. "Feeling connected to others" and "thinking that others feel connected to one" both relate positively to happiness and meaning, whereas the "percent time spent with people one loves" and the statement "relationships are more important than achievements" relate positively to meaning only, and show no relationship with happiness. Crucially for the current discussion, the statement "I'm a giver" relates positively to meaning, but negatively to happiness. "Tries to help the needy" and "Recall time taking care of children" relate positively to meaning but show no relationship with happiness.
Thus, a prosocial orientation—spending time with others, spending time helping others, taking care of children, giving of oneself—all relate to a dimension of well-being that one can better describe as living a meaningful life than as living a happy life. Importantly, people experience meaning in their lives even when they struggle financially or struggle in other ways—conditions that generally reduce feelings of happiness. Thus, it is possible to live an unhappy but meaningful life.
In conclusion, volunteering appears to be a central activity to foster happiness and meaning in one's life. Volunteering creates a mind-set of emotional connection, counts as an experience rather than a material possession (see the second report in this series "Experiential versus Material Happiness"), creates and maintains relationships with other people, and allows one to exercise skills and abilities. Brand managers who can engage their customers in a wide variety of volunteering activities may see strong, positive effects on brand engagement.