Designing Happiness

" much you make is relatively unrelated to your level of happiness.."

Posted Oct 18, 2010

How do you design for happiness? A first step in tackling this question is to understand what happiness means. But herein lies the problem. Our understanding of what happiness is (and how to get it) is often misaligned with what really drives happiness. Indeed, research by Dan Gilbert and others show that we tend to go looking for happiness in a lot of the wrong places. If you disagree, you can check out the lead story on Entertainment Tonight on any given day. What people think will make them happy is not in fact what actually makes them happy.

Money, a successful career, a house with a white picket fence in the best neighborhood in town: these are things we consider the hallmarks of happiness. They are also the things we think will allow us to achieve happiness if only we could just acquire them. Studies show however that beyond a certain threshold, how much you make is relatively unrelated to your level of happiness. Becoming a multimillionare and having all the picket fences, fur sinks and electric dog polishers (thanks, Steve Martin) that money can buy isn't going to bring you the contentment you think it will. If you do become as materially wealthy as you dream, you will have to confront the reality that those feelings of happiness you've been chasing aren't any closer as a result of what's going on in your bank account.

So we learn yet again that money can't buy happiness. What does correlate with happiness? Meaning. And having an impact on others. Indeed, research shows you'll feel much more fulfilled if you donate a couple of hours each week to a cause that is meaningful to you than if you donate a large chunk of your wages to a charity you know little about. Donating your time instead of your money will also cause you to feel more connected to the organization you're helping out. This in turn will boost otherwise elusive feelings of contentment and balance that so many of us seek. In other words, if you're looking to get happy, stop staying late at work just because you think you see something shiny at the top of the ladder: go out and donate your time to an organization that matters to you. It may sound counterintuitive, but if you try it, you may find the happiness you've been chasing lets you actually catch it in a place you'd never expect. To dive into more research on time, money, and happiness, see Sanford DeVoe, Jeff Pfeffer, Cassie Mogilner, Wendy Liu).

These insights are playing out in organizations (e.g., Zappos), websites and blogs (e.g., We Feel Fine), and how marketing campaigns are designed (e.g., Coke). In The Dragonfly Effect, we discuss which companies have done a particularly good job of harnessing principles of happiness and applying them to their businesses. We observe how people use social technology to make changes in the world, but what we're really talking about is something more fundamental and human. The Dragonfly Effect is about spreading happiness. It's about taking good deeds and making them catch fire; it's about the people you know and the people they know coming together and helping one another and in turn, helping ourselves. And with the social web, it's often not about donating those dollars: it can also be about donating yourself - your time, your connections, your commitment, and your talent - to spread passion and awareness and affect the outcomes of the things you believe in. Just as so many seemingly pointless YouTube videos go viral, so too can a campaign for change.

Interested in more insight on how to design organizations, websites and even movements based on principles of happiness and emotional contagion, see, or peruse the readings in the course materials for Designing Happiness - or the research stream associated with it.

About the Author

Andy Smith

Andy Smith, author of The Dragonfly Effect, Quick, Effective and Powerful ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change, is Principal of Vonavona Ventures.

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