All You Have To Do Is Smile


Photo: Flickr/El Mostrito

What makes people happy?It’s a simple question at first glance, but happiness is an abstraction; it’s intangible, it’s mysterious, almost indefinable. “Although people often think they know what leads to happiness,” a recent study notes, “predictions about what will make them happy are often inaccurate.”

The study, authored by Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker of Stanford and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, has a surprisingly simple answer: just make them smile.

Here’s the abstract:

In four experiments, participants assigned the goal to make someone smile reported a greater boost in happiness than did those whose goal was to make someone happy. This effect was  driven by the size of the gap between expectations and reality. The efforts of those assigned to make someone happy fell short of expectations—leading to less personal happiness whereas the efforts of those assigned to make someone smile more accurately matched expectations— increasing their happiness. In addition, participants erroneously believed that efforts to make others happy (versus smile) would have a greater impact on their own happiness. However, activating the belief that small acts can have big impacts corrected this misperception, leading participants to recognise the benefits of making others smile.

The premise is that one’s outlook is affected by expectations; as the report notes, “striving for abstract goals,” like ‘happiness,’ “has been associated with greater psychological distress, whereas striving for concrete goals has been linked to greater levels of psychological well-being.”

So what should you do? Well, rather than “aiming to make someone happy—a broadly framed goal that is difficult to achieve—we suggest that a smaller, more concretely framed goal—for example, merely making the recipient smile—might prove more effective at meeting the giver’s hopes.”

In the end, it’s about closing the gap between expectations and reality by distinguishing what is achievable and perceptible from what is intangible and abstract:

When performing an act of kindness, framing the prosocial goal in more concrete terms—like the goal of making someone smile instead of happy—is likely to leave not only the recipients of such acts with smiles on their faces, but put smiles on the faces of the givers as well. Therefore, through concrete, manageable prosocial goals, a path to greater personal happiness can be cultivated.

So say cheese!

Don’t miss: You may have to choose between a happy life and a meaningful one

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.