You can’t see it and measuring it is tricky. It fluctuates based on expectations and seems partially hard-wired into our characters. And most frustratingly of all, previous research has suggested that the more you strive for happiness, the harder it is to grasp.
In a review co-authored in 2011 by Yale psychologist June Gruber, researchers found that the pursuit of happiness can actually lead to negative outcomes--not because surrounding yourself with positive people, mastering a skill, smiling, getting therapy or practicing self-governance aren't conducive to happiness, in and of themselves, but because "when you're doing it with the motivation or expectation that these things ought to make you happy, that can lead to disappointment and decreased happiness."
Pushing for happiness, in other words, can backfire by raising your expectations for your mood.
But it appears these earlier studies aren’t the last word on the pursuit of happiness. Done correctly, new research finds, pushing yourself towards feeling cheerier can actually yield impressive results-- and the trick to doing it right is simple.
This new study came out of a disagreement between Kelly Goldsmith, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management, and her father. He said chasing happiness is bound to lead to disappointment. She thought you could nudge yourself to an improved mood. The study they designed indicates she’s right, but the effects are only large if you focus on you behavior, i.e. what you’re doing to make yourself happier. And all it takes to do that, it turns out, is a daily email prompt, KelloggInsight reports:
Hundreds of participants from Fortune 500 companies were emailed one of three daily questions: 1) a happiness monitoring question, “How happy were you today?”; 2) a variant that focused on behavior, “Did you do your best to be happy today?”; or 3) a control question that did not mention happiness at all.
The father-daughter duo found none of the deleterious consequences reported by other researchers: participants who simply monitored their own happiness actually reported feeling modestly happier several weeks later. But it was the variant that focused on personal behavior that “really hit it out of the park,” says Goldsmith...
So why does receiving a daily question about happiness make us happier? For one, it reminds us that we want to be happy. “We’re bringing happiness up in terms of salience, making it more top of mind for people,” says Goldsmith. “Throughout our day we make trade-offs. Do I go to the gym or do I go to the movies with my fiancé? Because I’ve got a goal of being a good partner, but I also have a goal of working out.” And when goals conflict, “the goals that are the most salient are usually the ones that we make our trade-offs in favor of.”
This salience- particularly when the focus is on what we are doing to become happier-leads to changes in behavior.
So how can you put this research to use? A simple Post-It note question on your monitor asking what you’ve done today to make yourself happier probably wouldn’t hurt, but the research team also offers other options: "a peer coaching system where friends (or strangers) commit to call or email each other with a daily question. Goldsmith, Gal, and their colleagues are also collaborating with a website called AskMeEvery.com, which emails interested parties a daily question of their choosing. Responses are recorded so that users can hold themselves accountable."
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel