Well being is better achieved with small, defined actions rather than grand goals, new research out of Stanford and Harvard Business School finds.
For millennia, great minds have pondered the good life, dedicating themselves to study, asceticism, pleasure, or, in modern times, plenty of therapy in pursuit of this elusive goal. But have they all perhaps been trying too hard?
The series of four experiments asked study subjects either to try to make others happy or, more simply, to make them smile. It also requested they evaluate which of the two tasks would have the bigger impact on their own happiness. What the researchers found is that people generally aim big, thinking that making someone happy will improve their own well being more than the paltry-sounding aim of just making someone smile.
But they were wrong. The paper abstract sums up the results:
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.
Not only did the research suggest that small, concrete actions can boost happiness more than lofty, nebulous ones, it also shows that people can be taught this fact to help them maximize their well being.
"Even though extant research has identified numerous predictors of people's happiness and well being, most of these factors represent relatively stable aspects of an individual’s life, such as the cultural environment in which one is raised or resides and demographics such as age, education, social class, marital status, and religion," write the researchers. "Because changing these circumstantial factors can be monetarily and temporally costly--if not impossible--the results of these studies provide limited assistance to individuals who wish to achieve greater happiness in their daily lives."
This study, though, offers actionable advice that doesn't involve a religious conversion, a divorce, or a decade of waiting. Simply reminding yourself that small acts of kindness have big impacts on yourself and others can help you recalibrate your thinking to aim for more concrete and effective goals, which in turn make you happier.
The takeaway: "Small, concrete goals designed to improve the well being of others are more likely to lead to happiness for the giver than are acts with large, abstract goals--despite people's intuitions to the contrary," and keeping that fact in mind can provide a considerable boost to your well being.
So rather than fretting that your business isn't saving the world, or worrying about the overall life satisfaction of a friend, simply focus on buying a co-worker a coffee, introducing someone to a new acquaintance, or cracking a couple more jokes. Those around you will be happier for it and so will you.
Do you get hung up searching for big happiness boosters when little ones would work wonders for your well being?
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