Almost everyone wants to be happy, but surprisingly few people know how.

However, a growing body of research has identified one reliable path: doing something rewarding, especially philanthropy.

Acts of kindness not only benefit the recipient but also "create a pleasurable 'helper's high' that benefits the giver," says Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jennifer Aaker, who's studied the phenomenon with University of Houston’s Melanie Rudd and Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School. Indeed, studies show that people who regularly volunteer report greater happiness than those who don't.

Performing five random acts of kindness a day for six weeks has been shown to boost happiness, as has spending money on others. "But what is less clear is the best way to create that 'helper's high,'" says Aaker. She and her co-authors examined the types of feelings created by various good deeds, and as you'd expect, their research proves that the way a good deed is approached can have just as much impact on the giver's mood afterward. Here's why. 

Why Concrete Goals Work 

Aaker's paper, soon to appear in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, details how the researchers tested their hypothesis that concrete philanthropic goals can boost a giver's happiness more than abstract ones. To test this, the researchers recruited 50 participants and offered a $5 Amazon gift card in exchange for doing one of two tasks: making someone happy or making them smile. The participants were then given 24 hours, then asked to describe their approach and how happy it made them. 

No matter which method the participants chose, those asked to elicit a smile reported feeling more happy than those who were asked to cheer others. The researchers then explored this effect, believing concrete goals create a smaller gap between the expected and actual impact of one's actions.

In other words, framing a goal in concrete terms makes a giver more realistic about his or her prospects for success. Yet when expectations are high, it can lead to disappointment. When you frame a goal concretely, you focus on how to achieve it. Plus, the standards for success are more discernable: You can see someone smile, but it's harder to tell if they're happy. 

In a second experiment, the researchers repeated the conditions of the first test and asked an additional question: How well did the outcome of the act meet your expectations? This time, the "smile" group reported not only more happiness, but a close correlation between what they expected and what had transpired.

Other experiments showed these outcomes were not affected by the relationship between the giver and the recipient--that is, it made no difference how long they'd known each other--or by the perceived "size" of the act. Those working for a smile and for happiness felt their gestures were equally valuable, and that they made recipients equally happy.

Changing the substance or nature of the goals didn't alter the end result, either. Those asked to recycle more materials were happier than those tasked with "supporting environmental sustainability." Likewise, those asked to help patients find a suitable bone marrow donor felt more fulfilled than those asked to provide "greater hope." 

Lastly, the researchers tested their supposition that people are poor predictors of which charitable acts will bring the most happiness. They revisited the "smile" versus "happy" experiment, but this time asked participants to predict how happy they would feel 24 hours later.

Two interesting results emerged: Participants evaluating their own condition--be it concrete or abstract--inaccurately predicted the same level of happiness, while those weighing both conditions believed the more abstract goal--making someone happy--would lead to more happiness. 

"Orient Ourselves to Others"

The authors hope their paper can offer practical solutions to the growing problem of donor fatigue or what's known as "helper burnout." Volunteers who chase amorphous goals such as changing the lives of others are destined to feel disappointed, "making helping a negative, rather than a positive influence on givers' happiness," the researchers write. 

Further, they hope the paper will inspire a cycle of doing good deeds. As Rudd explains, "When we experience a bigger helper's high, we not only feel greater happiness in the moment, we may also be more likely to give again in the future."

For Aaker, the relationship between charitable giving and happiness goes beyond science. She grew up in a home where service to others was a fact of life--her mother spent 45 years as an elementary school teacher, while also volunteering for the American Cancer Society, Meals on Wheels, and Caring Hands. Since retiring, she has worked full-time at Hospice of the East Bay. Meanwhile, her father "is the biggest giver I know. Well, outside of my mother."

As a child, Aaker's parents encouraged her and her younger sisters to think about doing one concrete thing each day that helped someone else.

Aaker has continued this tradition through behavioral research, which helps illuminate how people can find lasting and more meaningful happiness. "People want to get happier, but often don’t know the best path to do that," she says. "Generally, we find that it is more effective to get out of our own heads, and orient ourselves to others."

This piece was originally published by Stanford Business. Follow GSB @StanfordBiz

Published on: Jul 23, 2014