Be Happy – It’s All About Autonomy

iStock_000004699538XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

According to recent research out of Northwestern University and Stanford University, it is possible to make yourself more happy. In fact, the study suggests, there may be a connection between happiness and personal empowerment. That is, acknowledging that you have the power to change your own level of happiness is what drives happiness to increase.

The researchers, Kelly Goldsmith, Northwestern University; David Gal, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Northwestern University; and Lauren Cheatham, Stanford University, set out to find whether thinking about happiness is enough to make people happier. What they found was that simply pondering the nature of happiness wasn’t enough.

Over the course of three experiments, the researchers found that people who merely thought about happiness in general didn’t really report any increase in their level of personal happiness. But they did see a significant boost in the reported happiness of people who were prompted daily to think about what they did that day to make themselves happier.

It seems that happiness is all about autonomy – a reminder that we can change our happiness level is what actually makes us happier. If you really want to make a difference in how happy you feel, instead of saying daily “I want to be happier,” your mantra should be “What have I done today to be happier?” Here’s why.

Happiness as a Goal

Goldsmith, Gal, and Cheatham write that they wanted to examine whether “it is possible to increase happiness by explicitly pursuing the goal of happiness.”

They refer to research suggesting that having a goal isn’t enough to achieve that goal; people have to instead think about what they actually need to do to achieve it. They write:

“Most decisions involve tradeoffs and therefore, our chances of achieving a goal are greater when we give it more importance. Thus, for example, a person who consciously (re)arranges various aspects of his life (e.g., diet, work habits) so as to get a good night’s sleep will sleep better than one who does not. By the same token, it stands to reason that individuals who accord higher (vs. lower) priority to the goal of being happy might make more happiness-enhancing choices, thereby becoming happier.”

For their first two experiments, the researchers sent daily email reminders to people at work that made the goal of happiness “salient.” One group was asked how happy they were that day, and a second group was asked what they did to make themselves happier that day. In the first experiment the control group received no email and in the second the control group received an email asking if they sent goals for themselves that day.

In both experiments, the group of employees who received the email suggesting “happiness goal-directed behavior” was the only group that reported an uptick in personal happiness. There was no change for the other groups, which suggests that people who set goals to make themselves happier actually do feel happier as a result, whereas if they merely focus on happiness in a general sense or on setting general workplace or personal goals, their happiness level doesn’t change.

In the third experiment, participants were again separated into three groups, one group focusing on happiness in general, one control group, and one group asked what activities they engaged in to increase their happiness. Similar to the other experiments the participants engaging in happiness goal-directed behavior were the only ones to report an increase in happiness. They authors continue:

“The most common behavioral changes explicitly reported by participants (as coded by a research assistant) were: (1) focusing more on the positive events in their life (38% of participants); (2) making an effort to have more positive interactions with others (16%); (3, tie) engaging in productive activities (9%); and (3, tie), worrying less/relaxing more (9%).”

The article suggests that when individuals reflect on the changes they have made in their lives to become happier, they can change how happy they really feel.

Happiness at Work

The researchers believe their work suggests that reflecting on your actions to achieve a specific goal can push you to achieve it, whether that’s personal happiness or something else. If you’re looking to change something about your situation at work, it may be helpful to make a list at the end of each day, describing what you did specifically to achieve that change.

Reflecting each day on what you did to achieve a goal can help you feel powerful and self-directed – and it can also help you identify patterns of behavior that aren’t working. If happiness at work is your goal, reflecting on what you did specifically to be happier can be a satisfying reminder of the personal power you have. “Thus, although merely focusing on enhancing one’s mood might be ineffectual for enhancing happiness… our findings suggest that focusing on whether one’s behavior is consistent with happiness-maximization can trigger behavioral action that, in turn, improves happiness,” the researchers emphasize.

Can managers use this research to encourage better well-being and engagement in the office? Perhaps. It would be an interesting experiment to ask direct reports to focus daily on what they did to be happier, and note the results.

1 Response

  1. In Italian, “Motivazione” is composed by Motiv + Azione (Action). An action not done is just an intention. To have energy, motivation, we need to realize an action. Same for the happiness, this article gives a good insight between desired goal and concrete action.