Designing Happiness

Diagram of design elementsHow do you design for happiness?

A first step in tackling this question is to understand what happiness means.  But herein lies the problem.  Our understanding of what happiness is (and how to get it) is often misaligned with what really drives happiness.   Indeed, research by Dan Gilbert and his colleagues show that we tend to go looking for happiness in a lot of the wrong places. If you disagree, you can check out the lead story on Entertainment Tonight on any given day.  What people think will make them happy is not in fact what actually makes them happy.

Money, a successful career, a house with a white picket fence in the best neighborhood in town: these are things we consider the hallmarks of happiness. They are also the things we think will allow us to achieve happiness if only we could just acquire them.  Studies show however that beyond a certain threshold, how much you make is relatively unrelated to your level of happiness.  Becoming a multimillionare and having all the picket fences, fur sinks and electric dog polishers (thanks, Steve Martin) that money can buy isn’t going to bring you the contentment you think it will. If you do become as materially wealthy as you dream, you are likely to confront the reality that those feelings of happiness you’ve been chasing aren’t any closer as a result of what’s going on in your bank account.

So we learn yet again that money can’t buy happiness.

What does correlate with happiness? Meaning. For example, research shows you’ll feel more fulfilled if you donate a couple of hours each week to a cause that is meaningful to you than if you donate a large chunk of your wages to a charity you know little about.  Further, donating your time instead of your money is associated with greater feelings of connection to the organization you’re helping.  This in turn boosts otherwise elusive feelings of balance and purpose that so many of us seek.

Consider the simple question: where are you spending your time?  It may sound counterintuitive, but research shows that answering this question might lead you to more clarity what is personally meaningful.  And harnessed with that insight, you may be better able to design for happiness.

These insights are playing out in organizations (e.g., Zappos), websites and blogs (e.g., We Feel Fine), and how marketing campaigns are designed (e.g., Coke).  In The Dragonfly Effect, we discuss which companies have done a particularly good job of harnessing principles of happiness and applying them to their businesses.  We observe how people use social technology to make changes in the world, but what we’re really talking about is something more fundamental and human.  The Dragonfly Effect is about creating a single focused goal, based on meaning and happiness, and designing a campaign that allows the goal to spread. It’s about the people you know and the people they know coming together and helping one another and in turn, helping ourselves. Infectious action. And with the social web, it’s often not about donating those dollars: it can also be about donating yourself – your time, your connections, your commitment, and your talent – to spread passion and awareness and affect the outcomes of the things you believe in.  Just as so many seemingly pointless YouTube videos go viral, so too can a campaign for change.

Think Human
Focus on the person you are trying to help. Don’t rush in with a solution to a problem, test alternatives and be prepared to return to square one several times. Also, focus on the person you need help from (AKA your audience). What are their goals and dreams? How can you help them achieve them? Who are you to them? Where are your leverage points in terms of causing them to act? Match your appeal to the medium (e.g. short bursts for Twitter, logical discourse for blogs, emotional envelopment on YouTube)
– From The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, Powerful Ways to use Social Media to Drive Social Change. Site: The Dragonfly Effect – Design Principles

Interested in more insight on how to design organizations, websites and even movements based on principles of happiness and emotional contagion? Check out the research stream associated with The Dragonfly Effect, or the research on time, money, and happiness (e.g., Sanford DeVoeJeff PfefferCassie Mogilner HolmesWendy Liu).

  • Often in healthcare we see the same over-focus on metrics like BP numbers and diabetic A1C results instead of find ways for patients/consumers to use their social networks to be healthy. I am a passionate ehealth consumer advocate (volunteer) that dedicates most of my time to finding ways to ensure that the voice of the consumer is included in the design of massive health IT systems because I saw the power of how a social network saved my own Mom’s life when she got breast cancer a few years ago

  • Well, you cannot buy true happiness that’s for sure. Being a happy and contented one doesn’t mean you have all the resources to buy anything you want in life. True happiness is innate with us if we just know how to be happy and make ourselves productive by doing good to other fellows. If you know how to make others happy then it’s obvious that you know as well how to be happy.

    Cassie Lopez
    Car Donation
    Wheels For Wishes

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