In The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Achor argues that happiness fuels success and effectiveness, not the other way around. “When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient and productive.”
How can we harness this in better understanding users, user experience, and designing wonderful things? Is the goal not to improve people’s quality of life? Is the primary objective not, ultimately, to contribute to or generate happiness? I think it is.
And if you agree, you may also agree that understanding the power of happiness and working to figure out how to direct it is to help people help themselves.
#1: First of all: folks are better off happy
I’d like to believe that we agree on this already. (If you’re already lost on this point alone, it may be a good opportunity to circle back to the basics. If, however, you can easily agree with me on this statement, then we are off to an awesome start.) People are, without a doubt, better off happy. And when we work with people, part of our job is to maintain that happiness, if not bolster it outright. Their happiness, in short, means our work is worthwhile.
But how do we define happiness? Scientists define “happiness” much differently – or perhaps just more clearly – than the everyday person, simplifying things by articulating happiness as “the experience of positive emotions – pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose.” It encompasses both a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future, but it also covers joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and, yes, love.
Seems straight-forward enough, I guess, until you take into consideration that happiness is “relative to the person experiencing it.” (Scientists often call this “subjective well-being” – because it is based on our own assessment of our own lives. Some researchers even prefer terms like “positive emotions” or “positivity” to “happiness” because, you know, nobody takes “happiness” serious.)
Anyway, if all these studies agree on one thing, it is that happiness comes first. It yields all the other things we are looking for (success, longevity, etc.) rather than the other way around. One way that they studied this was asking 180 Catholic nuns to journal their thoughts at the end of each day. More than 50 years later, those with the happiest entries lived, on average, ten years longer than those whose entries were negative. (You may be wondering, as I was: why Catholic nuns? My best guess is that nuns had the most neutral (read: “boring”) entries. And as we all know, researchers are all masochistic like that.)
So? Make your users happy. Make your users happy. Make your users happy. This should be one of your top priorities if not the most important objective, and your work should be focused and centered on this goal: make you users happy. Think of it as an extension of the adage “the customer is always right;” take that and add to it, “the customer has a right to be delighted.”
#2: Altering the Environment Can Amplify Efforts
Achor describes a “fulcrum and lever” phenomenon, with the “fulcrum” representing our perception of reality and the “lever” representing our efforts. When our perception of reality is altered, so too is our perceived effectiveness, and when “the universe” moves in a favorable direction, our efforts suddenly become easier, or more influential, while the opposite, uh, yields the opposite.
“The mental construction of our daily activities,” Achor emphasizes, “defines our reality.”
One study involved hotel cleaning crews of seven different properties, half of whom were told how much exercise they were getting from their daily work-related tasks, the total calorie burn of a shift, how vacuuming compares to cardio workouts, etc. After several weeks, “those who had been primed to think of their work as exercise had actually lost weight… These individuals had not done any more work, nor had they exercised any more than the control group. The only difference was in how their brains conceived of the work they were doing.”
If your user is not happy, try positioning things differently. If they seem overwhelmed by a task at hand, explain to them that it is well within their capacity. Emphasize your vote of confidence which, of course, you do have.
#3: People Love Patterns
Our mind is groomed to absorb and recognize patterns, and it is easily trained to do so. Achor calls this the “Tetris Effect,” named after the game, which – as many know – is insanely addictive. People who play it for several hours in a row say that they often begin to see patterns in everything – they will visually lift sky scrapers from their foundations and fit them into the white space between two others. They can scan brick walls and visualize the rhythm of the overall pattern. The frantic search for patterns becomes ingrained. Our brains love this.
This can work to our advantage or disadvantage. Some of the happiest people train their brains to search for positive things, while the negative people have trained their brains to see only the negative. (This is illustrated in the classic “glass of water,” which optimists see as “half full,” while pessimists see as “half empty.”) This is, by the way, why law is largely considered one of the “unhappiest” professions – lawyers are groomed to scan only for fault; their mind always geared to critique.
Want your users to feel good about your product? Prime them for positivity. Use words and instructions that have “glass half full” connotations, and invite them to look for and lean on the things they love rather than scan for the things that bother them.
#4: What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger
And this is especially true in happiness.
Sure, ignorance is bliss, and people who never experience hardship are just as capable of being happy. But there is a particular kind of happiness that comes to those who struggle, fail, and recover. Much of our ability in bouncing back is due to the fact that unsavory events are almost never as bad as we fear they will be, going in. We recover from events – even the most tragic, such as loss of employment, death of a loved one, or the end of a serious relationship – far more quickly than we often assume. “Adversities,” Achor points out, “simply don’t hit us as hard as we think they will.”
“Just knowing this quirk of human psychology – that our fear of consequences is always worse than the consequences themselves – can help us move toward a more optimistic interpretation of the downs we will inevitably face.”
You can give your users a challenge and let them overcome it. For less confident users, you can also make it so outright intuitive that they have no choice but to come out of it feeling like they have a better handle on things than they originally estimated. Design part of your product so that it yields a degree of pride in using it; let them become better people having done so.
#5: Control Yields Security
Effectiveness starts with focus, and “feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our own fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance.” How we experience our world is largely influenced by our mindset and our perceived control over our own domain.
“Interestingly, psychologists have found that these kinds of gains in productivity, happiness and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have.”
Assign small, easily accomplished tasks. In user testing, avoid letting users feel overwhelmed. Introduce concepts bit by bit, especially in situations involving a lot of first-time implementation. Once users have a handle on one concept, use the momentum to move forward, once they are completed.
#6: Habits Have Power
We are “mere bundles of habits.” And we also take the easiest possible route.
By separating a desirable activity from a less desirable one by a mere twenty seconds, making the more desirable one immediately accessible and the less constructive one inconvenient, we can effectively alter our actions, decisions, and thought processes for the long run.
Make the things you want your users to do those actions that are most evident and easily accessible. If you want users to know that you have a reliable customer service line, provide the number – in huge font – on your front page. If you want users to visit your page every day, give them value that inspires that.
#7: All You Need is Love
We can do most anything if we only hold onto each others. A support system is perhaps the most valuable part of our lives, and countless studies have shown that the more we trust that we have people – or even one person – to fall back on, the happier we are, and the more confident we feel in pursuing things outside of our (aforementioned) comfort zone.
In short, we get by with a little help from our friends.
Want to build a beautiful solution? Love your users. Inspire them to love you back. Listen to them; empathize with their needs. Encourage commiseration and sharing of stories across a group; let them ask questions – or even complain – among themselves. This builds rapport, and the feedback you may receive out of this situation – which can be invested into a better product for them – is invaluable.