Maximizing Happy
Skip to content
The Insightful Leader Live: What to Know about Today’s AI—and Tomorrow’s | Register Now
Strategy Social Impact Jun 3, 2013

Maximizing Happy

What happens when we put effort toward intangible goals like happiness?

Based on the research of

Kelly Goldsmith

David Gal

Raj Raghunathan

Lauren Cheatham

Listening: Interview with Kelly Goldsmith on Maximizing Happiness
0:00 Skip back button Play Skip forward button 10:54

We do not expect to hit life milestones—getting a promotion, raising a child, running a marathon—without a fair bit of gumption and at least a tentative game plan. But we often fail to put the same amount of effort or planning into less tangible goals—even important ones, like being happier. Why is this?

Philosophers and academics alike have long held that the realistic, concrete steps that lead to achievement in other areas of life simply do not work for happiness. “What we predict will make us happy doesn’t always make us happy,” explains Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management. And the very things that everyone agrees might bring us happiness—good health, for instance—are often hard for us to control. Yet, argues Goldsmith, happiness is not an entirely futile pursuit; there are life changes we can make to demonstrably improve our happiness.

A Fortuitous Disagreement
The line of research arose, surprisingly enough, from a friendly disagreement between Goldsmith and her father, a successful executive coach and a believer in the quantified life—“the idea that if you monitor your progress toward your goals, you’re more likely to achieve them,” says Goldsmith. Her father had become convinced that regularly asking and answering the question “How happy was I today?” had made him happier.

But Goldsmith was skeptical. When we ask ourselves how happy we were today, there is a risk we will wonder, well, how happy should I have been? And, as Goldsmith puts it, “the disparity between how happy you think you should be and how happy you actually were makes you sad.” Past research has borne this out: “In the psychology literature there is [plenty] of evidence suggesting that happiness monitoring actually has deleterious consequences for your happiness.” However, Goldsmith did suspect that rewording the question so that it focused on one’s own role in being happy—rather than forces outside one’s control—might mitigate some of the negative consequences.

So Goldsmith and her father embarked upon an extensive pilot study to see which of them was correct. Hundreds of participants from Fortune 500 companies were emailed one of three daily questions: 1) a happiness monitoring question, “How happy were you today?”; 2) a variant that focused on behavior, “Did you do your best to be happy today?”; or 3) a control question that did not mention happiness at all.

The father–daughter duo found none of the deleterious consequences reported by other researchers: participants who simply monitored their own happiness actually reported feeling modestly happier several weeks later. But it was the variant that focused on personal behavior that “really hit it out of the park,” says Goldsmith. “So I was right, but my dad was also kind of right, and the literature seemed kind of wrong.”

From Family Feud to Controlled Experiment
Would the happiness gains caused by behavior monitoring hold up under more rigorous examination? And why hadn’t Goldsmith and her father observed any negative consequences of happiness monitoring? It was time, Goldsmith decided, to bring the research into the lab. She teamed up with David Gal, also an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, Raj Raghunathan, a professor at the University of Texas, and Lauren Cheatham, a graduate student at Stanford University.

The researchers decided to replicate the pilot study in a better-controlled environment. Again, daily questions went out to participants over email. And once again, participants who had monitored their happiness for a few weeks reported very modest happiness gains compared to participants who had not. But as before the biggest boost in happiness—a boost the researchers have since found in several other studies—came from receiving the daily question about doing one’s best to be happy.

So why does receiving a daily question about happiness make us happier? For one, it reminds us that we want to be happy. “We’re bringing happiness up in terms of salience, making it more top of mind for people,” says Goldsmith. “Throughout our day we make trade-offs. Do I go to the gym or do I go to the movies with my fiancé? Because I’ve got a goal of being a good partner, but I also have a goal of working out.” And when goals conflict, “the goals that are the most salient are usually the ones that we make our trade-offs in favor of.”

This salience—particularly when the focus is on what we are doing to become happier—leads to changes in behavior. In another, similar study, the researchers determined that 38% of participants who made behavior changes focused more on positive events in their life, 16% made an effort to have positive interactions with others, 9% engaged in productive activities, and 9% simply worried less. Interestingly, nobody reported buying things to make themselves happier.

As for the lack of negative consequences of happiness monitoring, the researchers suspect that the longer duration of their studies is to thank. Previous research had only looked at the effects of monitoring over very short periods of time—sometimes as short as the length of a song. But five minutes is simply not enough time to make the kind of behavior changes that lead to gains in happiness.

Small Changes, Big Implications
Importantly, it is not just happiness that can be boosted by a daily prompt. Other behavior-focused questions like, “Did you do your best to have positive interactions with others?”, “Did you do your best to set goals today?” or “Did you do your best to make progress toward your goals?” can also be effective. This should interest firms wanting to increase employee productivity and engagement. Instead of asking an employee once every six months how engaged she is with her firm, the researchers recommend, a manager might send a daily prompt like, “Did you do your best to be engaged with the firm today?”

So how can we add this daily introspection to our lives? A Post-it note on the computer is one option, as is a peer coaching system where friends (or strangers) commit to call or email each other with a daily question. Goldsmith, Gal, and their colleagues are also collaborating with a website called, which emails interested parties a daily question of their choosing. Responses are recorded so that users can hold themselves accountable.

But, such a plan is not for the faint of heart. We have to be able to handle the fact that most days we do not do our best to be happy, says Goldsmith. This makes daily introspection humbling—not unlike stepping on a scale. It should also go without saying that a daily reminder to prioritize happiness is not going to be sufficient to steer someone away from the brink of depression. Still Goldsmith wholeheartedly recommends the practice. “We all want to be happier,” she says, “and if there’s something so simple we can do every day to improve our happiness, it’s a big deal.”

Featured Faculty

Member of the Department of Marketing faculty until 2017

Member of the Marketing Department faculty until 2014

About the Writer
Jessica Love is the staff science writer and editor for Kellogg Insight.
About the Research

Goldsmith, Kelly, David Gal, Raj Raghunathan, and Lauren Cheatham. 2013. “Happiness in the World: Focusing on Maximizing Happiness Makes People Happy.” Working Paper.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. What Went Wrong at Silicon Valley Bank?
    And how can it be avoided next time? A new analysis sheds light on vulnerabilities within the U.S. banking industry.
    People visit a bank
  2. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  3. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  4. Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?
    Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
    doctors offices in small nodules
  5. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  6. Podcast: "It's Hard to Regulate U.S. Banks!"
    Silicon Valley Bank spectacularly collapsed—and a new analysis suggests that its precarious situation is not as much of an outlier as we’d hope. On this episode of The Insightful Leader, we learn what went wrong and what should happen next.
  7. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  8. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  9. Marketers, Don’t Be Too Hasty to Act on Data
    Don’t like the trends you’re seeing? It’s tempting to take immediate action. Instead, consider a hypothesis-driven approach to solving your problems.
    CEO stands before large data wall
  10. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  11. Understanding the Pandemic’s Lasting Impact on Real Estate
    Work-from-home has stuck around. What does this mean for residential and commercial real-estate markets?
    realtor showing converted office building to family
  12. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  13. How Peer Pressure Can Lead Teens to Underachieve—Even in Schools Where It’s “Cool to Be Smart”
    New research offers lessons for administrators hoping to improve student performance.
    Eager student raises hand while other student hesitates.
  14. How Much Do Campaign Ads Matter?
    Tone is key, according to new research, which found that a change in TV ad strategy could have altered the results of the 2000 presidential election.
    Political advertisements on television next to polling place
  15. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  16. Leaders, Don’t Be Afraid to Admit Your Flaws
    We prefer to work for people who can make themselves vulnerable, a new study finds. But there are limits.
    person removes mask to show less happy face
  17. For Students with Disabilities, Discrimination Starts Before They Even Enter School
    Public-school principals are less welcoming to prospective families with disabled children—particularly when they’re Black.
    child in wheelchair facing padlocked school doors
  18. Executive Presence Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All. Here’s How to Develop Yours.
    A professor and executive coach unpacks this seemingly elusive trait.
    woman standing confidently
  19. How Self-Reflection Can Make You a Better Leader
    Setting aside 15 minutes a day can help you prioritize, prepare, and build a stronger team
    Self-reflection improves leadership over time
More in Strategy