Happiness, Inc.
March 18, 2006
Jeffrey Zaslow / The Wall Street Journal


Companies spend billions of dollars every year on surveys and focus groups in the quest to figure out what makes consumers tick. Now there's a new weapon in the arsenal: the emerging field of scientific research into what makes people happy. The conclusions are being applied to everything from deciding the right color for washing machines to putting a price on spray paint.

After decades spent focusing on the psyche's dark side, university scientists are churning out findings on what causes joyful emotions. The research is probing the pleasure quotient of buying a pet or shopping at a bookstore -- in some cases, literally putting a price on happiness.

One example of the impact of this research is the unlikely pairing of the work of a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and David's Bridal, the nation's biggest bridal-store chain. Studies by the psychologist, Martin Seligman, have found that resilient people are happier.

Perhaps no one needs resilience more than a salesperson on commission trying to sell wedding dresses to anxious brides-to-be. So David's, a 267-store chain owned by Federated Department Stores, looked to the research to keep staffers cheery -- and improve sales. To improve resilience when faced with an indecisive bride, salespeople were taught techniques such as focusing on things that bring them joy.

Sales improved in four stores where Dr. Seligman's methods were used in a pilot program. David's says it is considering online training that would bring the strategies to the rest of the company's 3,000 employees.

The interest in happiness research is fueling a budding industry of consultancies set up to leverage the academic studies. The result is a sort of happiness-industrial complex, a new convergence of science and capitalism.

Part of this is an attempt to bring more science into traditional product-design and marketing research. Instead of just listening to what people say in focus groups, for example, the research -- through such techniques as monitoring facial expressions or even measuring brainwaves -- claims to be able to assess what people are actually feeling.

Not everyone is convinced of the approach. "It's overkill," says Dan Wiese, who heads Dan Wiese Marketing Research in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He will be running focus groups next month looking at a prototype of a device that neutralizes bathroom odors. It's unnecessary to analyze whether people smile when holding this new product, he says. "More than their happiness, I'm concerned with whether people say they see a perceived value. I don't expect anyone to be grinning over this thing."

One happiness researcher attracting attention is Stanford's Brian Knutson. He is a professor of psychology and neuroscience who uses brain-image technology to measure satisfaction. Some of his research is designed to track how money affects the brain. In one study, he had subjects play a videogame that involved, at certain points, the anticipation of winning money, and, at other points, actually taking possession of that money. He measured the difference in oxygen flow in the brain between those two activities.

His conclusion: gearing up to do something can make you happier than actually doing it. "Anticipation is totally underestimated," says Prof. Knutson, whose work is funded in part by the National Institute on Aging and the MacArthur Foundation. "Why do slot machines have arms? You could just have a button -- but the arm heightens the anticipation."

Some marketers say such results will also reinforce a trend already well underway in advertising: selling the experience rather than the product. A running-shoe ad that focuses more on the pleasure of running, for example, can build a viewer's anticipation in a way that talking about the makeup of the shoe itself can't.

Spurred in part by concern that science was disproportionately focused on negative emotions, a calvacade of new happiness research has emerged, especially in the last five years. Published papers have titles like "Using the Past to Enhance the Present: Boosting Happiness Through Positive Reminiscence" and "Cultural Constructions of Happiness: Theory and Empirical Evidence."

Advances in medical technology are giving researchers the tools to look more deeply into the living brain. The ability to track the biology behind your reaction to a product or image has now progressed to the point where a researcher may know how you feel even before you do.

Sensory Logic, a company in St. Paul, Minn., studies videotape of people's facial reactions -- to products and commercials -- in increments as fleeting as 1/30th of a second. In measuring happiness or fulfillment, the company's staffers look for the difference between, say, a true smile (which includes a relaxation of the upper eyelid) and a social smile (which occurs only around the mouth). The company also measures the "micro-smile," which uses less than half the face and indicates "just a slight glimmering of buy-in," says Dan Hill, the company's president.

Whirlpool used Sensory Logic to test consumers' emotional reactions to a yet-to-be-launched generation of its Duet washers and dryers, the company's premier line, which retail for about $2,328 a pair. The goal: Design a product that "looks so cool and is such a joy to interact with, that you want your neighbors to come over and see it," says Charles Jones, Whirlpool's vice president of global consumer design. In other words, they wanted appliances that would actually make people happy.

Sensory Logic showed subjects various cutting-edge designs of the Duet products. In some cases, subjects expressed concerns. "They'd say, 'I don't know if I'm comfortable with this,'" says Mr. Jones. "But their facial expressions were saying, 'This is pretty cool!'" They were happier than they were letting on, he says, which Whirlpool took as a sign that the innovations were eliciting deeper emotional reactions.

The research led Whirlpool to change certain design options on the Duet products, including geometric patterns and certain color combinations. "It saved us from going down a number of blind alleys," says Mr. Jones.

Sherwin-Williams used Sensory Logic to help assess a new spray paint in development. People were asked to try the paint and then talk about their experiences. Some said they liked the new spray paint, "but their facial expressions said they had no interest whatsoever," says Mark Ksiezyk, senior product manager for Krylon, a division of Sherwin-Williams. On the other hand, one subject said he was very happy when using the product, and asked, "Where has this been all my life?" His "true smile," using muscles around the eyes, gave indications that he meant it.

"The results you get through facial testing are much more accurate than focus groups," Mr. Ksiezyk says. "In focus groups, people say what they think you want to hear, or there's a leader and everyone nods and agrees."

Other companies are turning to happiness research to help reshape their employees. One player in this area is Adaptiv Learning Systems in King of Prussia, Pa., which applies the research of Dr. Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania professor. Adaptiv conducts training programs for everyone from sales staffers to board room executives. The common thread: resilient people are happier and more effective.

In the case of David's Bridal, Adaptiv offered tips to help salespeople shake off their own unhappiness -- through "emotion regulation," "impulse control" and "learned optimism" -- while focusing on the bride. Salespeople were given coping techniques that salespeople could try when dealing with an indecisive bride, such as making a mental list of their five key strengths.

"One difficulty we have is that we deal with the paradox of great joy and great stress," says Lynn Garner, David's vice president of training. "Our salespeople get the brunt of these unusually high emotions." David's hoped that by studying Dr. Seligman's research, salespeople would develop "the skills to help brides be calm and centered," says Ms. Garner.

One area of research that could have broad ramifications is work being done to put a price on happiness. David Blanchflower, a Dartmouth College economics professor, is a leader in this. He analyzed survey data covering tens of thousands of people in 35 nations, and cross-referenced the results with various economic data such as workers' wages and people's standards of living. He then sought to put a dollar figure on the value of a healthy, stable relationship.

One study that he co-authored found that if you're single or in a miserable marriage, you'd need to earn $100,000 more each year to be as happy as a happily married person. His research also showed that if you have sex just once a month, you'd need to earn $50,000 more a year to be as happy as someone having sex once a week with a monogamous partner.

A potential use of this is calculating damages in divorce proceedings. Plaintiffs could make the case that they should be compensated for "a loss of happiness" due to, say, a straying spouse. Pharmaceutical companies, meanwhile, have talked to Dr. Blanchflower about using such data in marketing. His continued research, he says, could be used to market erectile dysfunction drugs, or drugs that combat depression.

Just as car makers advertise how much your gas mileage goes up if you buy their car -- and give you the actual data to back that claim -- drug makers could advertise how your happiness mileage would go up if you popped their pill. "People are treated for mental disorders, they go back to work and they earn wages again," Dr. Blanchflower says. "We can see how their earnings go up. But how do they feel about themselves and the world? That has a value."

(source: The Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2006, Vol. XX, pp. P1)