Seeking Happiness

The highlight of day 2 of the the conference that I’m attending at Stanford University doesn’t seem to fit with the theme, Medicine 2.0. The most interesting speaker is a professor of marketing at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. A social psychologist as well as a marketer, Jennifer Aaker is a Ph.D., not an M.D. She researchers time, money, and happiness, not medicine.

Jennifer Aaker

But Professor Aaker captured the most attention of the audience. I know because I watched the Twitter feed.

We are a wired, high-tech, social media-savvy bunch. Medicine 2.0 is an annual conference on using social media in medicine focusing on cutting edge technology. All of the 450 of us here at Stanford today followed along all the talks on Twitter and tweeted constantly.

In Professor Aaker’s talk, which was today’s keynote address, she told us about her study of what really drives happiness. What a basic question! You might think that even health care professionals could figure out the answer.

In fact, the answer is counter-intuitive. And she found it the way that scientists learn anything. She did a controlled study dividing the group in half.

She told half of her subjects to seek happiness. The other half she told to seek meaningfulness. At the conclusion of the study, who were the happy ones?

Not those who made the pursuit of happiness their goal. The happy ones were overwhelmingly those who sought to be meaningful to others. Even much later the same difference remained.

Since I wanted more detail, I asked Professor Aaker. This evening, just as I was writing this report, she replied:

“Sadly, that paper is not yet published,” she wrote me. But she directed me to two of her recent studies that are related and “show that we can choose the happiness we want to feel.” You can find these studies online at “The Shifting Meaning of Happiness” and “How Happiness Impacts Choice.”

Three tweets summarized Professor Aaker’s message best:

“Striving for meaning in your life makes you happier than striving to be happy, being connected, giving back, and feeling you have value.”

“Feeling connected to the world matters most.”

“Meaningfulness = happiness. Meaningfulness is what I as an e-patient an trying to achieve. Helping others makes my disease meaningful.”

Happiness does fit into medicine. I don’t doubt that happiness = health or at least makes healthy living easier. And we find it best when we give.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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  • Rosalie Dancause at

    I can’t access the two Aaker articles you cited above as being available online. I just get “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage” Not being a geek (too old and too busy to learn) I wonder if you can suggest why.