The Good Samaritan, Master of the Good Samaritan, circa 1530–1550, Centraal Museum Utrecht (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #163

How Prosocial Goals Promote Employee Happiness

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Key Concept

The pursuit of ‘happiness’ is perhaps one of the most important goals in a person’s life, and prosocial activities have proved to be a successful way to achieve it. But as the list of potential prosocial acts is endless, how can you narrow down which are the most effective? According to this Idea, activities framed in concrete rather than abstract terms make the crucial difference between happiness and unhappiness. 

Idea Summary

‘Employee happiness’ has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. The evidence is there to show that it is directly-related to business performance; your happy employees are almost certainly going to be more productive than the unhappy ones. Similarly, there has been a lot of research highlighting the factors that can lead to happiness. One type of activity that has received  considerable attention is ‘prosocial behaviour’ which, it seems, not only benefits the recipient but the giver as well; for example, a number of researchers have shown that those who engage in volunteer work have been associated with greater happiness and fewer symptoms of depression. But can some prosocial pursuits better increase personal happiness than others, and if so, which ones?

Through a series of six field and laboratory experiments, researchers from Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School set-out to examine this question, and looked at whether participants given a concretely-framed goal (such as “making someone smile”) felt happier after performing this act of kindness than those assigned a more abstractly-framed goal (such as “making someone happy”). They found that acts performed in pursuit of functionally similar, but more concretely-framed prosocial goals are the most effective at making the ‘doer’ happy.

It seems that differences between aspirations and reality are the critical factor in whether the act of helping someone becomes a source of happiness or unhappiness. In other words, when givers take on a large or abstract goal, the resulting perceived failure to accomplish the goal can lead to frustration and disappointment (i.e. unhappiness). This research suggests that simply re-framing prosocial goals in more concrete terms can lead to more satisfaction, and thus a more sustainable pattern of prosocial behaviour.

Business Application

Prosocial behaviour, or voluntary behaviour intended to benefit other people or society as a whole, can help the ‘doer’ achieve happiness, particularly when framed in a concrete way.

Employees — and indeed people in general — perform better when happy. So it is in the interest of leaders to help their team be happy. The ways to do so are many; a 2012 article by Forbes highlighted organizations offering free haircuts to comprehensive career advancement programs. This Idea says that encouraging employees’ prosocial behaviour is a very good way.

Previous work by Rudd, Aaker and Norton in 2008 found that giving other people even as little as $5 can lead to increased well-being for the giver. In other words, money can buy happiness, so long as you spend the money on someone else! Understanding this, leaders could support the happiness of their employees by encouraging them to make charitable donations to, for example, a particular charity that their organization may have chosen to support.

Finally, these findings could have implications on other areas of business too, such as marketing; advertisements that stress consumer goals framed in more concrete terms (such as Coca-Cola’s “Have a Coke and a Smile”) may prove better at accurately setting consumers’ initial expectations than more abstract terms. Consequently consumers view the outcome of their experience of the advertised product more positively.

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Idea conceived

  • January 2013

Idea posted

  • July 2013

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