Interview – Stanford Professor Jennifer Aaker on how to increase happiness and meaning in life:



Is a little bit of awe what you need to be a better person? 

Is your calendar the secret to happiness? 

What makes for a meaningful life? 

These are some of the things I talked about with my friend Jennifer. She’s a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and has published fascinating papers on happiness, meaning, money and how we spend our time. Her book is The Dragonfly Effect.

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The big big power of feeling very very small


You did some research on awe and how it affects us. Can you talk a little about that?


Absolutely. The awe and time work is done with Melanie Rudd and Kathleen Vohs, and is based off of Melanie’s dissertation. One reason we started to examine awe is that it is an understudied emotion – particularly relative to happiness.  A second reason is that it has unique consequences.  When you feel awe, you are experiencing a positive emotion that feels vast and big, and as a result is capable of altering one’s view of the world.  Our studies focus on the effects of awe on how people may alter their sense of time – that is, the way they perceive and use time.  We show that when people feel awe, they feel like they have more available time on their hands.  And as a result, they are more willing to volunteer to help others, and spend time on others. They also tend to make very different product choices, preferring experiential products over material products. They even experience a boost in life satisfaction.

 (Note: Want to try this yourself? Here’s the commercial and the slideshow they used to provoke awe in test subjects. How do you feel after you watch them?)


Want to be happier? Track time, track your happiness and plan ahead.


You did another study on how to spend time in order to increase happiness. Can you talk a little bit about that?


Sure.  A lot of research has examined the relationship between money and happiness (see an excellent new book by Liz Dunn and Mike Norton called Happy Money), but there is less work on the relationship between happiness and time.  Yet time is one of the most important resources we have, and there are many reasons to think that a deeper examination of how we spend time might move us closer to the elusive goal of improving happiness.  One reason is because time, relative to money, tends to be laden with personal meaning. Another reason is that time fosters interpersonal connection (see Cassie Mogilner’s 2011 paper in Psychological Science).  Since both personal meaning and social connection are critical to happiness, it makes sense that how individuals spend their time may shed light on the happiness puzzle.   As a result, Cassie Mogilner, Melanie Rudd, and I ask the question – can we rethink how we’re using time?  The main premise of that Journal of Consumer Psychology paper is to suggest that, if we rethink how we spend time, and be more intentional on how we spend time (with whom and on what activities) – that may impact the happiness we feel.  

More recently, I am also exploring whether we can maximize time, expand time, and design time more proactively (rather than passively).  For example, if people are asked to monitor how they are actually spending their time, and then later rate themselves on a variety of measures including how happy they feel, the results show that people who spend more time on projects that energize them and with people who energize them tend to be happier.  However, what is interesting is that there is often a gap between where people say they want to spend their time and how they actually spend their time.  For example, if you ask people to list the projects that energize (vs. deplete) them, and what people energize (vs. deplete them), and then monitor how they actually spend their time, you find a large percentage know what projects and people energize them, but do not in fact spend much time on those projects and with those people. 

Taking an inventory about where you’re spending your time is revealing.   And then once you identify the activities and people with whom you want to spend more time, calendaring your time thoughtfully becomes critical.  When you put something on a calendar, you’re more likely to actually do that activity – partly because you’re less likely to have to make an active decision whether you should do it – because it’s already on your calendar. For example, if working out is important to you but you find yourself skipping your workout far too often, calendar time for the workout in the same way you might calendar business meetings.  When you make these dates with yourself, you don’t have to actively ask yourself, should I go work out?  If it is on your calendar, your behavior is more automatic and consequently you are more likely to spend time on activities that you know are good for you.


Stories and Social Media can change (and save) lives.


Can you talk about your book, Dragonfly Effect?


Absolutely. This was a personal project, inspired by a story that my student Robert Chatwani shared a few years ago.  His best friend, Sameer Bhatia, was diagnosed with leukemia and there was no match in the bone marrow registry for him.  Robert, friends, and family launched a campaign that harnessed social media to get 20,000 South Asians into the registry.  And they surpassed their goal; getting 24,611 South Asians into the registry in 11 short weeks.  It was this story – how they accomplished this goal– that inspired The Dragonfly Effect.  The reality is that there are almost 10,000 people every year who are in need of a bone marrow match.  So the book allowed us to grow Robert’s story, and also provide a roadmap for anyone in this position.  The Dragonfly book was about this idea of the power of a story to move people. The use of social networks was just a mechanism by which you could see that any individual with a single focused goal and a story that’s powerful to them and that might resonate with others might be able to do something quite remarkable which is to move others and achieve that single focused goal.

Another reason why The Dragonfly Effect was important to me personally was because we were able to integrate in the new work on happiness and meaningfulness.   As you summarized when writing about our On Happiness vs. Meaningfulness paper (with Roy, Kathleen and Emily), meaningfulness is associated with being more of a giver than a taker, and the desire to have a positive impact on the world.   Those basic motivations are at the core of the Dragonfly Effect model.  And in fact writing the book was deeply meaningful.    I think all of us have had that urge to do something that matters and hopefully help others in impactful ways.  Every now and then, we get lucky enough to be able to do that.   So for Andy, Carlye and I – that motivation was a big reason why we wrote The Dragonfly Effect.


Stories are the secret to meaning in life.


What’s the most common thing people are doing wrong in terms of their lives being happier or more meaningful? What mistakes are most people making on a day-to-day basis?


I’m convinced the questions of (a) what is really meaningful and (b) how you spend your time are useful filters by which you can make better decisions.  However, the question, ‘What is meaningful to me?’ is a difficult one to answer. How do you begin to get your head around that question? Some new studies suggest if we spend time thinking about stories in our lives, that might be a more effective way of figuring out what is meaningful versus not.  For example, if you ask people simple questions like,  ‘Tell me one story in your day’ or ‘Tell me the top 10 stories that define your life,’ you can get individuals thinking more about what is meaningful to them.    One hypothesis is that when you do that, you’ll make choices and decisions in a way that might be not just wiser but also potentially also more interesting, distinctive and impactful.


Here’s what to do next.


What’s one thing people can do that’s simple and accessible that can make them happier or their lives more meaningful?


One useful exercise is doing an audit on how you are spending your time.  To what degree is how your time being spent aligned with how you want to spend your time?  Interestingly, often small shifts in how you spend your time have a bigger impact on your ultimate happiness than you might imagine.

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