Marketing professor Jennifer Aaker stands before a blackboard-size mural her Stanford Graduate School of Business students had created. It is a patchwork of 1,300 snapshots of everyday moments: mangoes, pink Converse sneakers, cupcakes, beer pong, clean laundry, a convertible, and Halloween. With its bright yellow border, the mural is titled "This Makes Me Happy." Aaker points to a photo of a latte, its brown and white foam swirled into the shape of a flower. The froth, she tells me, was her happy moment of that day.
Offering a happiness class to future masters of the universe at one of the country's leading business schools does sound a bit touchy-feely. Yet, last fall, 80 of these type-A students signed up for Aaker's graduate-level course called "Designing Happiness" — with another 100 clamoring to get in.
But Aaker's work is gaining attention not just in academia but also in corporate America: She has worked with AOL, Adobe, and Facebook, among other companies, helping them figure out how to use happiness to increase employees' productivity and woo customers. If her hypotheses are correct, marketing happiness could be one of the few ways businesses can still appeal to people in a manner that feels authentic. "The idea of brands enabling happiness and providing greater meaning in the world is powerful," Aaker says. "People have an aversion to anything that feels overly manufactured."
Aaker, who studied psychology alongside marketing, has spent the past several years researching her subject: how people find happiness, keep it, manipulate it, and use it as a resource. Her research defines happiness as "a state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy." In 2006, when Aaker was focusing her area of study, happiness seemed, in many ways, an easier goal to attain. People felt more economically secure. The annual unemployment rate was 4.6%. The government urged Americans to buy homes, and access to credit was easy. Now, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, national morale is low; marketers see the appeal of promising happiness along with their products.
Aaker's students and the executives she speaks to are often surprised by the depth and subtlety behind such fuzzy feelings. Aaker asked her students to develop their own plans for incorporating happiness into a fictional company. She also had them use a custom-built smartphone app to take at least one photo of a happy moment every day for 30 days, and then rate each moment on a scale of 1 to 10 to quantify their feelings. Soon, the class saw patterns.
They learned that the anticipation of a pleasurable experience feels as good as finishing an onerous task (like a marathon or an exam). They discovered that a meaningful experience (acquiring a new skill, volunteering, or spending time with family) often makes people happier than moments of pure pleasure. And they learned that happiness shifts with age. Younger people feel happiest when they are excited, while older people equate happiness with peacefulness.
Recognizing these nuances is key for corporations, which are increasingly trying to appeal to people's emotions at a time when consumer spending remains fickle and frugal.
Now, consumers want something different from simply buying a product, using it, and throwing it out. Marketing happiness expands the idea of what it means to buy something. If companies can use nostalgia or other "safe emotions" to create a feeling of happiness, so be it, says John Kenny of the ad agency DraftFCB. In this way, happiness is another commodity deployed to sell something. "The stakes are a lot higher now with social media," Kenny says. "You want people to have an important experience they can talk about on Twitter or Facebook."
The applications of Aaker's research can be startlingly diverse. Aaker lectured at Adobe about the link between happiness and meaningful moments. The company has started to incorporate these ideas into a project called Adobe Youth Voices, which gives teenagers in poor communities Adobe software and encourages them to tell their stories. (The whole thing feels like the teen, global, and company-sponsored version of public radio's StoryCorps.)
The project financially benefits Adobe by introducing its software to a coveted demographic, while still being philanthropic. "That's becoming an increasingly important factor in how individuals view brands. You can't just do it to be part of the crowd," says Ann Lewnes, Adobe's senior vice president of global marketing.
Coke has also tried to create a link between happiness and its brand. Aaker teaches the case study of Coke's "happiness machine," a vending machine the company installed in the cafeteria at St. John's University during exams. Rather than dispense cans of soda, the happiness machine surprised students by spitting out a box of pizza or a bouquet of flowers. Secret cameras recorded the students' reactions, and when Coke released the videos online, they went viral, scoring more than 2 million views.
Marketers want consumers to share that happy moment and feel as if the product is part of their lives and community. "If you look at what is most influential right now, it's a recommendation from a friend or family," says Kate Sayre, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group.
Aaker herself is quick to recommend happiness tips to her students, past and present, and her close group of friends. Yet, even as she measures and commodifies joy for businesses, she has learned not to spend too much time chasing her own happiness. A day highlighted by a professional triumph can still be marred by the realization that she, well, left her wallet in her car. But that's okay, says Aaker: "The knowledge that happiness shifts doesn't allow you to put a great premium on it."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.