Mahatma Gandi once said that the best way to find ourselves is to lose ourselves in the service to others. Yet a fascinating study shows that just how we help – and what we think about the effectiveness of that help – significantly influences how we feel about it.
Using a qualitative diary study with 276 sales employees Sandra Kiffin-Petersen, and Geoffrey Soutar from University of Western Australia and Steven Murphy from Carlton University, Canada explored how employees rated a variety of customer service interactions – a total of 874 positive events over a five day period. Among the interactions studied problem-solving events, recognition for service events, pleasant customer events, and deal making or goal achievement events. The question the researchers were asking was: Just which type of interactions led to greatest increases in happiness?
While pleasant customer events did offer minor boosts in happiness, it was when employees helped customers to solve problems that their happiness levels showed the largest – and most lasting increases. And this effect was even greater when the interaction had started off negatively – such as a customer complaining or presenting a problem (Kiffin-Peterson, et, al., 2012).
Kiffin-Peterson and her colleagues explain that our thoughts about how we rate our interactions with others (appraisal) help determine the emotions we feel – what they call the Affective Events Theory (AET). In this theory, it is the interpretation of the event, rather than the event itself that creates the emotions we feel. And one significant part of that, the researchers note, is how personally responsible we feel for the event, and the outcome it produces. Moreover, our emotions our contagious – such that increasing someone’s happiness levels tends to act in a positive feedback loop, where we become happy in seeing the happiness we have generated within them (Kiffin-Peterson, et. al., 2012).
Kiffin-Peterson explains, “The customer interaction may need to be recast in the context of a dynamic interplay between salespersons and customers, where the affective state of each may influence the other,” (Kiffin-Peterson, 2012).
The amount of control we feel we have, and our feelings of personal responsibility – what we might also call effective problem solving – has become so important in our levels of happiness, that Kiffin-Peterson and her team now propose a new model that incorporates the control-value theory of achievement into their existing AET framework (Kiffin-Peterson, et. al., 2012).
Helping others does make us feel better, but when we use our unique skills and abilities to help others solve specific problems, the result is something very similar to one of Martin Seligman’s five components of flourishing – that is, using our unique strengths toward something greater that ourselves.
And as much as how we help, who we help seems uniquely linked to our levels of happiness.
Conducing three separate studies on charitable giving and pro-social spending Lara Aknin of Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, and colleagues at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver and Harvard Business School, Massachusetts, USA, looked to explore just when giving offers the largest boosts in happiness.
What they found is something that most of us have likely experienced: giving to someone we know feels much better than giving to someone we don’t. More specifically, it is the social connection that matters, and giving to a charity through a friend leads to greater gains in happiness than simply making an anonymous donation to a worthy cause (Aknin, et. al, 2013).
As the research team concludes, their findings put the social in the pro-social benefits of giving. Good deeds become good feelings when they foster social connections, allow us to see the result of our efforts, and even better, use our unique strengths to help others solve problems — and the best part is that the positive emotions that result from these sorts of interactions are contagious.