The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Happiness matters

One of the most enjoyable sessions at Impact 2015 came from Kelly McNight, who describes why happiness can help us learn more about human motivation.

As we emerge from a period of recession, raised expectations coupled with years of discounting mean that brands need to work harder than ever to demonstrate their relevance and value to consumers.

Set against this backdrop, we think it’s the perfect time for the research industry to take a step back and evaluate just how we think about consumers, so that we can better help brands meet the challenges that they face. And we believe that ‘Happiness Theory’ offers a better understanding of human motivation than the outdated models that we often default to.

A new understanding of motivation

The marketing industry has long understood the importance of getting beyond transactional and rational relationships. Brands today are looking to be more meaningful, to create relevance to help make consumers’ lives better and in doing so, to connect emotionally with their customers. So how can we as researchers help them achieve this deeper connection? We think the answer lies in a new understanding of human motivation — known as ‘Happiness Theory’.

From ancient times, philosophers such as Aristotle and Epicurus have argued that people seek to attain a happy and tranquil life without pain — that is, to maximise their happiness. When the discipline of psychology first evolved it initially adopted similar thinking.

John Watson proposed the behaviourist model of human motivation, setting out that we tend to repeat pleasurable behaviours and avoid those that cause pain. Several decades later, thinking had moved on and Maslow proposed the Hierarchy of Needs, where he suggested people work their way up through a series of needs — from Physiological to Self-Actualisation.

Dawn of Happiness Theory

Roll on another half century and psychological theories have changed again. This time they have been influenced by a new branch of thinking called Positive Psychology, as pioneered by Martin Seligman. This has spawned a theory of human motivation called colloquially ‘Happiness Theory’ which proposes that the way we choose our life-course is to maximise our feelings of happiness and well-being.

Happiness has since been the subject of countless psychology studies. The thinking has attracted the attention of governments around the globe, and especially that of the UK where happiness is a core national statistic.

Happiness is multifaceted and is actually better thought of as well-being. There have been many attempts to list the key factors that work together to create well-being, from Seligman’s ‘PERMA’ to the UK government’s ‘Five Actions’ framework. They’re all very similar and we’ve summarised these in our own list of happiness drivers, which are as follows:

  • Karma: The need for positive emotions
  • Focus: The need for engagement
  • Success: The need for achievement
  • Relationships: The need for positive relationships
  • World: The need for meaning and purpose.

Happiness Theory provides a useful framework for moderators looking to gain a deeper understanding of what truly motivates consumers, getting beyond the obvious to their underlying needs. On a practical note, these five drivers of well-being can be used to develop more effective discussion guides. By covering all five of them you can ensure that you don’t miss things that might be important to respondents, but which had not been considered by your client. This approach effectively has the ability to add real value when it comes to delivering deeper insights.

The benefits for brands

While ‘Happiness Theory’ makes sense at a societal or individual level, we’ve been working with academics at Manchester University to see whether happiness matters at a brand and consumer level. Our research shows there is a link between happiness and brand loyalty, and that happiness does indeed matter — brands that make people happy are those consumers expect to buy more of in future.

Why do we consume news?

You might argue that certain brands don’t make people happy — like the news for example, which can often be full of negative stories. But while the news itself might be negative, we need to think about the underlying motivations to consuming news in the first place — and whether these needs are being met.

The desire to be connected to the world around us (World Driver), to be knowledgeable and informed (Success Driver) is a key reason for consuming news, even though on the face of it, the link to happiness may not be obvious. We need to think beyond the superficial and really get under the skin of what motivates people’s behaviour and decisions — and happiness provides the answer.

At a practical level happiness can help drive new habitual behaviours; feeling happy while you’re experiencing a brand sends signals to the brain that this is an experience worth repeating, leading to repeat purchases and quicker habit formation. Happiness can better engage people with brands as we’re hard wired to repeat pleasurable experiences and interactions. Happiness also helps with memory and recall — we’re more likely to remember things that give us pleasure.

The things that make people happy change over time, as the world we live in changes and hedonic adaptation comes into play, so consumer happiness will never be fixed. This creates exciting opportunities for brands to spot trends and leverage emerging happiness needs. What brand wouldn’t want to play a part in making their customers happy?

The benefits for researchers

As researchers, we need to remember that consumers are humans just like us. Empathising with their needs, motivations and desired outcomes from their interactions with brands — ultimately, their need for happiness — can open the door to help us do this better. And once the door is opened, we can get a much deeper understanding of what’s really driving behaviour, so we can help our clients make their consumers happy, and make our clients happy too. It’s a win for everyone.


Kelly McKnight
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2015