Business Psychology

Article No. 381
Customer Psychology, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Selling Happiness

New research reveals a missed opportunity.

"You made a good choice. I'm sure you'll be happy with your purchase."

How many times have you said those words while wrapping up a sale in your business? Happiness, as an outcome of purchasing our products and services, strikes at the heart of why we're in business in the first place. The alternatives are unhappiness and indifference, and those are not good for business.

We think through the needs our products and services deliver and how they deliver happiness. We consider buying motives - the reasons people have for buying from us.

Buying motives reflect physical needs we all share in our pursuit of a full and satisfying life: food because we're hungry, shelter for protection, clothing for warmth, and transportation to get to work. Buying motives also reflect psychological needs that make us more comfortable and satisfy our desires: food for pleasure, shelter to display wealth and gain standing, clothing to create and express personal identity and to attract romantic partners, and transportation for convenience, to gain status, for self-identity, and for pleasure and recreation.

Have we overlooked something? Maria Saaksjarvi from Delft University of Technology thinks we have.

Professor Saaksjarvi is interested in happiness and noticed that the things we buy for happiness often turn out to make us unhappy. They don't last. The Mac-mansion we bought when kids filled the house becomes a burden when they've all left the nest, and we find the only times we're going into many rooms is just to clean them. The sports car that used to be so much fun to drive rides so low to the ground that it's difficult to get into and out of. Most days it sits unused, taking up space in the garage. Saaksjarvi thinks this reveals a weakness in our assessments of the buying motives of our customers. In her most recent work, she reexamines our thinking on the topic.

We have divided buying motives into two groups, physical and psychological. What if we divided them into self-focused and other-focused? Looking again at the list above, it's easy to see that they mostly fall into the self-focused category.

Saaksjarvi recognized the importance of a sense of belonging to a group, and she thinks one key to long-term happiness lies in addressing this need and providing ways to strengthen people in their efforts to fulfill it, especially products and services that draw us to others and strengthen social bonds. She devised an experiment that allowed her to compare the contribution of specific other-focused and self-focused happiness activities. One hundred young adults spent six weeks working with her. They were instructed to try the activities to increase the happiness they felt in their lives. Saaksjarvi found that both self-focused and other-focused activities improved feelings of happiness, but other-focused activities had a stronger and more long-lasting impact.

We've got work to do. Go back to your products and services and the self-focused buying motives that have anchored your marketing efforts, and think of other-focused, belonging-enhancing buying motives. These other-focused buying motives can join the self-focused buying motives you already use and give you a fuller, richer set of reasons to purchase your products and services. Beer and pizza businesses already do this by picturing their products being used in social settings. The buying motive is the feeling of belonging in these attractive groups of people.

We are social animals. We're comfortable working and living and playing in groups. We get lonely. We want a sense of belonging - of being a valued member of a group. How can your products and services help? Answer this question and you'll have a new set of good reasons to buy your products and services and a new way to help people be happy with their purchases. It is, after all, why we're in business.

Reference: Saaksjarvi, Maria, Katarina Hellen, and Pieter Desmet (2017) The "You and I" of Happiness: Investigating the Long-Term Impact of Self- and Other-Focused Happiness-Enhancing Activities. Psychology and Marketing, 34(6), 623-630.

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Keywords: happiness, buying motives, belonging
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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