“Making” Someone Happy
Photo by Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

“Making” Someone Happy

Why someone else's happiness is a worthy desire, but a terrible target.

This is the third article in a short series on how to know the right kind of help to give someone, by thinking about what it means for them to flourish. *If you're enjoying these, have an idea, or need to set me straight, I would love to hear from you with a comment at the bottom this article or via email.*

Most people eventually learn that you can’t make someone like you. If someone decides to hate you or even just mildly dislike you, it’s their choice to make. Of course, there are things that you can do that make it easier for a person to like you: be respectful, be a good listener, be competent, be funny, and so on. But even if you do all of these things, whether or not a person likes you is ultimately outside of your control. You’re destined for bad choices if you try to make it happen anyway.

The same goes for trying to make people happy. Here, I mostly mean the feeling of happiness, the dominant way we think and talk about it. If we think the point of helping is to increase happiness in others, then we’re still on unsteady ground. That’s because another person’s happiness—in the myriad ways people desire it, think about it, experience it, and predict it—is messy and ultimately outside of our control.

We all want happiness, and naturally want it for others and not just ourselves. The economist/philosopher Adam Smith famously wrote:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.

Wanting to be happy is something everyone wants, and wanting others to be happy is what a helpful person wants. There’s nothing wrong with this desire. The problem is when we make someone’s happiness the target of our helping actions.

Happiness is mostly an emotion. Being an emotion means that it has at least three attributes that invites the kind of narrow helping behavior I described in a previous newsletter in this series. We’re at the whims of these three difficulties: experience, variety, and subjectivity.

1. Happiness is an experience.

As an experience, the feeling of happiness is fundamentally intermittent. We never experience happiness at sustained levels consistently over time. If someone’s happiness is the goal of helping, then you’re at the mercy of these very natural swings they experience. Any dip from a state of happiness might prompt you to jump in, typically with quick fixes. New parents often fall into this trap with their child, always wanting to placate their offspring in any moment of dissatisfaction. (Better to find the humor in your kid’s fickle, crazy demands.)

The experience of happiness is also hard to replicate, no two moments being exactly the same. Part of this is explained by something called hedonic adaptation. We get accustomed to the things that bring us happiness, so their power to make us happy diminishes. Your favorite song loses its magic the more you hear it, after all. If making someone consistently happy is your goal, you’ll need far more ways to help than are even realistic.

2. Happiness is varied.

The feeling of happiness also isn’t a switch that’s turned on or off. Happiness comes in degrees (where we feel more or less of it) and in a variety of forms (where we feel it in different ways). Because it isn’t a binary state—on or off—“making” someone happy doesn’t really compute because the threshold of happiness can be ill-defined. Just how happy do they need to be for you to meet your goal? 30%, 75%, 100%, or some other amount?

This exact issue applies if you just want to make them happier. Is 50% enough? 20%? 1%? It’s not a bad thing to try and make someone else’s day just a bit happier, and the ways to do that are often quick and easy. But those are often not the same things that make a person’s life sustainably happier. When I recently offered a student some chocolate to lift his spirits, I know for certain that it didn’t finish his finals for him. Don’t get me wrong, respite is a good thing, but not a standalone solution.

And the variety of happy experiences also matters. In any moment of happiness, you might be excited, loving, satisfied, grateful, or serene. Each of these comes from a wide range of predictable and unpredictable circumstances. If you want to make a person “happy,” exactly what kind of happy did you have in mind?

3. Happiness is subjective.

Perhaps the most vexing thing about happiness is how much it differs from one person to the next. We can only experience happiness in our own way. Of course, there are things that all people need for happiness (more on these in a coming newsletter). But no two people have the same internal formula for what makes them happy.

This is why the dominant psychological measure of happiness is called Subjective Well-Being (SWB). This measure contains more than just emotional happiness, but baked into SWB is the recognition that not all happiness is created equal. As Ed Deiner, SWB’s chief contributor, puts it:

The key is that the person himself/herself is making the evaluation of life - not experts, philosophers, or others. Thus, the person herself or himself is the expert here: Is my life going well, according to the standards that I choose to use?

The best way we bridge this subjectivity gap is through empathy, but that only gets us so far. Even the person closest to you probably intensely enjoys something that you despise. My wife somehow enjoys black licorice in a way that defies all reason to me, for example. I can buy her some black licorice, but I don’t really have any way of knowing how much she’ll enjoy it compared to anything else I might get her, all because I can’t stand the stuff.

The other troubling thing we learn from SWB measures is that there are dispositional differences in happiness. Some people are just naturally happier than others; their internal happiness engine runs stronger. Some of this comes from their habits (gratitude, optimism, and prosociality being the most potent ones), but some of our natural state of happiness is just baked in. If you want to make someone happier, you might be working with a person whose baseline is simply lower.

A Worthy Desire, but a Terrible Target

Fundamentally, it’s hard to control our own emotions, let alone someone else’s. And because happiness is inextricable from what someone is feeling in the moment, making someone happy is a frustratingly difficult goal. Just like we have to be okay with moments when people don’t like us, we have to be okay with moments of unhappiness in the people we care about. There might be very good reasons for a person to not like you. Just so for someone’s moment of unhappiness.

Perhaps the best way to summarize is to say that another person’s happiness is a worthy desire but a terrible target. We have a much better chance of helping by targeting the kind of help that we can measure, that we can reliably count on to improve someone’s life.

So in the next article we’ll turn our attention to another common approach: opportunity. What if we just make sure that everyone is simply planted in good soil?


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Written by

Aaron Miller

Aaron Miller

Provo, UT