While it seems as though everyone from Coca-Cola to Nesquik is trying to sell you happiness, it turns out that the emotion is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research finds that happiness means different things to different people, depending on whether they're focused on the future or the present. As a result, marketers that are trying to sell products based on the claim that it will make their customers happy must take a different approach depending on who their customers are.
The study's authors found that people experience happiness in two main ways -- through excitement and through calmness. Consumers who associate happiness with excitement tend to be younger and more focused on the future, the study shows. As they get older, they increasingly associate happiness with calmness and being present in the moment.
The research revealed that consumers who were focused on the future chose "exciting" products when they were offered tea, music or bottled water, while the present-focused participants tended to choose calming brands and products.
The study additionally found that people can be primed to enter either a future- or present-related focus with words, or through meditation.
Since two people who say "I feel happy" can be feeling very distinct things, the study advises marketers who are looking to connect with consumers by promising happiness to consider that happiness doesn't mean the same thing to everyone.
"Whereas one's face might twinkle with excitement, the other's face could exude calm contentment," the study's authors wrote. "These two experiences play out in the choices each individual will make."
The research, conducted by Cassie Mogilner of the University of Pennsylvania, Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University and Sepandar Kamvar of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was based on studies including blog-based data, surveys and laboratory experiments.
Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who spent 10 years working as a newspaper reporter before working in public relations. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cbrooks76.