Happiness or Meaning: A Library Experience Can Deliver Both

We want happiness. We want meaning in our lives. They need not be mutually exclusive. What they have in common is a life of giving more and taking less. Being a library user is one way to pursue both.

Achieving happiness and meaning are two different things.

Different, but not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is possible to have an experience that results in happiness but also contributes to a life of meaning.

Finding and borrowing a book from the library could certainly qualify. For those who enjoy reading, finding a good book at the library could certainly deliver some happiness. Depending on the book, it could have a mind opening, life altering impact that contributes to an individual’s search for meaning.

It helps to have a better understanding of what we mean when talking about both happiness and meaning. What contributes to each? What have researchers learning about happiness? How would we know if a community member has a meaningful interaction with the library?

In this article I shared insights into what researchers have learned about happiness. While material objects and money can deliver some happiness, those things tend to have only a limited impact.

It’s really the small things that count. Helping others. Enjoying a walk. Memorable experiences count too. Do these experiences also deliver meaning, or is there more to it than just satisfying the search for happiness?

The answer is…it depends.

According to Emily Esfahani Smith, author of the new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, finding meaning trumps experiencing happiness. On further inspection, the two have some commonality between them.

Esfahani identifies four pillars of meaning:

* sense of belonging – being in a relationship or a member of a community
* purpose – having a mission and pursuing it
* storytelling – your story; who you are; where you are from; where you are headed
* transcendence – resilence; having the ability to overcome adversity

You start to get the idea that the difference between the two is about direction and effort. Happiness is about something happening to us versus meaning being about making something happening for others. Esfahani states that “the big distinctions between a meaningful life and a happy life is that a meaningful life can be a hard life. When you’re giving back, you’re making sacrifices.”

In that sense, the library is a place that can serve to facilitate both happiness and meaning. If we are seeking some happiness, we can get it at the library. Finding a good book and enjoying reading are the type of small, everyday pleasures that bring happiness. I don’t think that Esfahani thinks there is anything inherently wrong with seeking happiness. She just wants us to transcend happiness as we pursue meaning.

And the library is a place where it can happen. It’s a place you can belong to and be a part of your community. It’s a place where you find and pursue a mission. It’s a place where you can discover your story. It’s a place where you transcend the ordinary and the meaningless.

Happiness or meaning? Why choose when you can find both at the library.

Designing For a Happiness Experience

We make a few assumptions about what it means to have a good user experience. It should be memorable (or at least enable us to have what we think is a good memory). It should be unique and inspire loyalty. We’d also like our best experiences to leave us with a feeling of delight – that something special has happened. Call it happiness.

In an prior article I contemplated whether libraries could provide a happiness experience. Examining the happiness research and results of Pew Research on how libraries contribute to overall positive feelings among community members, I concluded that it’s likely that library users are more productive, engaged and fulfilled members of their communities. Given that the happiness research points to life’s more mundane, everyday experiences as our most satisfying ones, that also suggests the library can be a contributor to the happiness of its users.

In the non-library world of design there is less conversation about designing for happiness. To gain some perspective on what it means to design for happiness several corporate designers came together at the 2016 SXSW to explain how their organizations design for happiness – and what the involves. The organizer of the event Designing Happiness, Mark Wilson (a contributor for Fast Company), wrote about the program and the speakers who shared their approach to designing for happiness.

Here are a few of the insights the panelists shared:

* These experts all believe their brands are based on designing for happiness as a starting point – not an afterthought.
* Design the happiness experience around three parts: anticipation; experience; memory
* Create a “high” moment and an “end” moment into the experience – that’s what is most likely to be remembered
* Offer a portal into the experience as a transition from other routine experiences (a “crossover”)
* Avoid bureaucracy at all costs; empower staff to intervene as needed to deliver the happiness
* We are cognitively pre-disposed to appreciate and remember surprises; design in good surprises and make sure bad ones don’t happen
* People are happiest in environments designed for their needs
* Put effort into the optimal way to leave people with a “kiss goodnight”; a happy ending turns a mediocre experience into a memorable one
* Let people hug a puppy – no one can cuddle a puppy and feel anything other than happiness (great idea but seriously impractical)

I do think that our libraries can replicate the type of experience that delivers happiness. Granted, it’s not the same as the experience at a vacation resort or upscale gym. It could depend on the library experience. A research librarian could design a consultation experience around anticipation, experience and memory. Start with an email exchange that builds up the anticipation. Use personalization to provide a research-challenged student with a unique experience. Make sure there is a strong ending to the interaction that may lead to a relationship and future consultations. Offer a surprise – what’s all that library swag for anyway.

Libraries will never be Disneyland, but perhaps we can be the one place in the community that delivers the happiness experience on multiple levels by altering someone’s perception about the library as a dull, painful experience. With some design thinking, we can make that happen. Puppies would certainly help – but we’ll have to manage with therapy dog days.

I Still Want People To Brag About Their Great Library Experience

What is happiness? You might say it’s the absence of sorrow or problems, or freedom from suffering. It might be just feeling good about life and the world around you – or whatever just happened to put that smile on your face. Maybe you can ask your smartphone’s intelligent agent for an answer. What I’ve noticed is a growing body of research that seeks to understand what happiness is, what conditions contribute to it, how age influences what makes us happy and much more. More significantly for this blog, some of that research explores happiness within the context of user experience.

What sort of experiences contribute to happiness the most? Does buying a new flat-screen television make us happy? How about a trip to an exotic location? Or maybe it’s just having a quiet breakfast and reading the newspaper? For our library community members it might be getting the answer to their question or a renewed confidence in their ability to complete a challenging research project.

It’s only natural that when people have a truly great experience they want to share it with their friends or social network. So they tell people about that great vacation or they tweet about their new car’s super-comfortable driver’s seat or maybe even that tasty soup they had for lunch. New research suggests that as much as we want to tell other people about our great experiences, our family, friends and colleagues may actually dislike hearing about it. Our personal happiness, when shared, may make others less happy – even if they “Like” it on Facebook or respond positively to your status update.

It may all be in the way we share the stories about our best experiences and with whom we share it. According to the research, people are much more likely to prefer hearing about a more mundane or common experience than an extraordinary experience that few others will ever experience.

That got me wondering about a great library experience. We librarians would always wish for our library-using community members to tell their friends and family – especially the ones who don’t use the library – about their (hopefully great) library experience. Word of mouth marketing can’t be beat – right. How do other people react to those library stories? If librarians better understood the impact of people sharing their library stories would it change anything about the way we approach the delivery of the library experience?

I think these findings could bode well for librarians who pay attention to design and delivering a satisfying experience – the type that results in people being happy to have access to library community services. In the research study participants watched either high or low rated films. The researchers believed that those who saw the high rated films would have the better experience – which they did. What surprised the researchers is that afterwards the majority of the people preferred to commiserate about viewing the low rated films rather than discuss the much better film.

The takeaway for the researchers was that a great individual experience tends to be non-social. Others are not interested in discussing that high-fidelity experience, for example, your two-week luxury trip to Hawaii. In a social situation, people will prefer to hear about or discuss a more routine experience, one that they can relate to and would by no means judge or interpret as bragging.

Either scenario works to the advantage of a great library experience. If the experience is well designed to create a sense of happiness in individuals that works well on the non-social level. As a community member, just having had a great experience at your library, leaves through the front door, he or she can feel a sense of happiness about their trip to the library. If this individual then decides to tell others about their library experience in a social setting, there is minimal likelihood that others will feel uncomfortable talking about it.

Hearing about someone’s experience at the library is hardly the same as that person talking about cruising around in their Lamborghini or sharing the details of a meal at an expensive restaurant. Everyone can relate to being at a library, even if they are non-users. “The pleasure of a social encounter is built on commonality. People are more likely to enjoy talking about an ordinary experience they have all had rather than hearing about the fabulous one they didn’t.”

For librarians, delivering a great experience – one that makes people happy – is, to my way of thinking, a no-lose proposition when it comes to people talking about their life experiences. The challenge for librarians is getting community members into the library so that they can have that great experience. That assumes we have done our work in advance to design and deliver an experience worth having. If those conditions are fulfilled then the odds are strong that libraries will receive the type of word-of-mouth marketing that makes a difference in a community.

Age As a Factor In Experiencing The Library

Academic librarians mostly encounter community members in the 18-22 bracket, but we serve older individuals as well be they faculty members, alumni, second-career learners and members of the public.

We encounter no where near as many senior citizens as public libraries though. The elderly are often treated as a special user segment in the public library sector, and librarians develop programming geared to their needs. It makes sense to segment some service delivery by age in public libraries given the need to serve the full age spectrum of community members from infant to child to teen to adult to senior. Each segment needs and responds to different resources and service programming – and has different experience expectations. Age segmentation is less common in academic libraries, say, as opposed to segmenting by discipline or academic status, but then the segmentation of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty provides a somewhat natural division by age. There are exceptions, such as adult learners completing undergraduate degrees.

When contemplating the design of the best possible library experience for the full spectrum of the library community, it’s likely we treat our distinct user segments as one. We want all of them to have a good experience. If the methods we employ to design and deliver that experience are successful the likelihood is that it is equally distributed across the age spectrum. But there may be good reasons to think about how age impacts the way people have experiences. There is new evidence to suggest that as people age their attitudes about the experiences they have, and what makes then good or bad, tend to change.

Researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania wanted to learn more about extraordinary and ordinary experiences and how we define them. They studied 221 people between the ages of 18 and 79, asking them to recall both types of experiences and how it contributed to their happiness.

An ordinary experience might be going to the library and finding an interesting new book, while an extraordinary experience would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Hawaii. The researchers had other individuals rate the reported experiences as ordinary or extraordinary. One of the discoveries was that a participant’s age affected their perception of how an experiential event contributes to personal happiness. Older individuals reported that ordinary events contributed as much to their happiness as extraordinary events did for the younger participants. As the authors of the research report discovered:

“Ordinary moments that make up everyday life tend to be overlooked when the future seems boundless; however, these ordinary experiences increasingly contribute to happiness as people come to realize their days are numbered.”

As library experience designers, we may have overlooked the possibility that a great library experience may be defined or appreciated differently by members of different age groups. I have previously shared my observation that library workers, because the typical library user’s expectations are set so low (e.g., using the library = pain, confusion, anxiety, etc., excepting perhaps children) compared to expectations set for other services, are able to exceed them by giving community members the basic help they desired but for which they were to terrified to ask. For community members who rarely use the library, receiving assistance from a dedicated, experience-driven library worker can be a WoW experience.

It can certainly help to understand what goes into a excellent experience, as a way of knowing that each encounter should meet a certain standard of performance. My big takeaway from the impact of age on experience research is that it should serve as a reminder, that when it comes to experience, each person – or in this case each age cohort – receives an experience differently – and that the younger the library community member the more challenging it might be to exceed their experience expectations.

More On Meaning And Creative Showering

No, this isn’t a post about how you get meaning from your creative showering. I want to just follow up on two different posts with some new thoughts and links for you.

My most recent post shared some insights from the retreat I attended along with my colleagues in our public services units. In that post I talked about a conversation I had with my co-worker about meaning, and how an article I later came across shared research that indicated that people derive more meaning and happiness from experiences than they do from material objects. Then I came across this NYT article on virtually the same topic discussing similar research that documents that individuals derive more happiness from experiences than material objects:

Current research suggests that, unlike consumption of material goods, spending on leisure and services typically strengthens social bonds, which in turn helps amplify happiness. (Academics are already in broad agreement that there is a strong correlation between the quality of people’s relationships and their happiness; hence, anything that promotes stronger social bonds has a good chance of making us feel all warm and fuzzy.)

So with all the research pointing to the connection between meaning and happiness/satisfaction, that further reinforces that we can offer our user community members something of value whenever we deliver a great library experience.

Further back I wrote about the importance of capturing your good ideas – even when they come in the shower (and yes, there’s a special notebook for that). I mentioned that some research did show there is something to be said for showers as a creative place. For some reason, many individuals will indicate they came up with a good idea in the shower. Over at the Heart of Innovation blog, you’ll find a list of 20 reasons why people get their best ideas in the shower. Some make a lot of sense, and others are questionable – but intriguing – like showering with a partner and turning the shower into a brainstorming session. But I think it still comes down to reason number 20: Showering is easy. Not a lot of thinking is required to make it happen, which frees your mind to think about other things.