To give someone a boost, ask them about a specific aspect of their life where they are doing well and follow it up with a generic question about their overall happiness. It sounds simplistic, but it works wonders, according to Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman.
Photo by mark sebastian.
In a study, Kahneman asked students two questions:
How many dates did you have last month?
How happy are you these days?
Those who were happy about their answer to the first question also reported a happy answer to the second, the study found. The first question needn't be that one specifically, of course. You can ask any question that you think the answer will be something that puts the person in a positive mood.
If the order of the questions is reversed, it doesn't work. Kahneman theorises that this is because "happiness" is not an easy or quick assessment, and so the state of mind from the previous question is carried over into answering the second.
The emotion aroused by the dating question was still on everyone's mind when the query about general happiness came up… "Happiness these days" is not a natural or an easy assessment. A good answer requires a fair amount of thinking. However, the students who had just been asked about their dating did not need to think hard because they already had in their mind an answer to a related question: how happy they were with their love life.
The same pattern is found if a question about the students' relations with their parents or about their finances immediately precedes the question about general happiness. In both cases, satisfaction in the particular domain dominates happiness reports. Any emotionally significant question that alters a person's mood will have the same effect.
Eric Barker, who recounts this study, also notes in The Week that the two-question technique could be successfully employed to make people like you. If someone is feeling good about themselves because of what you asked them, they will transfer those feelings towards you.
How to make someone feel fantastic (or awful) about their entire life [Barking up the wrong tree via The Week]