It’s a clear, sunny day in Eugene, Oregon, and assistant professor of marketing Troy Campbell has found a sunny spot in Lillis. He is feeling good—and is the middle studying what makes other people feel happy.
But its more complicated than just sunshine, Campbell explains.
“Crafting happiness is a difficult thing. It has a lot to with our beliefs, desires, our rituals, political identities, and goals. Like good poetry, good experiences often seem simple, but they actually are quite complex and elusive.”
Campbell’s interest in studying happiness is fundamentally about understanding how business and psychology mix and how the happiness and enjoyment people experience impacts consumer behavior, marketing, and social movements.
His research at Duke University, coupled with his accessible delivery style, caught the attention of national media as well the University of Oregon, where he accepted a tenure-track position at the Lundquist College of Business this past fall. He said he chose the University of Oregon for a number of reasons, including the UO’s emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and of course, research opportunities, including being able to work alongside T. Bettina Cornwell, who he describes as “amazing.”
One might consider Campbell’s resume amazing as well. He has appeared in Politico, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Wired, and Scientific American, among others. His previous work as a nonprofit marketer, events planner, and Disney Imagineer gave him insight into the creation of happy and joyful experiences. He counts another accomplished researcher studying the space where business, psychology, and economics mix—Dan Ariely, author of The New York Times bestseller Predictably Irrational and others—as a mentor and friend.
As a PhD student in 2014, his investigation into what he terms “solution aversion” earned more website views than any other on the Duke news website and continues to gain national traction. His coauthor Aaron Kay, an associate professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, puts the concept bluntly: “The more threatening a solution is to a person, the more likely that person is to deny the problem.”
In March 2016, Campbell won the Frank Prize for the “best social change communication” for his research on solution aversion. Along with a $10,000 cash prize, Campbell presented at a well-received TED Talk-style event in front of a crowd of social change luminaries. That same month, Campbell was named to Pacific Standard magazine’s Top 30 Thinkers Under 30. (Campbell is 29.) At Frank, Campbell used a personal example to explain his interest in the phenomenon of solution aversion. As a young teen, a doctor diagnosed him with hypoglycemia. He would have to be very diligent about what he eats and drinks for the rest of his life or severe health issues, including seizures or even death, could result. Starbucks Frappuccino in hand as he recalls the story, Campbell’s first instinct was to deny. He didn’t want to give up the drink not just because it tasted good, but for what it represented. Starbucks was a major element of his teenage identity.
For the young Campbell, the solution was unpleasant and, therefore he denied the problem. Luckily, his doctor didn’t dwell on the complications and explained that if Campbell maintained a consistent, protein-rich diet, he could enjoy the occasional Frappuccino. The solution became doable, and the diagnosis more real.
“I’m really interested in why people deny problems,” Campbell said. “In other words, what is their Frappuccino?
In other research projects, Campbell has delved into trying to discover better ways to get people enjoy poetry (make them feel more artistically confident), enjoy comedy more (by pairing them with better personal joke recommenders), and enjoy a healthy snack (by pairing it with just a “tiny bit of sin” in a small piece of chocolate).
Up next for Campbell’s research is helping people feel personal agency in situations.
“You are in a situation, and you can make it good or bad,” he said, using the example of a long subway commute. It can be miserable if one focuses on the waiting. But perhaps what you do in response to that situation can make it more likeable.”
“You are the master of your own enjoyment. A little bit of pilot data has encouraged us to pursue further,” he said.
In the end, Campell’s goal is to illuminate how happiness may be found in places we don’t always realize.
“Very few people will read hours and hours of lecture-style prose about a complex social issue,” Campbell offered by way of explanation, “But they will watch a comedian talk about the same thing and deeply enjoy it.”
“Ultimately,” he added, “people like to be happy. They like to feel good about themselves. More research on this will make people happier and make the world better.”