The Context of Happiness
Ph.D. Candidate in Marketing ’13
By Liz Warren-Pederson
Wilson Bastos came to the U.S. from his native Brazil at age 18. He had intended to stay for a six-month immersive English-language experience, but six months turned into his undergraduate education at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he studied international business.
After graduation, he moved to Alabama to work for a wood-import company as logistics manager, but a year later he returned to San Antonio to complete his MBA. After he earned his MBA, he joined Black & Decker/DeWALT (now Stanley Black & Decker) in Los Angeles. “It was very valuable in that I could apply what I’d learned in the MBA and get real-world experience,” he said. “In my last year at Black & Decker, I was marketing manager for the state of Louisiana, overseeing the company’s business in 23 Home Depotstores and managing a team of six Black & Decker representatives.”
It would prove to be a significant experience in his life: Bastos was there in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “I saw the devastation up close,” he said. “It’s something you can hardly understand if you haven’t lived it yourself.” He watched New Orleans struggle to rebuild and was part of the volunteer brigades that worked to reclaim the city. “It was ultimately a growing experience for me as both a professional and a human,” he said.
But as he began to assess his long-term career, Bastos found that he missed the intellectual challenges of school. One of the faculty members for whom he had worked as a research assistant during his MBA, Sonia Basu Monga, suggested that he look into doctoral programs in marketing. She helped him identify the schools that would be the best fit for him and, three years ago, he came to the University of Arizona.
“The thing I find the most rewarding in the marketing doctoral program is the faculty,” he said. “These are people who I admire so much — they’re like stars — so to work with them is fulfilling.”
Bastos is a coauthor on a forthcoming paper, “Beyond Brands: Happy Adolescents See the Good in People,” with Lan Nguyen Chaplin (now at Villanova University) and Tina M. Lowrey of the University of Texas at San Antonio. The paper, which will appear later this year in the Journal of Positive Psycholog, examines the influence of happiness on adolescents’ perceptions of others.
“Most studies on happiness use adults,” Bastos said, “so this is an age group that hasn’t received much attention.” The researchers worked with adolescents ages 12-13 and 16-17, asking them to answer a self-assessment of overall happiness, then asking them to build collages to characterize two social roles: a “cool kid” (favorable role) and a “quiet kid who does not have a lot of friends” (less favorable role).
“We found that happier adolescents not only hold more positive impressions of both the cool kid and the quiet kid, but also use fewer products and brands to form those impressions,” Bastos said. “So we see that happier adolescents focus less on what people have or don’t have. That may indicate that these adolescents are also less materialistic, since previous research shows that the way we see others is influenced by the way we see ourselves.”
Bastos said they expected to see different results across the ages they tested. “Early adolescents tend to have more rigid views,” he said. “But the research shows that there’s not a correlation. Regardless of age, happier kids are more flexible, and they have a more nuanced view of people.”
This research — and a paper on the evolution of the concept of brand he is working on with Coca-Cola Distinguished Professor of Marketing Sidney Levy — is helping him zero in on a dissertation topic.
Bastos is also working on another facet of research he developed with Chaplin by taking a closer look at the literature which shows that experiences make people happier than objects. “It may be that it’s not experience versus object, but how much a purchase can foster social relationships,” Bastos explained. “One major aspect of happiness is healthy social relationships. Research has shown that if you ask how happy someone is with a purchase — which I call product-related happiness — you find that experiential purchases generate more happiness than material purchases. But our results have shown that if you ask more general questions that assess people’s global, overall happiness in life, then you find that it doesn’t matter whether the purchase is of a material or experiential nature. Instead, what matters is the level of social connection that the purchase is able to foster. So, material and experiential goods that help us foster our social relationships are better at advancing our overall sense of happiness.”
He’s taking that research a step further by looking at it in a branding context. His initial results indicate that if a consumer has a positive experience with a parent brand and then purchases a brand extension which fails to meet expectations, consumers will more easily forgive the parent brand if it is of an experiential nature (e.g., vacation) than if it is of a material nature (e.g., handbag). That willingness to forgive is likely motivated by experiential purchase’s ability to advance product-related happiness. He’s tested these predictions and results have held as expected. “I’m still in the early stages, though,” he said.
As he continues to develop his research focus and dissertation, Bastos is quick to credit his family for his accomplishments to date. “I need to recognize my father, Assis, my mother, Socorro, and my sister, Tania,” he . “My achievements here in the U.S. are to a major extent due to their support.”