Raj Raghunathan is a Professor of Marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas. He has also become an expert in the field of happiness. He is the author of the book If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy. He teaches an MBA course on happiness as well as a class on the online learning platform Coursera entitled: A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment. Over 170,000 students have taken the course and it’s consistently ranked as one of the top ten courses (amongst thousands of others).
Some interesting insights from this episode:
- If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?
- Why do we devalue happiness even though we know how important it is?
- How fear of failure often prevents us from trying things we know would make us happier.
- How having wealth and status and success can make us happy, yet the pursuit of those things can make us miserable.
- Once you stop comparing yourself to others and just focus on immersing yourself in your work (or activity), you’ll actually increase your likelihood of success.
- How we can rewire ourselves to increase our level of happiness.
If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy? This counterintuitive philosophical question is the aptly named title of Raj’s quintessential book on happiness. Generally speaking, smart and successful people are pretty good at setting goals and achieving them. So one would think that if they are able to set goals around wealth and success, they could just as easily set goals around happiness. But more often than not, they don’t.
So why exactly do we devalue happiness? Why is it that despite knowing intuitively how important happiness is, we rarely prioritize it? One reason is what Raj refers to as “Medium Maximization”. That is, we focus on the means to the end (i.e. money, status) and not the end itself (happiness). Since we think the money and success will naturally lead to happiness, we end up concentrating all our efforts on the money and success while forgetting about the very reason we were wanting it to begin with. While the money and success may boost happiness levels initially, those feelings quickly subside in which case we need even greater levels of wealth and power to maintain those levels. It’s a vicious cycle that repeats itself over and over.
We also have a difficult time articulating what happiness means to us. And if we can’t visualize the goal in concrete terms, we don’t prioritize it. So we end up prioritizing those things which are easier to measure (and easier to control) such as money and accomplishments.
Raj also points out that as humans, it’s in our DNA to seek superiority. In fact, studies show that higher status does indeed enhance the quality of our lives and our happiness levels. Yet, paradoxically, the actual pursuit of that higher status can backfire and cause us misery. Tethering your happiness on being superior to others is ill advised. Instead, if you focus solely on immersing yourself in your work (or hobby or activity), you’re much more likely to enjoy yourself and actually end up being more successful as well. This “immersion” is what’s commonly known in positive psychology circles as “flow”.
So while we may have a better understanding intellectually why happiness is so elusive, how do we reverse course and become happier people? Raj offers a few action items:
- Do the things on a day to day basis that are meaningful and enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be work-related (although that’s ideal). It can be tennis or guitar or gardening. Anything that brings you joy.
- Spend more time on personal relationships. Don’t take your friends and family for granted. Your interactions with the people you care about in your life are as important as anything else.
- Build habits that give an internal sense of wellness (i.e. exercise, meditation). Being physically and mentally healthy are essential ingredients to happiness.
As Raj reminds us of the cliché we all know too well, days and weeks will become months and years and next thing you know, you’ll be 70 and regretting your life. So don’t wait another year or even another day. Start today. Take baby steps if you need to. But take action. Do something. Anything. After all, this is your life. You deserve to be happy.