The Keys to Happiness: The Emerging Science and the Upcoming MOOC by Raj Raghunathan

Psy­chol­o­gy has made many advances in the past few decades, notably in cog­ni­tive sci­ence, neu­ro­science, and behav­ioral psy­chol­o­gy. A major new focus area in psy­chol­o­gy that draws upon these dis­ci­plines start­ed in 1998 when Mar­tin Selig­man, then pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion, called on his col­leagues to start study­ing hap­pi­ness, rather than ill­ness­es, the tra­di­tion­al focus of psy­chol­o­gy. The result was an explo­sion of research, aca­d­e­m­ic depart­ments, and pop­u­lar books and the cre­ation of a new field of ‘pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy’. It is this field that Dr. Raj Raghu­nathan stud­ies, and he pas­sion­ate­ly teach­es his stu­dents about the sci­ence of hap­pi­ness at the McCombs School of Busi­ness  at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin. He also writes a blog col­umn for Psy­chol­o­gy Today. This sum­mer, Raghu­nathan, who is cur­rent­ly vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Indi­an School of Busi­ness, will be offer­ing his MOOC, A Life of Hap­pi­ness and Ful­fill­ment, to the pub­lic on the Cours­era plat­form.

It may be sur­pris­ing that a course on hap­pi­ness is being offered in busi­ness school, the sup­posed fac­to­ry of bud­ding ruth­less cap­i­tal­ists. How­ev­er, times are chang­ing, and enlight­ened busi­ness schools can be a good set­ting to think about the social and eco­nom­ic means and ends in our cur­rent soci­ety. In fact, it was a busi­ness con­text which steered Raghu­nathan towards study­ing hap­pi­ness in the first place:

When I vis­it­ed India in 2007 I met up with my class­mates from 15 years ago and I dis­cov­ered two things. One, there’s very lit­tle cor­re­la­tion between aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess and career suc­cess. The peo­ple who were at the top weren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the ones who were doing well in their careers, which is, of course, quite well known in the research. But sec­ond, there was an even small­er cor­re­la­tion between career suc­cess and life suc­cess. The guys who were real­ly suc­cess­ful weren’t able to main­tain a con­ver­sa­tion with me and weren’t able to be present, they were con­stant­ly dis­tract­ed. They had bags under their eyes, had put on weight, and it was clear that they weren’t very hap­py.

Fast for­ward and you find Raghu­nathan, after obtain­ing a PhD at New York Uni­ver­si­ty, a tenured fac­ul­ty mem­ber at the McCombs School of Busi­ness, a top-20 U.S. busi­ness school, teach­ing stu­dents about hap­pi­ness. There are only a few tenure-track pro­fes­sors in the coun­try teach­ing a whole course on hap­pi­ness in U.S. busi­ness schools, so Raghu­nathan has been a trail­blaz­er. It is also a great tes­ta­ment to the Indi­an School of Busi­ness, a pre­mier busi­ness pro­gram in a rapid­ly indus­tri­al­iz­ing coun­try, that this sub­ject was cho­sen to be their first MOOC offer­ing in its new part­ner­ship with Cours­era.

Hap­pi­ness Sci­ence vs. the Wis­dom Lit­er­a­ture

As peo­ple have been con­cerned with hap­pi­ness from before the dawn of civ­i­liza­tion, we’ve had many sources to turn to with regard to hap­pi­ness: intu­ition, tra­di­tion, rea­son, but most­ly, reli­gious and spir­i­tu­al wis­dom. Now sci­ence has recent­ly added a new dimen­sion to our under­stand­ing. We can see, for exam­ple, which parts of the brain are active dur­ing dif­fer­ent emo­tion­al states, and under­stand bet­ter the role of neu­ro­trans­mit­ters, such as sero­tonin and dopamine. One very con­ve­nient, prac­ti­cal result for psy­chol­o­gy is that these changes in brain states are large­ly cor­re­lat­ed with self-report­ed answers of how hap­py peo­ple feel—so hap­pi­ness is fair­ly straight­for­ward to mea­sure (you can take a 20-minute hap­pi­ness test here if you are inter­est­ed). So what have we found out about hap­pi­ness? It turns out that many of the find­ings sup­port the religious/spiritual view­points. For exam­ple:

  • Mon­ey can­not buy you hap­pi­ness, unless you’re poor. Robust sur­veys among a broad array of peo­ple across coun­tries indi­cate that beyond a cer­tain thresh­old, peo­ple do not report being hap­pi­er. Specif­i­cal­ly, in the U.S., Daniel Kah­ne­man and Angus Deaton found through a robust sur­vey of 450,000 Amer­i­cans that once peo­ple reach an income thresh­old of around $75,000 per year, they tend not to be any hap­pi­er.
  •  Car­ing for oth­ers is one of the most impor­tant things you can do. Anoth­er spe­cif­ic find­ing that the sci­ence brings us is the val­ue of altru­ism. Stud­ies have shown, for exam­ple, that when giv­en a small sum of mon­ey, the peo­ple who give it to oth­ers, rather than spend­ing it on them­selves, actu­al­ly report being hap­pi­er. Raghu­nathan also adds that being altru­is­tic does­n’t have to mean being bor­ing, and he has his class­es exper­i­ment with fun ways to be altru­is­tic.

These find­ings are sim­i­lar to the teach­ings of many wis­dom tra­di­tions, but they also give more specifics and pro­vide insight into the under­ly­ing mech­a­nisms involved. These can result in prac­ti­cal sug­ges­tions and tips for man­ag­ing our­selves bet­ter through set­ting up help­ful habits, mind­sets, and trig­gers. But a puz­zling ques­tion has emerged: why do we often not pur­sue what we sup­pos­ed­ly want?

The Fun­da­men­tal Hap­pi­ness Para­dox

There is a phe­nom­e­non that most of us will prob­a­bly rec­og­nize, which Raghu­nathan calls the Fun­da­men­tal Hap­pi­ness Para­dox: we want to achieve hap­pi­ness, but often pur­sue things that clear­ly don’t lead to it. Raghu­nathan elab­o­rates:

On the one hand peo­ple think hap­pi­ness is very, very impor­tant to them, so there­fore you would think that they ought to be mak­ing deci­sions are con­sis­tent with that, but when we observe their deci­sions, a good 50–60 per­cent of the time they are sac­ri­fic­ing hap­pi­ness for the sake of oth­er things as they go about their dai­ly lives, in lit­tle small ways, and even in big ways.

The prob­lem is that we pur­sue hap­pi­ness through var­i­ous means, such as mon­ey, sta­tus, esteem, or health, but we some­times over­ly fix­ate on these means rather than the ends. As a soci­ety we do rec­og­nize this on some level—think of all the movies and tele­vi­sion shows that end with the pro­tag­o­nists real­iz­ing what’s real­ly impor­tant to them. Yet, it tells you some­thing if we keep hav­ing to remind our­selves about this con­stant­ly and repet­i­tive­ly in our cul­tur­al sto­ries. Psy­chol­o­gy has already explained why we eat the last few Chee­tos in a bowl, and in the future may help explain this mys­tery of why we don’t pur­sue our hap­pi­ness as direct­ly as we could.

Hap­pi­ness Comes in Threes

The Three Pil­lars of Hap­pi­ness

So what should we do to pur­sue hap­pi­ness? Raghu­nathan groups the research find­ings into three main pil­lars:

  1. Pur­sue mean­ing­ful work – Try to spend your ener­gy in ways that are mean­ing­ful to you, at work or at home. Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­haly has pop­u­lar­ized the notion of “flow”, those times when we are doing some­thing that so ful­ly absorbs our atten­tion that we lose track of time (I guess I must be in “flow” when­ev­er I’m watch­ing Grey’s Anato­my…). From a career stand­point, Raghu­nathan rec­om­mends mak­ing pas­sion a cri­te­ri­on for choos­ing your work: “you spend so much time at work you might as well make that a mean­ing­ful thing that you are doing in your life”. Per­haps this is not fea­si­ble for every­one at every point in their career, but it is sure­ly a sound guid­ing prin­ci­ple, as it has been echoed by Steve Jobs, Thore­au, Glo­ria Este­fan, and oth­ers.
  2. Main­tain close rela­tion­ships – Most peo­ple, upon reflec­tion, con­sid­er the rela­tion­ships they’ve devel­oped with fam­i­ly, friends, col­leagues, and oth­ers to be the most mean­ing­ful part of their lives. How­ev­er, we often don’t place a high pri­or­i­ty on build­ing or main­tain­ing these. Rela­tion­ships are like invest­ments that require time and atten­tion, and they are bonds that rep­re­sent com­mit­ments and expec­ta­tions, yet we are quick to down­play or dis­miss them. Social sci­ence offers tips and prac­ti­cal sug­ges­tions for improv­ing rela­tion­ships, such as: giv­ing your brain a cool­ing off peri­od when you are angry, see­ing for­give­ness as an inte­gral part of free­ing up your own mind, and cul­ti­vat­ing face-to-face time in our mobile con­nect­ed world.
  3. Have a spir­i­tu­al atti­tude – A strong sense of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, whether reli­gious­ly or oth­er­wise sourced, has been asso­ci­at­ed with reduced stress lev­els, and we know we can’t be hap­py when we are over-stressed. There is also grow­ing evi­dence that med­i­ta­tion prac­tices have ben­e­fi­cial effects. In fact, in the MOOC, Raghu­nathan will have a cou­ple of experts lead­ing par­tic­i­pants through the steps of the med­i­ta­tion process.

Do these three pil­lars reveal any shock­ing sur­pris­es? No, and thank­ful­ly not–otherwise it would be a dec­la­ra­tion that pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions had missed the boat on under­stand­ing hap­pi­ness (though Raghu­nathan points out that few spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tions empha­size the first pil­lar –pur­su­ing mean­ing­ful work). Rather, the con­tri­bu­tion of sci­ence is in the details. We start to see what cog­ni­tive dri­vers and bar­ri­ers to hap­pi­ness are. From this under­stand­ing comes evi­dence-based tech­niques and frame­works we can use to help our­selves con­struct hap­pi­er lives.

There is some seri­ous research on hap­pi­ness, and it has the poten­tial to direct­ly impact our lives. Whether you are in busi­ness school or high school, on the farm or in city hall, in a cubi­cle or at a retire­ment home—why wouldn’t you want to know more about what makes us hap­py? And you have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be guid­ed by Dr. Raghu­nathan by sign­ing up for his free MOOC: A Life of Hap­pi­ness and Ful­fill­ment, which starts this sum­mer.

Char­lie Chung is pas­sion­ate about the inter­sec­tion of learn­ing and tech­nol­o­gy. He is Chief Edi­tor at Class Cen­tral, a MOOC search engine and reviews site. Spe­cial thanks to Raj Raghu­nathan, who agreed to be inter­viewed for this arti­cle, the Indi­an School of Busi­ness, and Cours­era.

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  • Kristine says:

    I am so excit­ed (and yes, hap­py) for this course to begin! Raj is an absolute expert in the area of hap­pi­ness and I can hard­ly wait for him to explain to me my friends’ strange para­dox­i­cal behav­ior! What? Am I pro­ject­ing? Okay, okay — my behav­ior. In truth, we all seek hap­pi­ness but we aren’t all hap­py and in fact, seem­ing­ly self-sab­o­tage at times. Why?? Am stoked to learn the sci­ence behind the “why” and to hope­ful­ly apply the new knowl­edge to my life! Happiness…here I come!!

  • Gav says:

    A note of warn­ing re the Psy­chol­o­gy Today hap­pi­ness test: after 20 min­utes of form fill­ing they charge for the results.

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