How leaders find happiness — and teach it

Arthur Brooks likes to give students in his popular Harvard Business School class on happiness a quiz: Why are you alive? For what would you be willing to die?

“I tell students that the way to pass the following quiz is to have answers; the way to fail the following quiz is to not have answers. I’m not going to tell you what the right answers are. They’re your answers,” said Brooks, professor of management practice at HBS, as he opened a recent symposium on happiness and leadership.

Brooks’ query on core values reflects widely accepted happiness research, which finds that meaning and purpose are hallmarks of a happy life, one filled with a sense of well-being. The principle dates back to Aristotle’s reference to eudaimonia, or having a “good spirit,” and was one of the theories discussed at the event hosted by Brooks’ Leadership and Happiness Laboratory.

The June 20-21 symposium drew 200 in-person attendees, with another 1,000 online, and included administrators, business leaders, military personnel, elected officials, and students. The purpose was as direct as the mission of the lab, which “believes that all great leaders should be happiness teachers.”

Brooks, who is also the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, said many of the speakers had inspired and mentored him in his own work, notably psychologist Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology.

Another influential figure was Tal Ben-Shahar ’96, Ph.D. ’04, a co-founder of the Happiness Studies Academy, who taught two of the largest classes in Harvard’s history, Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership. Ben-Shahar discussed the genesis of developing a curriculum on happiness and his work designing the first master’s degree in happiness science for Centenary University in 2022.

Laurie Santos standing and talking.
Yale professor Laurie Santos’ course on happiness is considered the university’s most popular course.

The popularity of such university courses, which have been made freely available through platforms such as HarvardX and Coursera, has skyrocketed in recent years, as symposium speaker Laurie Santos ’97, A.M. ’01, Ph.D. ’03, Chandrika and Ranjan Tandon Professor of Psychology at Yale, discovered. Her course on happiness, launched in 2018, became the university’s most popular course in more than 300 years, with almost one in four students at Yale enrolled. The goal of her classes is to reduce unhappiness and increase happiness, which was inspired during her time as Stillman Head of College.

In this role, Santos learned firsthand about mental health issues plaguing college students, including academic stress, depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Yale students reported that they “put on a happy persona to hold things in until they crack and break” and that “it takes a real crisis for us to actually admit something is wrong,” Santos said.

Debunking the myth that happiness science is about enforced positivity is one of the goals of her course. “I think students expect all positive psychology to be akin to what they these days call ‘toxic positivity’ — the idea of ‘happy all the time, stay positive, think happy thoughts.’ I think this is what a lot of Yale students fall prey to unnecessarily.”

Other speakers included Lisa Miller, whose work and research as a Columbia psychology and education professor focuses on the value of a spiritual life. She detailed findings on the role of spirituality as protective against a number of deleterious conditions: 80 percent protective against substance dependence and abuse, 60 percent against major depressive disorder, and 50 percent to 80 percent against suicidality.

Financially, those who make $75,000-$96,000 in the U.S. are happiest, but “once you get beyond having your basic needs met, you can make millions, and you’re not much happier.”

Robert Waldinger headshot.
Robert Waldinger, Harvard Medical School

Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor Robert Waldinger, who directs the 86-year-old Harvard Study of Adult Development, shared study findings that having basic needs met — food, shelter, healthcare — is critical for happiness.

Financially, those who make $75,000-$96,000 in the U.S. are happiest, but “once you get beyond having your basic needs met, you can make millions, and you’re not much happier,” he noted.

Waldinger, who is also a Zen priest, addressed the epidemic of loneliness, which impacts one in three or four people in the U.S. and other developed countries, with a trend upward in developing countries as well, according to a Meta-Gallup survey.

Integrating lessons learned from Eastern spiritual traditions and Western scholarship in leadership, Hitendra Wadhwa, professor of practice at Columbia Business School, spoke about the importance of accessing one’s core self.

Wadhwa, guided by the teachings of Yogananda, the Indian mystic and spiritual teacher, emphasized that the wisdom of good leadership can be found from within.

“Your inner core is that space within you from where your best self arises, where your highest potential resides,” he said. “When you’re at your core, you’re beyond ego, beyond attachment, insecurities — and you get your life’s most beautiful work done.”

The symposium’s final presentation turned toward criticism of the discourse on happiness, highlighting research that investigates the limits of happiness measurements and definitions as outlined in positive psychology.

Owen Flanagan, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Duke University, outlined other ways for measuring happiness, including objective well-being, pointing to many important leaders who lived lives of service and meaning that were not necessarily focused on happiness.

“Happiness can’t be everything,” he said. “It’s not the summum bonum,” or singular good.

Flanagan pointed to luminaries and change leaders such as Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi. He noted: “The first thing that would come to our minds is not that they were happy; it’s that they were good people. They lived really important, purposeful, and meaningful lives.”

And when it comes to public policy, Flanagan said the focus “is on human rights and sustainable development, so that everyone can live the kind of life Aristotle thought was possible for us: a life in which we can discover our talents — and then you can worry about other things, such as people’s psychological states.”

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