Money, power, and fame don’t make us happy, yet we spend much of our lives chasing after them. Success first, then happiness, we tell ourselves. But perhaps we’ve got it backwards.
In his new book If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, attempts to set us straight. Happiness breeds success, Raghunathan explains, not the other way around. In fact, many of the things we typically consider marks of success—a lofty title, high salary, or posh zip code—are not marks of happiness. And our pursuit of these ends often jeopardizes our chance of leading a happy life. It’s not that we don’t want to be happy, he writes, it’s that we often forget about happiness as a goal.
We spoke with Raghunathan to better understand how happiness and success fit together, the subjectivity of the two, and what an experiment with a magical Genie reveals about our priorities.
Peiwen Zhang: Happiness seems very subjective. To one person it might mean a full day of yard work, while to another it might mean watching Netflix in his or her pajamas. How do you define happiness?
Raj Raghunathan: That’s a good question. It reveals a slight confusion about happiness the emotion and the means to that emotion. What you are referring to is that people can have different means to happiness. But data says the emotional experience of happiness is probably going to be the same for both. It’s not so much a question of confusion about what happiness the experience is, it’s a subjectivity about what leads you to that experience. What’s really interesting in all of this is that if you just ask people “how happy are you” and you give them a scale, it turns out [the] score that people give themselves, which is the simplest way of measuring happiness, is actually quite valid and reliable. So it turns out what might start out feeling like a subjective thing that can’t be defined or measured is quite easily measurable.
PZ: Can you describe the genie and three wishes experiment you conduct in your classes and what it illustrates about how we think about happiness?
RR: The Genie Question goes like this: imagine the Genie in the Aladdin story appears in front of you and offer the three wishes. (Participate in the Genie Experiment here). What three wishes would you make? What [the experiment] illustrates is that very few people, in my studies about six percent on average, ask for happiness. The reason this is interesting is because if you ask people what is your most important goal, happiness floats up to be among people’s top goals. Yet if you look at the response to the Genie Question, happiness is conspicuous by its absence—very few people ask for it. What it tells me is that even though happiness is a very important goal, as people are going about their day to day life, they forget all about happiness and start focusing on other things. When we do the Genie Question [again], the seemingly subtle difference is to remind them that you can also ask for happiness. Basically it shoots up at least by three times, and some surveys show as much as five times. Somewhere between 18 and 30 percent of the people now have happiness on their wish list. All it is is a matter of reminding yourself that happiness is important to you.
PZ: As you describe paths to happiness, you lay out the seven “sins” or bad habits of unhappy people. What are these sins and why do people commit them?
RR: What I’ll do is I’ll take a bird’s eye view and talk about what’s common across many of these sins. If someone were to ask me, what are the ingredients that lead you to live a happy and fulfilling life, I would say that five things are very important. The first thing is that you need to have access to basic necessities. You can’t really be happy if you are struggling to make ends meet, or if you are going through physical pain, or don’t know where your next food is going to come from.
Happiness is conspicuous by its absence—very few people ask for it. What it tells me is that even though happiness is a very important goal, as people are going about their day to day life, they forget all about it.
Beyond basic necessities, three things come into the picture and become really important based on the research. One is that feeling that I’m really good at doing something. It doesn’t really matter what the field you choose is. But you need to have a feeling that you are really good at doing something. The second thing, which is arguably more important, is the sense that you have at least one other person that you can count on as a really good friend. You have an intimate relationship with at least one other person, where you don’t feel judged by them, and you can count on them to support you during tough times. The third thing that is important is a sense of autonomy—that you [don’t feel] like you are a puppet in somebody else’s hands—that you have the freedom to choose what you please. [This] is why citizens of democracies, where people have freedom to choose, are much happier than citizens of dictatorships or autocracies. These three things are important: mastery, belongingness and autonomy. I use the acronym MBA, which is useful because I’m at a business school.
There is a fifth thing, which is where the sins come into the picture, which is the attitude you carry towards life. I talk of this attitude as coming in two varieties: sinful, which is the scarcity mindset, and the other corresponds to the antidote of the sins which is called an abundance mindset. I call the first one scarcity minded because when you are comparing to other people, you implicitly believe that I win if somebody else loses. The abundance mindset approach is that there is enough for everybody and let me just focus on what I enjoy doing.
PZ: You also talk about the seven corresponding habits that bring happiness. Can you describe a few of these and how they are helpful in making people happier?
RR: I’ll talk about a couple that I did not mention in my MBA framework. One is exhibiting smart trust. It is trusting others in such a way that you maximize the benefits of being trusting and minimize the risk associated with being trusting. What is very important is to recognize that people in general are more trustworthy than an average person gives them credit. There was a “Wallet Drop” experiment conducted in Toronto in which $200 were placed inside 20 wallets with address and they were dropped in different parts of the city. When researchers ask people how many of these 20 wallets will get returned, people said on average only 25 percent or five of the wallets. In fact, 80 percent (16) of the wallets got returned. What this study [shows] is that people are unnecessarily unhappy. They are far more vigilant and skeptical of other people, while in fact all they need to do is to adjust their level of trust in others upwards, not delusionally, but realistically.
We have confused the direction of causality, in that we think being successful is going to make us happy, when in fact all along it’s always been the reverse.
The second habit is mindfulness, which is paying attention to things without being judgmental about them. If you take a look inside your head, you have all kinds of thoughts about everything and not a lot of those thoughts are actually productive. Many of us are guilty, especially the smart and the successful, of constantly thinking. I think we are addicted to thinking. Part of the reason is education implicitly tells us best solutions come when you think hard and long about a problem. In general that’s maybe a good rule, but sometimes it’s not. In many occasions not thinking too much is going to put you in a better position to arrive at a solution. These are contexts that have to do with emotions. That ability to switch your mind off comes in really handy not just in making good decisions, but also in being more happy.
PZ: You close your book with a discussion of how success and happiness aren’t necessarily incompatible. Is there a healthier way for people to achieve both success and happiness?
RR: A lot of studies are showing that it’s the reverse. Once you have achieved life success—you feel that overall your life is going well—then the chances of achieving success are actually much greater than the other way around. In a sense we have confused the direction of causality, in that we think being successful is going to make us happy when in fact all along it’s always been the reverse—happier people are more successful. Many people somehow think that happiness is going to make them lazy, selfish, less productive, but in fact their intuitions are wrong. It turns out that happier people earn more, are more healthy, live longer, are more compassionate and kind. This means that happiness doesn’t just feel good but it’s actually good for you. If you can somehow shift your mind into thinking about the relationship between success and happiness differently, rather than thinking I’ll be successful first and then I’ll be happy, instead say I’ll be happy first and success will come. You’ll discover a pleasant surprise.