Can we actually learn to be happier? One leading researcher thinks so.
AHIP 2022 headliner Arthur C. Brooks is a columnist at The Atlantic, a bestselling author, and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, where he launched the course “Leadership and Happiness,” which teaches tactics and strategies to manage well-being and life satisfaction – and breaks down misconceptions about what success and happiness really mean.
Brooks says that he became interested in the study of happiness after a chance encounter on an airplane. “I heard a man confessing to his wife that he wished he were dead,” said Brooks. When the lights came on after landing, he was surprised to recognize the man who was world famous. If this highly successful individual wasn’t happy, he thought, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Brooks’ study of what makes us happy revealed some surprising answers. Here are some of his insights.
1. Happiness isn’t an end goal, it’s an ongoing process.
And you can’t store happiness for later, either.
In an Oprah Daily interview, Brooks said the ongoing quest for professional success at the cost of happiness can leave people unfulfilled down the line: “If you’re a striver, you have to really have a good happiness retirement plan so that you can keep getting happier. You can’t count on your past successes to get you there.”
2. “Success addiction” can come at the cost of happiness.
Professional success can feel addictive, like any drug. And like any addiction, the same input will provide diminishing returns over time. Brooks says, “The success addict is never ‘successful enough.’ The high only lasts a day or two, and then it’s on to the next success hit.” This can lead people to hyperfocus on work, to the detriment of other facets of life that may have longer-term reward, such as personal relationships. In “Being Special Vs. Happy,” Brooks offers advice on how to stay grounded and redefine your value.
“There’s this belief that if you live right and play by the rules and be successful,” he said, “that happiness will take care of itself. And it simply does not… I call it ‘the striver’s curse.’”
3. As we mature as individuals and professionals, so do the keys to our happiness.
If you’re starting to burn out in your work in your 40s, it’s because the tasks you found easy are getting more difficult with age. But, Brooks says in an interview with the Institute for Humane Studies, what grows at that time, “is your teaching ability, your ability to work with words, your ability to share ideas, your ability to coach teams.” The investments people make early in their careers learning new skills, and developing expertise become long-lasting wisdom that can pay dividends later in life.
4. We can build a new, happier normal.
The COVID-19 crisis brought much of our lives to a halt. This pause is also an opportunity — says Brooks — to start over and reevaluate personal and professional priorities. There’s no reason that the new normal can’t also be better. In “A Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance to Start Over,” Brooks talks about how to evaluate what to keep — and what to toss — from the “before.”
“If your relationships, work, and life have been disrupted by the pandemic, the weeks and months before you fully reenter the world should not be wasted,” said Brooks. “We might ask ourselves, ‘What do I want ‘normal’ to look like?’ Then, we can start preparing for a new and better normal than what we took for granted.”
Brooks is speaking with Common, the Grammy and Academy Award winning artist, author, and producer, next month at AHIP 2022 on “Life After the Pandemic: On Living a Better, Happier Life.”