If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?

McCombs professor Raj Raghunathan explains why happiness is elusive and what you can do today to make changes that count.

By Jeremy Simon

If you want a better business, make sure your employees are happy.

That’s the advice of Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business, who studies happiness and has shared the wisdom he has collected in classes at McCombs, the Indian School of Business, and in an award-winning online Coursera class. Now, he has written his first book, “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?

Here, Raghunathan shares his thoughts about why happiness is so important for companies and the larger world.

Why should people in the business world care about happiness?

There has been an implicit assumption that happiness is something that merely feels good, and there is nothing more that comes out of it. Happiness is treated like ice cream: enjoyable, but not necessarily good for you. But in fact, happiness is very functional; it has all these positive effects.

One positive effect of happiness is that it promotes productivity, which is a really relevant benefit for organizations. There are at least three big reasons why happiness promotes productivity.

  1. It increases your creativity, so you do better in intellectual tasks. Being anxious and stressed out actually curbs your ability to think creatively.
  2. It makes you healthier, so you take fewer sick days. When you are healthy, you clock more hours.
  3. You are a better colleague when you are happy — you elicit more cooperative responses from other people and function better as a part of a team.

You are among the faculty members at Whole Foods’ Academy for Conscious Leadership, where you expose employees to new ideas around working toward a higher purpose. Aside from Whole Foods, what other companies are getting it right when it comes to happiness?

Google is a very good example of another big company taking the right approach. They have this idea of giving people some free time to come up with new, creative ideas and initiatives. Because of that philosophy, [former Google engineer] Chade-Meng Tan came out with a book called “Search Inside Yourself” about how mindfulness and meditation feed your emotional intelligence and that in turn makes those who meditate more creative and more productive

Google also has other initiatives that promote kindness. Being kind and compassionate to others is a big happiness booster. Google has a policy that allows you to donate your extra leave or vacation time to another employee. Let’s say your friend is going through a bad patch — maybe somebody close to them has passed away and they don’t feel motivated to come to work. You can donate your time to them. That promotes a sense of cohesiveness, a “we take care of each other” kind of an atmosphere. That really promotes happiness.

In the face of the massive challenges facing us — ecological destruction, wealth inequality, war and terrorism — why should we care about happiness?

Contrary to what one might think, it’s more important to focus on enhancing happiness when we have all these big problems. That’s because you will actually address these problems better when you do so. To understand why, follow the logic of “What will happen if a critical mass of people pursued happiness?”

They would discover that the true determinants of happiness do not have to do with the things that cause or exacerbate the problems we are facing.
For example, they would discover that happiness does not come from chasing superiority; rather, it comes from pursuing something you enjoy doing.
They would also discover that happiness does not come from seeking control over other people and situations; rather, it comes from being able to let go of that desire for control by seeking “internal control.”

An important reason why we are having these big problems, particularly global warming, has to do with consumerism and the associated hyper-production that have gotten out of control due to self-centeredness and a sense of scarcity and insecurity among people.

This is part of the reason I have targeted my book at smart and successful people. These are the people who are in control of the resources. If they loosen their grip on the resources and opportunities over which they wield a lot more control, then everybody gets included in the picture a little bit more. Happiness would lead to a bunch of effects that are good not just for the people who are seeking it but also for everybody else.

If people are not as driven for material gain, but instead focus on achieving happiness, how might that impact economic progress?

On the whole, I feel that we would not lose much productivity as a society if everyone made their well-being a bigger priority. Maybe we will not get the next iPad in two months or the next big gizmo in five weeks. Some products might take a little bit longer to come out, but I do not necessarily think that is a bad thing.

You would have less human worker demand for jobs like flipping burgers or cleaning toilets, for example, which might increase the pay that the guys who are willing to do those jobs get, which may not be a bad thing. After all, people flipping burgers aren’t making much money. If nobody is willing to work those jobs, then we might have to invent mechanical ways of doing them. What will happen is that progress would shift towards making life more meaningful, uplifting, and kind, rather than by greed driven almost entirely by the wishes of people who already have a lot.

What simple advice would you give those of us who want to be happier?

You need to establish intimate, deep, caring, and meaningful relationships. But that is difficult to implement; building meaningful relationships is not like buying soup. That is the problem with that advice.

More actionable advice is to lead a healthy lifestyle, which will lead to you feeling good from the inside out. Leading a healthier lifestyle is easier to implement than building meaningful relationships because doing so does not take cooperation from the external world. Of course, if you are completely down and out and do not have any resources, then it may be tough. But for the smart and successful crowd, eating well, exercising a little bit more, and sleeping better (as prescribed in the book “Eat, Move, Sleep” by Tom Rath) are relatively easy. The great thing is these are relative:

Regardless of how bad your current lifestyle is, if you are still breathing, you can improve. Maybe you are having one can of Coke every day, so cut it down to one every other day. You can always improve a little bit from where you are.

Leading a healthy lifestyle gives you what I call greater “internal control,” which is a perceived sense that you can handle the challenges that life throws at you. The things that used to stress you out — a full to-do list, classes to attend, difficult meetings, and so on — may not have allowed you to fall asleep easily or have a nice refreshing and rejuvenating interaction with a friend or neighbor. But when you put a healthy lifestyle in place, it changes that.

Finally, just reflect on your life and maintain a daily journal. Try and focus on the positive things.