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Can Happiness Be Taught To Hard-Charging Harvard MBAs?

Arthur Brooks contends that successful leaders need to understand happiness. (Photo by J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post via Getty Images) The Washington Post via Getty Images

Happiness and hard-charging Harvard MBAs are seldom—if ever—grouped together. There’s a perception that Harvard business students and graduates are hardcore careerists seeking to make a fortune on Wall Street, becoming a CEO or building a big business that goes public.

Happiness is usually not featured in the bios of the titans of industry. However, this may be changing, as a leadership and happiness course for MBAs is gaining a lot of attention. According to the brochure, Arthur Brooks, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, outlines the coursework by sharing a quote from Albert Schweitzer. He said, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success.” 

Building on this mindset, Brooks contends that successful leaders need to understand happiness. To help educate the aspiring hedge fund and private equity executives, students will be taught the following:

  • Students will create a map of their own happiness, desires, motivations, strengths and weaknesses. In short, they will know themselves much more deeply.
  • Students will learn tactics and strategies to raise their levels of well-being and life satisfaction.
  • Students will learn how to lead others in a way that increases happiness.

During the semester, students will take surveys on happiness, read some of the most influential modern research on the topic, discuss the research in class and apply their knowledge to leadership scenarios. The goal is that after the course is completed, the students will be prepared to use the knowledge gained during the balance of their time at the Harvard Business School and apply it in the workplace. Hopefully, it will enhance their lives, make them more empathetic and better future leaders.  

The Wall Street Journal, wrote about the course, stating, “Happiness at work has since taken on new urgency for employees and managers, as workers leave jobs at record rates and rethink their goals. Many companies are scrambling to boost morale, reduce turnover, experiment with new ways of working—and even offering wellness retreats for employees.”

The coursework is eclectic ranging from Bible verses to Buddhist teachings, along with “psychological research on well-being or romantic love.” Brooks prompts his class to think about their relationships. Are they “real friends” or transactional “deal friends.” Real friends are defined as having  “a beautiful quality of uselessness ” and a “I don’t need you; I just love you.” vibe.

 The program is similar to one taught by Yale psychology professor, Laurie Santos. Santos created a course at Yale called "Psychology and the Good Life." The plan was to offer students “insights from psychology and neuroscience about what drives happiness” and to provide “behavior change exercises to help rewire the brain” to help achieve happiness. The course was a phenomenal hit and became the most popular class in Yale’s 300-year long history. It was opened up to the public and enrollment skyrocketed to 1.1 million students as of March. 

Takeaways from Professor Santos’ suggestions for leading a happier work-life

Socially engage with people 

Humans are social creatures. We’re meant to interact with others. One of the issues people complained about during the lockdowns was that they were unable to engage in face-to-face interactions, which led to feelings of isolation. 

A study conducted by psychologists Ed Diener and Marty Seligman “discovered that there was one activity that set happy people apart from the rest of us—happy people were more social,” and their “results were so strong that these researchers deemed being around other people as a necessary condition for very high happiness.”

Express gratitude

Major religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, all weave elements of gratitude into their practices due to its importance. Gratitude is a mindset in which you appreciate all of the goodness in your life and acknowledge all of the little pleasures. It could be a beautiful sunset or the cat gently purring beside you.  

Practicing gratitude, thanks and appreciation is relatively easy. Start by thinking about all of your blessings and good fortunes—no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. It could be a loving family, children, health, wealth, friends or a meaningful job. 

Think of all the things that you are thankful for. Be kind to people. Let a co-worker know how much you appreciate their help. If you’re a manager, tell your staff how proud of them you are and acknowledge their hard work and efforts. Offering appreciation and showing gratitude makes you feel good about yourself too.

What not to do

There is a societal misconception that if we accumulate enough money, status, clout, a perfect body and physical possessions, we’ll be happier. According to Santos, after we’ve done this, there’s still a feeling of dissatisfaction and wanting more. 

It harms your positive mindset when you spend too much time on social media, as it tends to rile you up, make you feel inadequate and miss out on all of the fun. It's better to detox from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

America is known for its hustle-porn work culture, as people brag how busy they are. Being a workaholic is an acceptable and applauded practice. What these folks don’t realize, in their work obsession, according to Santos’ class, is that they’re missing out on all of the things that are really important in life.  

Be present in the moment

Harvard psychologists found in a study that “we spent more than 40% of the time mind-wandering—not paying attention to the here and now.”   

You need to learn to control your “monkey brain.” This expression loosely means that we humans are still animals and we have these rapid-fire thoughts that constantly race through our minds. When one leaves, another negative thought quickly takes its place. This often happens when you interview or try to progress in your career. The self-limiting thoughts take over and could easily paralyze you into inertia. 

Try to be Zen. This involves the art of remaining in the present, appreciating the moment and letting go of any baggage. When you’re in the interview, listen intently to the hiring manager, as they’re the most important person in the world at that moment. 

A little meditation may help too. Take a deep breath, hold it and breathe out. Clear your mind of the anger and bad feelings. Say a positive mantra, such as, “I will use this lesson to inspire me to find a new job” or “I will help someone else out who is going through the same ordeal.”  

Take time to decompress but also exercise 

You need to allocate time toward destressing. Santos suggests getting a good night’s sleep to provide the energy to get up in the morning with enthusiasm. It's also important to exercise, as it's good for your body and mind. You should take long walks, jog, practice Yoga or hit the gym.

Practice happiness

Just as you take a shower or brush your teeth everyday, you need to continually work on your happiness. There will be days that you don't feel like it, but try. Life is hard and difficult. It's reasonable that, even if you’re happy, there will be moments when you won't be at that level. It's okay. You don't have to give up; just keep at it and you will start to increase your happiness.

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