Harvard’s Arthur C. Brooks on the Secrets to Happiness at Work

by Ahleper Tech
0 comment

To the strivers and workaholics out there, bestselling author and Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks has a message for you: change your behavior before it’s too late. Brooks was one of you: a pace-setting boss who expected others to work 80-hour weeks just like him, leaving little time for friends and family. He says he was addicted not to work, but to success. And he missed watching his kids grow up.

Today he classifies behavior like his as a pathology that can lead to misery. And he has concrete, actionable advice for increasing your life’s happiness. In fact, he writes about it in a regular column for The Atlantic.

For this episode of our video series “The New World of Work”, HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Brooks, co-author (with Oprah Winfrey) of the forthcoming book, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, to discuss:

·       What’s caused the severe dip in general happiness in the last few years?

·       The two traits of those who find true happiness in their work

·       The difference between “deal friends” and “real friends”. The real kind are “beautifully useless” and you need them more than deal friends

Happiness is contagious, Brooks says, and just being in a happy person’s vicinity can make you happier.  “But,” he says, “even more contagious is misery.”


Arthur, welcome.


Hi, Adi.


I don’t want to steal any thunder from the book tour, but I want to talk about aspects of your research and insights, particularly as they relate to the world of work.


Absolutely. And the truth is that the book is based on a lot of the things I’ve been teaching at the Harvard Business School, a class I teach called “Leadership and Happiness”, which is a very oversubscribed class. It has 180 in the seats, 400 on the waiting list, and there’s even a secret Zoom link they think I don’t know about. I’m happy to talk about what I talk about with my students, with our wonderful viewers here.


I hope a few of the students were just horrified to hear that you know about the Zoom link. But let’s set some context. Start with some data. The numbers show that despite a thriving happiness industry, people like you who think about it think we’re becoming less and less happy.


That’s true.


In the US at least, the number of cases of depression are up, the number of people who self-report themselves to be happy is down. I know it’s impossible to say exactly why, but what’s your hunch? What’s going on here?


We do have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. You find that happiness started to go into a little bit of a malaise, a bit of a decline, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, but then it took a real big dip when social media came along.

Social media was catastrophic for happiness. Part of the reason is we distract ourselves when we’re lonely with something that’s the equivalent of burgers and fries for a social life. They give you lots of calories and not very much nutrition.

There’s a lot of neuroscience behind this, but everybody knows that when you’re bored or you’re lonely and you start looking at your devices and at your phone, you actually get more bored and you get more lonely. This is a huge problem, especially for young adults.

Then the coronavirus came along, and this was the most catastrophic event for public happiness that we’ve seen in a long time worldwide. Ordinarily, about 30% of people would say they’re very happy about their lives, and 15% would say they’re not happy. The rest are in the middle. Those are flipped. Now it’s about 30% who are not happy and 15% who are very happy.

Those trends have not actually turned around. We know that it has everything to do with social life. It has everything to do with our love relationships.

We know the habits that bring the happiest life—your philosophical or your faith life, your family life, your real friendships, and work that serves others in person—these have been in decline. When those things go in decline, there’s no tech that’s going to solve the problem.


You do have your finger on it. I want to focus on the world of work. I think this is drawing from stats in the book, I think you say just 16% of employees self-report that they’re very satisfied with their work. I want to ask about that because we’re spending half our waking hours in the office, and yet we’re not getting the kind of fulfillment and satisfaction that we deserve. So what’s happening here and how can we think about moving the needle?


I’ve been studying what brings work satisfaction for the longest time, and when I first started off, I was a fresh PhD. I thought, well, let’s see if for-profit versus nonprofit versus government work: which brings the most happiness? Turns out, that’s insignificant. So I said, well, high salaries versus low salaries. Above a certain level of subsistence, it’s a wash. College educated, not college educated, white collar, blue collar, none of it matters.

Two things show up on the happiest workers, the people who have the greatest happiness from work. They feel like they’re earning their success, which is to say that they’re creating value with their lives and with their work lives, that their accomplishments are moving the needle and they’re being recognized for those accomplishments. And number two, they feel like they’re serving people so that they’re needed. These are the two big things.

A lot of people are watching us right now who are employers, and I’ve been a CEO too. The number one thing that you can do for recruitment, for retention, the ultimate rewards that go far beyond money are making sure that you have a system where people are earning their success through their merit and personal accomplishment. They know it, they see it, and so do their friends. And they actually feel like they’re serving other people and they can see the faces of the people for whom they’re creating value. These are the big things.

One more thing to keep in mind, those things are easiest to do when we’re in person. That’s just it. You said we spend half of our lives with our coworkers at work. Well, I don’t know, man, not anymore. A lot of people are spending half of their lives in front of a Zoom screen where it’s hard to earn your success, it’s hard to feel like you’re serving other people, and you don’t even get to see your work buddies. That’s tough stuff.


If you’re right, then there must be some self-deception here. If you ask people, they like hybrid. They like working from home. They talk about it giving them a better work-life balance, all of that we think would translate into fulfillment and happiness. But do you think we’re fooling ourselves?


To a certain extent, there’s a set of biases that are at play here. For example, one of the things we find is that when you’re really lonely, it impairs the executive centers of your brain. We know this. This is the reason that when you’re really sad and lonely, you cocoon on the couch with a comfortable blanket streaming Netflix and eating Haagen-Dazs. What you should do is get up and go outside and get some vitamin D and ride your bike and call your friends, but you’re impaired at that particular moment.

During the pandemic people started to become more isolated. They made the best of that isolation by creating lives that were very, very convenient, I have to say.

That said, some people do have a way better work-life balance because they want to spend all that time with their families. The problem is all of the people that are separated from their family and their friends and actually not seeing people at work, that’s really catastrophic when it comes to happiness.


The book in many ways is about agency: happiness and fulfillment are not based on external variables or things that happen to us, but all very much within our control. The problem is it’s very hard to take dramatic actions to reorder one’s life. How do you get people who understand they should be doing this, but who don’t? How do you make that leap?


Part of the problem is that a lot of people notice that they can manage their money and they can manage their company, but they can’t manage their feelings. Or they can manage their home and they can manage their family life, but they can’t manage their emotions. The reason is that emotional life is a different species of problem.

The stuff around us in our work, these are complicated problems, meaning they’re hard to figure out. But once you do, you can master them and repeat the solutions over and over again.

Life and your emotions, the affairs of the heart and the feelings that you’re getting, positive and negative, they’re not complicated at all. They’re what mathematicians would call a complex problem. That’s a problem that’s very easy to understand and that no amount of computational horsepower can solve it for you. You can only get in it and experience it and work with it in real time.

A cat is a complex problem. A toaster is a complicated problem. Your job is more like a toaster and your relationships are more like a cat. Your feelings are highly complex. The result is that I can master all these highly complicated things, but I can’t get my mind around my feelings.

The solution starts with understanding the science of human emotion. This is what I’m doing in a lot of my work. This is when my HBS students come to me, these phenomenally talented and successful MBA students, really at the best business school in the world. And they’ll say, “My biggest problem is I can’t manage how I feel, and I feel like I’m really out of control.” So the number one skill that we get is to treat your emotional system, the limbic system of your brain, like anything else that you would be managing.

Thinking about it as a complex system that you’re participating in, and using the techniques that we talk about in the class, which start with basically this idea of learning how to experience your emotions, not as they’re delivered to you, but in the prefrontal cortex of your brain so that you can decide how to react, substitute emotions, and even disregard the emotions, but on purpose. That’s a specific set of techniques called metacognition that I walk through based on cutting-edge neuroscience. Anybody can do it.

The problem is, we don’t teach kids to do this. We don’t teach school kids to do this. We don’t teach business people to do this. If I had my way, every business school and every high school would have this class, and when you came to work for a big company, they would have a class in metacognition and emotional self-management that you have to go through for the first week in orientation.


I assume these business students are, as you said, incredibly successful by any measure. There’s probably a split, but do you find they crave what you’re teaching or that they come in skeptical of what you’re teaching?


They really crave it. I mean, the most skeptical ones are probably not taking the class. It’s an elective, after all. The ones who are really skeptical are across the hall in supply chain management or something. But the truth is that they really crave it and it’s because they want it.

My approach is basically this: you can be happier, but you have to understand the science. You need to use the science to change your habits and your lifestyle, and then you need to teach it to other people to make it permanent in your life. The class is called “Leadership and Happiness” because I want every leader to become a happiness teacher.

I’m doing 175 talks a year outside of Harvard, talking to business audiences primarily. And I say, “Look, I’m going to show you a bunch of PowerPoints on the science of happiness, and what I want you to do is to take these slides, take my name off, put your name on, and I want you to teach it to somebody so that you permanently understand this technology and you don’t forget it in your own life.”

That’s the way to get it done. That’s the way that we teach it at Harvard, and it really, really works. I’m telling you, Adi, I am my own first patient in this work, quite frankly. Because I wanted to be happier. As a social scientist, I applied my own toolkit to myself. I wanted to be a happier person. And since I’ve been writing about the science of happiness, guinea-pigging it on myself, everything that I suggest in my column in The Atlantic and to my students, I do myself first to make sure that I actually believe it works. I’m not just reading academic journal articles and then teaching it to other people.

My happiness has risen by 60% in the last four years. In just four years. To be sure it started at kind of a low baseline, but 60% is a lot based on the best measurement techniques for happiness. So I know it works, and I see the results of this every day among my students as well.


Let’s keep you on the couch a bit more. You come across as a positive, presumably happy person. I know first impressions can be off, but even the sentence, “My happiness is up 60%,” I can’t imagine really what you’re measuring to come up with such a specific figure. What are some measurements? Why have your numbers changed and how?


There are some general wellbeing surveys people can take. They’re all over the Internet. And if they’re psychometrically robust, they can do a good job. What I like to look at, however, is I pull apart the negative and positive intensity levels in affect.

Affect means mood. What we find is that if you have a little bit of a malaise, if you’re kind of a melancholic person, either your happiness levels are too low or your unhappiness levels are too high.

Now, it seems like I’m splitting hairs here, but I’m not. A lot of people think happiness and unhappiness are opposites: that if you’re unhappy, it means you have a lack of happiness. That’s completely wrong. Happiness and unhappiness, or positive and negative emotion, they largely exist in different hemispheres of the brain. They’re produced for different reasons.

The negative emotions of fear and anger and disgust and sadness, these are evolved to keep you alive. You should be very, very grateful for your negative emotions. But if they’re too intense, they can hurt your quality of life. Your positive emotions of joy and love and interest in things, again, these are evolved and they’re really good things to have.

The problem is that some people, their happiness levels are too low. Other people, their unhappiness levels are too high. I have a test that I administer to my students. I didn’t develop it. It was developed by psychometricians about 20 years ago. But it’s called a PANAS test, the positive affect negative affect series, and it separates out the intensity of your positive and negative emotions.

What happens is effectively that you have four different characteristics. You can be high positive and high negative. You can be low positive and low negative. You can be high positive and low negative, and of course you could be high negative and low positive. These are a quarter of the population each.

High, high, this is a high affect person, it’s called the mad scientist. That’s me. My problem with wellbeing is not that I’m unhappy or that I’m not happy enough. On the contrary, it just means that I need to manage my high levels of negative affect.

Other people have different issues. Everybody wants to be high positive and low negative. That’s called the cheerleader. It turns out cheerleaders have problems, too. If two cheerleaders meet each other and marry, for example, they won’t be able to bear any threat or listen to any bad news or think that anything bad might happen in the future. They’ll spend all the money and go bankrupt. Cheerleaders, they tend to be pretty rocky CEOs because they will not listen to bad news, and they tend to get wiped out by threats.

High negative, low positive, these are poets. They tend to be extremely creative, but they suffer a lot from sadness and these negative emotions. They have to manage that.

And last, low, low, these people are not horribly unhappy or low quality of life. They have low intensity affect. These are judges. These are people who are sober. They make great surgeons, they make great litigators and judges. They make great parents of teenagers, high stress professions, etc. But they tend to look a little unenthusiastic.

I give these tests to my students so they can know who to marry, how to manage themselves, how to build a management team around them that complements them. It’s really, really instructive, and this is one of the ways that I measure my own happiness and the management techniques that I need, using the neuroscience for my life, and that I can apply to the lives of others.


To what extent do we need to be happy at work? I mean, one approach to work could be I do it, I am hopefully making decent money to be able to sustain myself, and I’m focusing on my personal development, on my happiness outside of work. Obviously in an ideal world, we’re happy and contented everywhere, but do we need to be happy at work? How critical is that?


That’s an empirical question about whether or not people that have a high quality of life tend to be happy at work or it doesn’t matter. And the truth is, if you’re unhappy at work, you’re probably unhappy in life. It’s simple. I mean, it’s like nobody works an hour a day. Maybe you’re one of these lucky people that can be on the four-hour work week. My friend Tim Ferriss wrote that famous book, and the truth is, a lot of people could get their work done in a lot less time than they do. But most of us don’t have that luxury.

I’ve been working 80-hour weeks my whole career, and part of it is a pathology. I’m not going to kid you, I talk a lot in my research about self-objectification, workaholism, which is all based on success addiction, and fears of failure.

And everybody out there watching, you know I’m talking about you too. So take care of these pathologies because these are addictions like anything else, and there’s a lot of brain chemistry in that.

But the point is, you’re going to spend a ton of time doing that. And if it’s drudgery, that’s bad. You don’t want drudgery. At very least it should be something that’s pleasant and making it pleasant sometimes it’s completely out of our grasp. If you have a job that you truly hate and a boss who’s just the worst, well, that’s no good. But a lot of it is in our hands, and this is a lot of what I’m working on and what I’m trying to help people understand they can actually manage.


You just mentioned workaholism. I think many of us suspect we suffer from it, but maybe aren’t willing to look too closely at whether that’s true. But the workaholism is a high, we get a sense of who we are, a sense of accomplishment, etc. But surely it’s not fully a good thing. What is your advice to workaholics who may not realize that that is what they are?


To begin with, workaholism is actually horrible for your quality of life. The problem is that when you’re a workaholic, people congratulate you. Nobody says, “Man, you are so good at drinking gin.” Nobody ever says, “Dude, you’re unbelievable at how much methamphetamine you can consume.” These are not compliments. People feel sorry for you when you’re addicted to other substances or gambling or pornography or anything else that’s deleterious, dangerous, and addictive, that captures your brain.

But workaholism, man, you work all night, you work 100-hour weeks, people are like, “Dude, you’re killing it.” And you’re like, “Yeah, I feel so good about myself, but how come I can’t maintain a proper relationship?”

The truth of the matter is that there are really a portfolio of four things that go into having a truly happy life, and they need to be in both in abundance and in balance.

Number one is faith and philosophy, whether it’s religious or not religious, it has to be something that zooms you out on the majesty of life and makes you small so that you have yourself in perspective. You’re going to have peace.

Second, you’ve got to be paying serious attention to your family relationship. No joke, family relationships are the most mystical kind of love, and you can’t substitute anything for them.

Your friendships, now, this is a really bad one for workaholics. Workaholics have a lot of deal friends, but not very many real friends. Everybody watching us knows the difference between real and deal. And if you don’t, take the fellow workaholics, take the 10 people that you see most and spend most of your time with and write real or deal after each one, and see for yourself that you need to tune this up. Deal friends are useful, real friends are beautifully useless to you. Do you have enough useless people? That’s the question.

And last but not least is work. The two parts of work that really matter are not title, not money, not admiration, not power, [but] earned success and serving other people. Workaholism militates against these sources of fulfillment in our lives. It impoverishes. It makes us poorer so that we actually can’t pursue these other pillars. The result is we just don’t have a balanced portfolio.

Look, if everything you do for your happiness is work, that’s like putting your entire pension into Greek bonds. It might work out, but I’m an economist. I don’t recommend it. That’s not a diversified strategy. You’re most likely not going to retire the way you want to.


Here’s a question from Saudi Arabia, it’s a simple, intriguing question. Is happiness contagious?


Yeah, happiness is absolutely contagious because social contagion is a real thing. There’s a really great study, Adi, more or less in our neighborhood, they’re called the Framingham Heart Study from Framingham, Massachusetts. It looks over 50 years. It was set up to look at people’s lives, at how different social aspects of life are contagious for physical stuff, whether obesity is socially contagious, etc. But they started to look at other things like happiness, and they found that just being in the vicinity of a happy person makes you happier. Having your spouse get happier makes you happier. Having your best friend get happier makes you a lot happier.

But even more contagious is misery. That’s the reason you don’t want your teenage kids to hang out with a kid who wears all black and looks bummed all the time. And that’s because it’s like, “Oh, that sucks. Everything sucks.” You don’t want that because that’s so socially contagious that your kid is going to become unbelievably negative and become sad. And nobody wants this for their children because they have a sense of the social contagion.

The number one issue that I see in family dynamics is a social contagion of negativity. That’s what each one of us has to turn around, is to try to inject the happiness virus into our family and to basically do it on purpose.


This is a question from Nepal that picks up on your themes. You’ve talked about people taking agency in their own life and their own fulfillment and sense of happiness. But how should we deal with people in leadership who don’t believe in any of this stuff, who don’t believe in work-life balance? You can work on yourself, but as you said, misery and all this stuff is contagious. How can you move the needle on leadership that doesn’t appreciate any of this?


When it comes to leadership, leader lead thyself. Your number one employee is you. Don’t be the pace-setting leader.

Remember when Daniel Goleman wrote that famous book Leadership That Gets Results? It was about the six types of leaders, and the number one leadership characteristic that everybody thinks is great—but is actually horrible—is workaholic pace-setting leaders that are in the office all the time and saying, “Look, if I’m going to ask people to work hard, I have to work even harder.” It’s incredibly dispiriting for other people. It lowers their quality of life.

When I was a CEO, I’m telling you, somebody on my executive team says, “Arthur, you got to stop sending email at 5:00 AM and 11:00 PM because people are going to stay up wondering if they’re going to have to answer your email.” I said, “I don’t expect anybody to…” That’s not the point. So I put timers on my email to do that.

But even better was when my wife started clamping down and saying, “You need to sleep more. You need to go to the gym more. You need to have more of a life.” So number one, if you’re a leader, you need to get a hold on this problem because you’re going to be hurting yourself, wrecking your relationships, and disheartening all the people around you. This is a big problem.

Second, don’t work for a workaholic. Don’t work for them if you can. And again, not everybody’s got all these degrees of freedom, but most of us have a few choices in what we can do for work. And by the way, if it turns out that your boss is abusing you and hopelessly addicted to drugs, you got to change circumstances. That’s an abusive relationship. I recommend steering clear of workaholics.

Now, what’s behind workaholism, fellow workaholics? It’s the success addiction. Workaholism is a secondary addiction to the addiction of success, and a lot of that’s based on the objectification of yourself, which is a bad thing to do, and a deep, deep set of fear of failure. Those are the things to actually start working on. You can’t just say, “Work less, what’s the problem?” It’s self-objectification and fear of failure, almost always.


But you think of new entries to the workforce, and some of them are your HBS students who are working for investment banks, who are working for law firms, and there is this expectation of exploitation where, yes, I’m working around the clock. It is killing me, but it is getting me to where I will be rich, fulfilled, happy. How can people who are ambitious in those fields do otherwise?


One of the things that I tell my students is you’ve got to have a balanced happiness portfolio, and killing all of your relationships to spend 110 hours in an investment bank is the worst, most unbalanced happiness portfolio you can possibly get. Plus, you’re losing your best years to establish the relationships that you’re going to want to cultivate for the rest of your life.

People say, “Okay, I’m 28. I’m going to go get an investment bank job, they’re going to expect me to work a hundred hours a week. That’s fine. I’ll look for a spouse when I’m 35.” Probably not. I got the data, and the data don’t lie. You’re more and more likely to actually not have the thing that’s going to give you the most happiness in your life, which is your marriage. We actually have to think in a balanced-portfolio approach to the happiness that we’re trying to get, and making those sacrifices are really bad sacrifices.

Adi, guys like you and me, our age, in our fifties, you notice that we don’t make those sacrifices anymore. And the reason is because our time parameters are shorter. But also we’ve had bitter experience with these types of things. It’s funny, it’s like I’m a grandfather now and my grandson was born and suddenly I was a lot less interested in working. But part of it was the bitter experience.

I’ll tell you a story actually that will motivate this. When I was interviewing this woman for my last book, which is called From Strength to Strength, about how to get happier as you get older, a titan of Wall Street. This woman was just famous and rich, a billionaire, and she was horribly unhappy. She was my age, late fifties.

And I said, “What’s wrong?”

She said, “Well, my husband and I were roommates. I’m kind of cordial with my adult kids, but it’s not close. I’m getting bad reports from the doctor. I think I drink too much. I need to go to the gym. My employees are starting to doubt the wisdom of my decision-making. And I don’t know, what do I do?”

And I said, “What do you mean? You don’t need a Harvard professor to tell you what to do. You’re prescribing to yourself, stepping back, going away with your husband. You’re already rich. Why don’t you do that?”

She said, “It’s true, but I guess I’ve always chosen to be special rather than happy.”

Boom, man. It was like a knife to my heart, Adi. All these years when I was running a company and the 14th hour at the office before the first hour with my kids, well, news flash man, they grew up. They grew up and I missed a lot of it. And I really, really regret that. Now I’m not going to miss it with my grandkids, I get a do-over. I’m not going to screw that up twice. That’s a really important thing.

If I could have had a little bit more perspective, I would not have been less successful. The data don’t lie on this either. The 14th hour is not productive. It’s just compulsive. Just like any other addiction, the 14th drink doesn’t give you more joy. Stop at two, is the bottom line, because you need the balance in this part of your life as well.


At HBR we try to be super practical, so before you go, can you leave the audience shortcuts to happiness, or just things that viewers can think about or do today that can be a meaningful step in that direction?


Every week in my column in the Atlantic, every Thursday morning, I have a big topic and I do talk about the science, but then I always give three ways to live this thing.

Just in general, since we’re on the meta topic of happiness, the way to think about happiness is that it’s not a feeling. If happiness were a feeling, that would be very disappointing. It would depend on how you slept last night and what you ate for breakfast and no good. If your spouse yelled at you this morning, no good. Don’t chase the feeling. Feelings are evidence of happiness, like the smell of the turkey is evidence of your Thanksgiving dinner.

Happiness is three things that we need to be thinking about and managing in our lives. Enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. Those are the three big things that we need.

Enjoyment is not pleasure, pleasure is an animal thing. Enjoyment is the pleasure you get plus the people that you enjoy it with and the memories that you’re making. That’s why beer commercials don’t have a guy alone in his apartment pounding a 12 pack. They have people enjoying a few beers together because it’s pleasure plus people plus memory. Don’t do the stuff that makes you feel good alone. That’s the rule of thumb.

Second is satisfaction. Satisfaction is the joy you get when you struggle for something and you get that. Now fellow strivers, the striver’s curse is you get on something called the hedonic treadmill where you struggle and struggle and achieve it, but then it doesn’t give you very much satisfaction for very long and so you keep trying and trying and trying again.

The solution to that is not to have more, it’s to want less. Your satisfaction is your haves divided by your wants. Manage your denominator with a wants-management strategy.

And last but not least, it’s meaning, it’s purpose in your life. The way to figure out if you have a purpose crisis is asking yourself two simple questions. There’s no right answers, but you have to have answers. “Why am I alive, and for what am I willing to die today?” And if you don’t have answers, go looking for the answers with introspection. When you see somebody that finds those answers, it’s like an actual miracle.

These are the three things practically to think about. “Do I have enjoyment or just pleasure? Am I managing my wants or my haves, so I can have satisfaction? And do I have enough meaning in my life by answering those two questions?”


That’s great. I hope people took notes, I hope people try to act on that. Arthur, I want to thank you for being on the show.


Thank you, Adi. And thanks to everybody watching.

Source link

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Ahelper Tech Is news websites where you can get latest news around the world .


Subscribe my Newsletter for new blog posts, tips & new photos. Let's stay updated!

Laest News

@2023 – All Right Reserved. By Ahelper.tech