Achieving true happiness is both easier and more challenging than many people think. After all, the path to happiness is relatively straightforward. But happiness doesn’t just get showered upon us.
The secret, says happiness expert Arthur Brooks, is: If you want to be happy, you need to do the work of putting certain good habits in place.
Brooks is a professor at Harvard University, where he teaches courses on leadership and happiness, a columnist at The Atlantic, and the author of 12 books, including the 2022 #1 New York Times bestseller From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.
Brooks spoke with us recently about what happiness research can teach us about navigating work-life balance, finding meaningful work, and the habits that lie at the heart of happiness. He will also be a speaker at the 2022 Pennsylvania Conference Anywhere, held virtually on Oct. 7.
This year’s Pennsylvania Conference Anywhere speakers include
Malala Yousafzai, Marlee Matlin, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, and so many more.
Learn more and register (by August 17th!) at paconferenceforwomen.org.
Q: Does happiness research suggest any gender differences when it comes to achieving happiness and well-being?
That’s a great question, and the answer is no. But women and men do experience happiness curves differently based on their generation. If you look at women my age and older, many of them stayed home to raise kids. That means when they hit the second curve of life, they’re hitting their renaissance. They’re flourishing. They’re not stuck.
Q: In recent years, work-life balance has become even more challenging for women. What does the research suggest can help women navigate the quest for a healthier balance?
Most of what we hear about work-life balance is nonsense. It says develop interests. You don’t need interest. You need one thing: love. Work-life balance is about love. You need sufficient friends. You need family relationships. And you need to make sure you have a relationship with the divine, which simply means something transcendent. Happiness is basically four loves: love of the divine or transcendent, love of family, love of friends, and love of others through work. If you only work to be successful, you will be bereft.
Q: One good thing that COVID sparked for many was a heightened interest in finding meaningful work. But career transitions can be complex. So what is your advice for people who have invested years into a career that no longer feels meaningful?
The problem is that many people belong to a cult of workaholism. The idea is that the work is the be-all and end-all. It’s their identity. It’s where they think they get satisfaction. But cults are bad because they cut you off from the world.
When work is over-emphasized in your life, the thing to do about that is not just work less. The anticipation of a reward stimulates them. If you’re a success addict and a workaholic, you can’t just take the work away.
You have to add something instead. And that’s always relationships: friendship, marriage, kids. Many people resist that because they want to be special, and they think anybody can have a marriage and a relationship with their kids. But that’s not true. Not anybody can have a good marriage and good relationships with their kids. And even if they could, so much of the better.
Q: You’ve written, “Your well-being is like a retirement account: the sooner you invest, the greater your returns will be.” And the research shows that there are seven things we can do today to make those investments in long-term well-being.
They are: Don’t smoke. Watch your drinking. Maintain healthy body weight. Prioritize movement. Practice your coping mechanisms now. Keep learning. And cultivate stable long-term relationships.
These are pretty straightforward things. Do you think we tend to make happiness a more complex quest than it needs to be?
Part of the problem is that most of us think about happiness wrong. We think it’s a feeling. Happiness is not a feeling. Happy feelings are evidence of something you get from doing the work. Happiness is about having the right habits, not looking for hacks. Happiness is serious business. It takes work; it takes commitment. One of the reasons it’s hard for people is that they’re looking for the easy way out.
Q: You’ve shared that your happiness levels increased by a whopping 60 percent since you started writing your column in The Atlantic, “How to Build a Life.” What are the most significant changes you’ve made that have contributed to such a significant increase in happiness?
It’s because I’m teaching happiness. My father was a math professor, and he had a command of unbelievably complex message material. I went to him once and asked, ‘What’s your secret, dad?” He said, “I teach it.”
Teaching is the secret to the full command of anything. You have to do the work, you have to practice, and you have to teach it. Then you’re moving it to the executive part of your brain, and you can own it and remember it.
So, I committed to teaching happiness not just because I want to bring happiness to other people but also to be happy with myself.
If you haven’t already, register today for the 2022 Pennsylvania Conference for Women to hear from Brooks and other inspiring speakers, including Jane Fonda, Arianna Huffington, Yara Shahidi, and more.