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The True Path to a Happy Life

You would think that having wealth and success would be the ultimate formula for happiness. But that’s often not the case. Marketing professor Raj Raghunathan learned this firsthand. About 10 years ago, he seemed to have it all: a great job, plenty of money and a beautiful family. Still, he was empty inside and realized that many of his colleagues felt the same way.

This inspired him to launch a research project to identify the building blocks that lead to inner peace. Surprisingly, he learned that the trick was pursuing the opposite of what most so-called successful people seem to be after. Raj went on to create a course teaching the keys to happiness at the University of Texas at Austin and elsewhere, becoming a nationally recognized expert on the topic in the process.

Now he’s put together his best advice in a new book, aptly titled If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? In this interview, he gives us a preview of the path to greater fulfillment, regardless of your profession, net worth or stage in life.

How do you define “happiness?”

It’s a very subjective term, since what makes someone happy differs from one person to another. At a base level, happiness is a positive emotion that you desire to experience. It’s the feeling you get when falling in love or when you’re traveling somewhere and there’s no place you’d rather be at that moment in time. It can also be measured scientifically. In my book, I use something called the Life Satisfaction Scale. This assesses happiness across various points on a scale based on a number of subjective factors. But there’s a neurological and psychological component as well: Research shows that happy people have less stress, lower amounts of cortisol and thicker prefrontal cortexes. Incidentally, happy people are generally nicer to others, get sick less and earn more money.

Yet you discovered that making more money doesn’t necessarily lead to greater happiness. In fact, you note that it can have the opposite effect.

Studies show that some of the things people assume bring great happiness really don’t. Examples include being rich, having more education, getting higher grades, being intelligent and even having fame. The average person will tell you all this is what leads to a lot of satisfaction, but it rarely works that way. In fact, research tells us that once you make over $75,000, the amount of real happiness in your life from income alone doesn’t go up all that much. By contrast, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, giving money away to others is more likely to make you happy. Money is a means to an end. If you spend it wisely, in a happiness-maximizing fashion, that can make you happier. But if you have a materialistic attitude, where making money is an end in itself rather than a by-product of doing what you enjoy, you wind up tethering your self-esteem to the wrong things.

So it’s about changing your frame of mind?

Yes, and looking at things from a different perspective. For instance, if you get fired, instead of dwelling on how awful it is, think about all of the positive things your boss did to enable you to build your career and get the skills you need to find an even better job elsewhere. Turn anger into gratitude. It takes practice, but harnessing the power of our prefrontal cortex can be life-changing.

You observe that most of us are really happy as kids but tend to lose that feeling as we grow older. Why is that?

There are a couple of primary reasons. First, as kids we’re given permission to be pampered by our caretakers. You don’t have to worry about food or basic comforts because it’s all taken care of for you. But there’s another factor that has more to do with physiology in that our brain structure isn’t fully formed until we reach our late teens. As kids, the part of the brain that helps us think about what might happen in the future is still growing. We are therefore more apt to live in the moment. We’re not looking several steps ahead at the potential consequences of our actions. Incidentally, animals live in the present all the time. Zebras are content until a lion comes chasing after them. They don’t constantly think about getting attacked, yet they are ready to act once it happens.

Getting back to the title of your book, why is it that smart and successful people are less happy?

It is a bit of a conundrum. At the very least, they are less happy than what one would expect. Part of the reason is that smart people tend to operate from what might be called a “scarcity mind-set.” They have a belief that life is a zero-sum game and they can’t win unless someone else loses. I try to help people instead live from what I call an “abundance mind-set.” This is where you’re perfectly content with everything you already have and therefore have a sense of overflowing joy that allows you to flourish and thrive. It’s the opposite of scarcity. You’d think that the abundance mindset would be triggered by how rich, famous or successful you are, but it’s not. It’s an internal decision we consciously make. No one else can tell you how abundant you ought to feel. As a result of the scarcity mindset, smarter people exhibit habits that deflate their happiness levels. I call these habits the “deadly sins” of happiness.

Among the sins you write about are chasing superiority, being desperate for love and devaluing happiness.

The good news is we aren’t doomed to exhibit these sins, and there are antidotes for each one. For instance, people inherently want to be happier, but they devalue happiness by sacrificing it for other things, like working long hours to get ahead or making more money. The antidote in this case is to prioritize — but not pursue — happiness. It might sound subtle, but changing your mindset is very achievable and will really improve your overall happiness and lust for life.

You also warn against chasing after the wrong things in life.

That’s a really big thing that successful people have a hard time grasping. If you devote all of your efforts to being the richest, most famous, most powerful person with the most toys — which a lot of successful types do — the evidence shows you’ll be setting yourself up to be less happy and less successful. Similarly, comparing yourself to others actually lowers both happiness levels and your chance of becoming a success.