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What Makes You Happy?

There’s no denying it—happiness is hot these days. But has our obsession with joy brought us any closer to finding it? And does it belong in business? New research attempts to answer those questions and more.

By Tracy Mueller

Photography by Matt Wright-Steel
Hair and makeup by Texas Dela Rosa 

happy face balloon

GDP doesn’t register “the beauty of our poetry or the strength or our marriages or the intelligence of our public debate.” It measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.” –Robert Kennedy

Freshly graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with computer science and philosophy degrees, Nipun Mehta found early success and plenty of money in his first post-college job at Sun Microsystems. But he quickly tired of dot-com greed and, in 2001 at age 25, quit his lucrative job to become a “full-time volunteer” and launch a website that organizes service projects. Four years later, he and his wife sold all their possessions and embarked on a 621-mile walk across India to do random acts of kindness and profile inspiring people. 

Mehta’s life mission statement: “Bring smiles in the world and stillness in my heart.”

What a hippie.

Or is he?

Some might dismiss Mehta’s pursuits as touchy-feely, Miss-America-hopes-for-world-peace naiveté. But his proclivity for positivity is part of a recent societal obsession with all things happy. 

In 2005 the tiny Himalayan country Bhutan began officially measuring its citizens’ “gross national happiness.” lists more than 5,000 books published in the last five years with the word “happiness” in the title, with works such as “The Happiness Project” and CEO Tony Hsieh’s “Delivering Happiness” among those landing on best-seller lists. Job search website publishes an annual “Happiest Companies” ranking, and the website offers a “BlissFinder” tool to help you find the job that will “put a smile on your face.”

Even our kids are in on the happiness craze. In 2010 “Serenity” was the 84th-most popular baby girl name in the United States, following a steady upward climb from 979th in 1997.    

How to be happierThe pursuit of happiness isn’t a wholly modern conceit. It’s right there in our Declaration of Independence. And philosophers and over-caffeinated grad students have been debating the nature of happiness for ages.

But now more than ever we have rich insight into what really makes us happy, thanks to the positive psychology movement that studies healthy minds instead of sick ones. 

Happiness is making waves in business, too. Marketers are learning about how it drives consumer choices. And in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and recent high-profile ethics scandals, individuals and companies are questioning whether our priorities have been misplaced.

The Loftiest Goal

The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. –Bertrand Russell

Raj RaghunathanAssociate Professor of Marketing Raj Raghunathan thinks it’s about time. The youthful 44-year-old studies psychology, happiness and consumer behavior and writes about happiness on his “Sapient Nature” blog for

“Happiness is, if anything, the loftiest goal there is,” Raghunathan says. He argues that business school is a natural, if unexpected, setting in which to study it, both as a counter to the focus on profits and because examining what makes us happy could dramatically affect our career choices and contributions to society. 

If everyone devoted themselves to discovering and chasing their passions—instead of maximum power and money—we’d all be better off, he says. That goal is, he points out, the core mission of The University of Texas at Austin: “To transform lives for the benefit of society.”

Raghunathan concedes that putting happiness above productivity and profit might slow the gears of business a bit, but the trade-off would be quantity for quality.

“Maybe the number of gadgets that gets produced by the hour would come down, but they’ll be of greater benefit to society,” he says.

What about the almighty American value of hard work, despite what makes us happy?

Kristal Braley with her son“To say that happiness is not important and you need to work hard for the sake of being productive, that’s nonsense,” he says. “Why do you want to be productive? People say, ‘To uplift society.’ So that means you worry about people’s happiness. At some level, that’s what makes you happy.”

For all his talk of meaning and fulfillment, Raghunathan is no slouch in the hard science department. He sits on the editorial boards of three academic journals and has published multiple studies on things like how consumers choose food products and the winning formula employed by popular television ads (the latter study is co-authored by noted Stanford professor and “Made to Stick” co-author Chip Heath). He holds an undergraduate degree in engineering and earned his Ph.D. from New  York University’s Stern School of Business. 

“Growing up in India, you either could do engineering or medicine,” Raghunathan says. “I’d always been interested in happiness but didn’t quite know what to do with it, so I ended up doing what I thought every successful person does.”

Now, along with his work on customer insight and marketing strategy, he makes room for examining happiness. And that makes him, well …

Jonathan Kaplan“I’m pursuing something into which I can lose my sense of self-consciousness,” he says. “This is my authentic self. I can experience what’s called ‘flow’ moments with this. I lose track of time. I love thinking about it anytime, all the time.”

In his teaching, Raghunathan tries to help students explore meaningful questions about happiness in a scientific manner, discussing life’s calling with business tools such as SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) analyses. He wants students to realize there are multiple career paths to explore and that even exceedingly smart, ambitious people can devote themselves to service. It’s why he invited Nipun Mehta—the guy who ditched Sun Microsystems to walk across India—to be a guest speaker in his MBA “Creativity and Leadership” class. 

“The class purpose is about finding a life of meaning, to help people figure out what would be the ingredients for a fulfilling, happy life,” Raghunathan explains.

So far his approach is striking a chord. The class fills up, with a waiting list, every semester.

A Lack of Logic

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”  —Mohandas Gandhi

Michael FroehlsWhen researchers talk about happiness, they don’t mean that temporary feeling of superiority because of something you’ve accomplished, or the glee that accompanies the purchase of a new pair of shoes. Raghunathan’s own definition is this: “a feeling of centeredness, of internal harmony, and a feeling of enthusiasm about what life has to offer and that you’re connected with everybody.”

Sounds like a tall order, but research has identified what tends to make us happy. Basic needs like food and shelter must be met. A few close relationships and meaningful work matter. So do trust and gratitude.

What Raghunathan’s research examines—and what marketers are trying to understand—is how our feelings, desires and societal beliefs influence our choices more than any logical data.

For instance, in one study, Raghunathan and his research partners presented people with two options—say, two types of jobs—one of which would clearly give greater happiness than the other. 

Christine ChenParticipants were able to identify the happier, more meaningful option. But when asked to choose one for themselves, they routinely picked the less happy option—say, the stressful job with the higher salary. That’s because feelings of insecurity and greed and a desire for self-importance override the knowledge of what makes us happy, Raghunathan says.

In another study, Raghunathan found that we also trick ourselves into justifying emotion-based choices by revising our values afterwards. For example, you enter a car dealership wanting an affordable, fuel-efficient vehicle, but get seduced into buying a flashy gas guzzler. After the purchase, you change your opinion of how much fuel-efficiency matters to you, in order to rationalize the choice. 

In other words, our feelings heavily influence our choices, which in turn can influence subsequent feelings. This, says Raghunathan, is precisely why research and teaching about happiness belong in the business world. To say that happiness and feelings have no place at the office is to deny how we really work. 

And a lifetime of that approach may get you a successful career, but little else—a guarantee for unhappiness in the end, says Raghunathan. He adds that while not everyone may agree, he’d, “much rather be a beggar in some third-world country who is extremely happy, than somebody who’s achieved a lot but is an internal mess.”


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