If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy?

 

Takeaway

  • People often list happiness as a personal goal but do not take direct action to attain it
  • Some regard happiness as too abstract a wish or worry that being happy would also make them become selfish
  • One key reason people don’t pursue happiness is that it just doesn’t occur to them

“I’m already as happy as I want to be.” 

“I don’t want to be happy all the time.” 

“I don’t deserve to be happy.”

Whatever the reason for denying your own pursuit of happiness, Raj Raghunathan has likely heard it before – and he, for one, believes you should be happy. “When you’re happy, you’re spreading your happiness to other people, you’re being selfless,” Raghunathan said. “So for the sake of others, even if you think you don’t deserve to be happy, I think you ought to be happy.” 

Raghunathan, an associate professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business, has more than a passing interest in happiness. “It’s my passion; it’s my calling,” Raghunathan said of the topic, which was the focus of his Texas Enterprise Speaker Series talk, "If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy?” on Nov. 1.  

He’s not the only one interested in being happy. “It seems like everybody acknowledges that happiness is very, very important,” Raghunathan said, pointing to the long list of writings on the topic, dating back to Greek philosopher Aristotle’s time onward. Additionally, polls show that along with health, good relationships, and career success, “happiness always emerges as one of the top goals” among those surveyed, Raghunathan said.   

Yet, when given the ability to choose, people don’t opt for happiness. 

Raghunathan demonstrates this reality by asking people “the genie question,” a fictional scenario where a genie appears and offers to grant them three wishes. “You would think that, of course, people should wish for happiness. Why not, right? The genie is giving you everything and anything, is all-powerful, all knowing,” Raghunathan said. 

Instead, people typically ask the genie to grant other wishes — such as fulfilling their desires for material possessions, good relationships, personal growth, and health — rather than happiness, which typically ends up near the bottom of the “genie question” survey results. 

Why is that? When asked about their choices, people provide numerous explanations for not picking happiness. Among the responses, some people believe that unlike more concrete desires (like wealth or fancy homes) happiness is too abstract a wish. Others express concern that being happy would also make them become selfish. Another group expresses fear about giving the genie control over their lives.  

For much of his talk, Raghunathan countered these anti-happiness arguments. For example, rather than promoting selfishness, he noted how emotion research suggests that happy people are actually more likely to give back. “You’re less selfish when you’re happy. It’s only when you’re not happy that you become more selfish,” he said. 

Raghunathan then came to what he labeled the “real reason” why people don’t ask the genie for happiness: It just doesn’t occur to them. In fact, when he prompts people by noting happiness as a wish option, the percentage of people asking the genie for happiness suddenly shoots up. This reveals what Raghunathan calls the fundamental happiness paradox: Despite the premium placed on happiness, people forget about that goal and end up making decisions that don’t maximize their happiness. 

People are conditioned by society to follow certain rules for living, Raghunathan explains. Once we lose sight of happiness as the goal, we can get caught up in seeking money, power, and importance. We end up chasing the “mediums to happiness rather than happiness itself,” he said. 

“Until you reach a certain level of success, until you’ve sampled a level of fame, a certain level of wealth, you can continue to believe that maybe if I got more of those, I’m going to be happy,” Raghunathan said. That’s why achieving those rewards can still leave us unfulfilled. Instead, Raghunathan recommends doing what you enjoy and getting lost in the activity, similar to being in a state of “flow.”  

He offered other tips, as well. Raghunathan suggested replacing our need to be loved with the aim of giving love. “That’s one of the world’s best-kept secrets, I think. When you love other people, when you’re outwardly focused, chances are you’re more likely to be happy,” he said.  

Additionally, Raghunathan encouraged people to reduce their need to control and change others, instead turning the focus inward to change ourselves and take responsibility for our positive emotional state, regardless of what happens externally. 

Finally, he said rather than requiring clarity on complex issues, we should be willing to embrace ambiguity. That extends to a willingness to entertain spiritual ideas, such as considering the possibility of a benign universe that wants us to flourish and prosper.  

Of course, there aren’t any simple answers to becoming happy, as Raghunathan himself has discovered. “It’s been a lifelong journey," he said. “The more I make peace with the idea that I’ll never arrive at an answer, the answer might change … but there are some basics that seem to point me in the right direction.”  

View highlights from Raghunathan's presentation in the video below. For the full video, click here.

 

UPDATE: Hear Raj's interview aired December 31, 2012 on K-UT.

See video

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Raj Raghunathan

Associate Professor of Marketing McCombs School of Business

Raj Raghunathan earned his Ph.D. from the Stern School of Business at New York University. His work juxtaposes theories from psychology,...

About the Author

Jeremy Simon

Writer, McCombs School of Business

As a writer for Texas Enterprise, Jeremy covers business-related research and news from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition, he manages...