They are smart and successful, their gilded lives evoking envy in their peers. But several studies confirm they aren't necessarily happier than those less accomplished or less well off. The enigma of happiness -- what it is and how to attain it -- has engaged psychologists, researchers and almost all of us at some time or the other. Bestselling books like The Happiness Project provide a road map to gladness, and the growing appetite for such guides is no surprise in an increasingly complex world.
According to one of the world's leading authorities on happiness, Raj Raghunathan -- a University of Texas professor, who has trained more than 100,000 people through the online education portal Coursera, his classes at the McCombs School of Business in Austin and the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad -- there are seven secrets to adding bliss to your daily business.
People often make choices they know won't make them happier...
His book, If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy? published by Penguin Random House UK, is a thought-provoking analysis backed by detailed research on the habits we need to cultivate to find joy amidst the highs and lows of our daily lives. The habits provide the antidote to the "seven deadly sins" that are the enemies of happiness. These are:
1. Devaluing happiness
Answer the question: "If a genie grants you three wishes what would they be?" No doubt the wishes would include health, wealth, loving relationships... but would they include happiness as a stated goal? Raghunathan's research suggests not. What's more, there's a paradox. People often make choices they know won't make them happier -- for instance, by choosing a well-paid job as opposed to being an apprentice to a master in their field of special interest.
In another experiment, 72% of participants were willing to sacrifice happiness in a relationship for the sake of "being right" while others still bought an object they liked less because they were getting another one free which was "better value for money."
Ergo: Don't devalue happiness when making important choices in life because expediency just isn't the same thing.
2. Chasing superiority
We have an evolutionary impulse to be "superior" and a socio-economic system that rewards it. The paradox here is that while successful people are happier and healthier as a rule, the pursuit of superiority lowers happiness for many reasons. Being superior is an indefinable goal: there's always someone better, richer and more willing to make personal sacrifices for success. Moreover, the successful tend to be "takers" not givers, and material success, as many studies show, brings less warmth than loving relationships and the ability to be satisfied in your skin.
[W]hile successful people are happier and healthier as a rule, the pursuit of superiority lowers happiness for many reasons.
Instead, suggests Raghunathan, pursue "flow" -- the kind of experience where you are so absorbed you lose track of time as you strive to master some activity. Humans have an innate desire for mastery and flow promotes creativity, enhances ability and if consistently applied, leads to domain mastery. Studies show mastery over feelings and abilities provides more happiness and personal fulfillment than success alone.
3. Desperation for love
The need for love and intimacy is well documented through experiments such as Harry Harlow's where baby monkeys were separated from their mothers at birth with damaging consequences. Intimate relations and social connections emerge as a proven source of happiness in another long-term Harvard study. However, when attachment is based on deep-seated insecurities, sometimes promoted by a social milieu in which romantic love has the highest place, it can lead to desperation. Being needy or, conversely, avoiding intimate relationships leads to loneliness, another cause of unhappiness.
The first strategy for overcoming neediness or avoidance, says Raghunathan, is expressing gratitude, which helps us connect and bond with others. The ability to love others is a great source of happiness because we are hardwired to do so, since our survival depended on it. Studies show it improves our health, leads to altruism and is ultimately, a source of success in itself. The book details three rules for giving and ideas for being creatively altruistic as well as forming secure attachments.
4. Being overly controlling
Being at the mercy of circumstances can be one of the deepest causes of unhappiness and it's no surprise we try and control events so they unfold in a way that works for us. But controlling others leads to psychological reactance or resistance and poor decision-making as we drive away those who disagree. The obsessive need to control events invariably sets us up for disappointment and stress. Not surprisingly, those who experience high levels of happiness have learnt to live with uncertainty by gaining internal control of their thoughts and feelings.
[C]ontrolling others leads to psychological reactance or resistance and poor decision-making as we drive away those who disagree.
Internal control is also about taking personal responsibility for your happiness, by deciding to be happy even when things look bad. Leading a healthy lifestyle and employing emotional regulation tactics like correct labelling of feelings and defining happiness in a less egocentric way are all part of the techniques explored in this chapter.
5. Distrusting others
Many years ago the noted political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called Trust, examining the enormous social and economic dividends reaped by societies with a high level of trust. Trust begets trustworthiness and a network of trusty relationships supports happiness, whereas social cynicism is one of the most negative aspects of our lives.
The author outlines strategies for proactively building trust, including practicing forgiveness more for oneself than to absolve the offender. As the saying goes, "Holding a grudge is like allowing someone to live in your head rent free." Besides, we don't always know why people behave the way they do so those who make allowances for others -- and who like people in general -- are far more likely to have trust. Also: tolerance is reciprocated.
6. Passionate pursuit of passion
In today's fast-paced world, experiments show that being busy as opposed to idle is an important happiness trigger. Important because it suggests we can derive happiness from the process rather than the outcomes of our actions. Even if the outcome is negative you can delink your happiness from it. Raghunathan calls this "the dispassionate pursuit of passion" and it is an important contributor to happiness as it allows us to distance ourselves from disappointing outcomes of our endeavours, even as we enjoy pursuing them.
"The dispassionate pursuit of passion"... allows us to distance ourselves from disappointing outcomes of our endeavours...
The knowledge that things are rarely as bad in hindsight also helps us understand that disappointment often wanes because we have learnt from negative experiences. They validate us if we are smart.
7. Mind addiction
While we often make choices based on feelings, we tend to rationalize them because we believe reasoning is superior to emotion. Yet our gut feelings can work as accurately as our intellect in forming sound split-second judgments about people and situations. Gut feelings are also the real source of creativity and inspiration, as scientists as well as artists aver. Raghunathan says "mindfulness" as opposed to mind addiction is the seventh habit of the truly happy.
Meditation physically changes the left prefrontal cortex of the brain so it is "happier", because it allows us to observe our thoughts objectively and in so doing, gives us the power to change them and with them, our emotions. Mindfulness intensifies positive emotions because it increases self -perception, improves behaviour and makes us realize "that happiness is our fundamental nature", an idea that lies at the core of Buddhism and Hinduism. That it helps us connect with our inner sources of happiness is the most powerful argument for being a fly on the wall inside your head as often as you can.
To sum up, "Happiness is an MBA," says the author. The formula consists of pursuing Mastery over one's talents, thoughts and feelings; Belonging, as in the need to receive and give love which also leads to enhanced happiness through intimacy; and Autonomy, the freedom to be the architects of our own destiny.
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