There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
I recently spoke to Raghunathan about his book, and the interview that follows has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.
Joe Pinsker: One of the premises of your book is that people may have a sense of what will make them happy, but they approach those things in ways that don’t maximize happiness. Could you provide an example of that disconnect?
Raj Raghunathan: If you take the need for mastery—the need for competence—there are two broad approaches that one can take to becoming very good at something. One approach is to engage in what people call social comparisons. That is, wanting to be the best at doing something: “I want to be the best professor there is,” or something like that.
There are many problems with that, but one big problem with that is that it's very difficult to assess. What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension? What are the yardsticks for being the best professor? Is it about research, teaching? Even if you take only teaching, is it the ratings you get from students, or is it the content that you deliver in class, or the number of students who pass an exam or take a test and do really well in it? So it gets very difficult to judge, because these yardsticks become increasingly ambiguous as a field becomes narrower or more technical.
So what happens in general is that people tend to gravitate toward less ambiguous—even if they're not so relevant—yardsticks. People judge the best professors by the number of awards they get, or the salary that they get, or the kind of school that they are in, which might on the face of it seem like it's a good yardstick for judging how good somebody is, but at the same time it's not really relevant to the particular field.
And those yardsticks are ones that we adapt to really quickly. So if you get a huge raise this month, you might be happy for a month, two months, maybe six months. But after that, you're going to get used to it and you're going to want another big bump. And you'll want to keep getting those in order to sustain your happiness levels. In most people you can see that that's not a very sustainable source of happiness.
Pinsker: What’s the other mindset?
Raghunathan: What I recommend is an alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you're really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don't need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you're good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you're going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.
If you were to go back to the three things that people need—mastery, belonging, and autonomy—I'd add a fourth, after basic necessities have been met. It’s the attitude or the worldview that you bring to life. And that worldview can be characterized, just for simplicity, in one of two fashions: One extreme is a kind of scarcity-minded approach, that my win is going to come at somebody else's loss, which makes you engage in social comparisons. And the other view is what I would call a more abundance-oriented approach, that there's room for everybody to grow.
Pinsker: I was really interested by the line you were drawing in the book between abundance and scarcity, because instantly that makes me think of economics: Economics is, in many ways, the study of things that are scarce. Can you talk about the mental processes that are at play when people are thinking in terms of scarcity?
Raghunathan: I'm not trying to argue in the book that the scarcity mindset is either shallow or completely useless. If you're caught in a warzone, if you're in a poverty-stricken area, if you're fighting for your survival, if you're in a competitive sport like boxing, the scarcity mindset does play a very important role.
Most of us are the products of people who survived in what was for a very, very long time, in our evolution as a species, a scarcity-oriented universe. Food was scarce, resources were scarce, fertile land was scarce, and so on. So we do have a very hard-wired tendency to be scarcity-oriented. But I think what has happened over time is we don't have to literally fight for our survival every day.
I think that as intelligent beings we need to recognize that some of the vestiges of our evolutionary tendencies might be holding us back. If I'm at an advertising agency, for example, or in software design, those are the kinds of fields where it is now being shown in quite a lot of studies that you actually perform better if you don't put yourself under the scarcity mindset, if you don’t worry about the outcomes and enjoy the process of doing something, rather than the goal.
Pinsker: Since we’re hard-wired to think in terms of scarcity, I’m very interested in what can be done to prod someone into a different mindset. One experiment you talked about in the book found that workers who received a daily email to remind them to make decisions that maximize happiness reported being markedly happier than those who didn't get the email. Is it really as simple as that sort of thing?
Raghunathan: On the one hand, we are hard-wired to focus more on negative things. But at the same time, we are also all hard-wired to be seeking a sense of happiness and the desire to flourish, and to be the best we can be. Ultimately, what we need in order to be happy is at some level pretty simple. It requires doing something that you find meaningful, that you can kind of get lost in on a daily basis.
When you observe children, they are very good at this. They don't get distracted by all those extrinsic yardsticks. They go for things that really bring them a lot of enjoyment. In my book I talk about when we got my son a little mechanical car when he was about 3 years old, because he saw a neighbor get that car. He was into the car for about three days. After that he wanted to play with the box in which the car came. It was just a box. He didn't have any idea that the car cost more, or was more valuable, or more technologically advanced. He was into the box because he saw a character on a TV show called Hamilton the pig, who lives inside a box. He wanted to replicate that life for himself.
What we were trying to do in that particular study is bring that focus back into people's attention. For example, rather than sitting in front of the TV, a father might decide to play a little game of baseball with his son. What people might do varies, but when there’s a reminder, what we discover is that—and these are studies conducted with Fortune 500 employees, undergraduate students—they make seemingly small, you might even call them trivial, decisions, but they add up to a happier life overall. This simple reminder on an everyday basis is a kind of reality check, which puts things in perspective for people.
Pinsker: What do you think it is about the messages people receive about what it takes to be successful in business that runs counter to this mindset? In other words, do you think that working your way up any professional ladder requires not thinking in terms of abundance?
Raghunathan: Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, talks about how what used to be used as motivators to employees—what he calls the carrots and sticks approach—are now being replaced by what he calls “Motivation 2.0,” which is more trying to figure out what is it that people are really passionate about. Google is a famous big company that tries to practice this, and Whole Foods is another.
I do think that we carry lots of baggage from how businesses used to operate. Simon Sinek, in one of his books, makes the argument that businesses and the rules by which businesses operate are structured along the lines of how the military used to operate—very hierarchical and scarcity-oriented. But he talks about how, actually, if you look a little bit deeper into the best leaders in the military, they tend not to be that way. So there's been a mistaken adoption of a certain set of ideas based on how things used to operate in the past, but in fact, what's now emerging as a much more successful approach to doing business and to being successful is having a more abundance-oriented approach.
In the big picture, the business world’s messages are a little jumbled. In business schools, I see that there's a huge push towards corporate social responsibility and finding a passion, but at the same time, if you look at the kinds of people who get invited to come give keynote addresses, or what it is that we focus on to improve our Businessweek rankings, it's things that are extrinsic. We invite people who made a million bucks, and we look at incoming MBA students and their outgoing salaries.
Pinsker: You mentioned earlier how easily people adapt to positive changes in their lives, and I’m familiar with the research showing that lottery winners are no happier, a year later, than even people who just as recently suffered serious injuries. That resonates with me: If you told me back in high school that I was going to be writing for a magazine, I'd have been overjoyed. And right now, I am happy in many ways, but I still have a lot of the same old insecurities and worries about the future. I assume it’s something a lot of others experience too. Can you talk about what's necessary to steer yourself away from that mindset?
Raghunathan: That's the plight of most people in the world, I would say. There are expectations that if you achieve some given thing, you're going to be happy. But it turns out that's not true. And a large part of that is due to adaptation, but a large part of it also is that you see this mountain in front of you and you want to climb over it. And when you do, it turns out there are more mountains to climb.
The one thing that has really really helped me in this regard is a concept that I call “the dispassionate pursuit of passion” in the book, and basically the concept boils down to not tethering your happiness to the achievement of outcomes. The reason why it's important to not tie happiness to outcomes is that outcomes by themselves don't really have an unambiguously positive or negative effect on your happiness. Yes, there are some outcomes—you get a terminal disease, or your child dies—that are pretty extreme, but let's leave those out. But if you think about it, the breakup that you had with your childhood girlfriend, or you broke an arm and were in a hospital bed for two months, when they occurred, you might have felt, “Oh my goodness, this is the end of the world! I'm never going to recover from it.” But it turns out we're very good at recovering from those, and not just that, but those very events that we thought were really extremely negative were in fact pivotal in making us grow and learn.
Everybody's got some kind of a belief about whether good things are going to happen or bad things are going to happen. There's no way to scientifically prove that one of these beliefs is more accurate than another. But if you believe life is benign, you're going to see lots of evidence for it. If you think life is malign, you're going to see lots of evidence for it. It's kind of like a placebo effect. Given that all of these beliefs are all equally valid, why not adopt the belief that is going to be more useful to you in your life as you go along?
Pinsker: It's become clear to me after reading your book and talking to you that American culture, and maybe even capitalism in general, doesn't do very much to encourage the abundance approach over the scarcity approach. Are there any societies or cultures that in your mind have figured this out, or is it the case that society will almost always send certain messages, and it’s up to individuals to have their own counterprogramming?
Raghunathan: On the face of it, it might look like I'm saying that capitalism in general is not very good at promoting an abundance mindset. But I don't think that that is entirely accurate. If you were to break capitalism down into two very important tenets, one is the freedom of movement of people, thought, and goods, and the freedom of choice. The second aspect is a distribution of resources according to people's abilities rather than according to people's needs.
That first tenet of capitalism, I think, is beautiful, and I wouldn't let go of it. And if that ideology comes with the baggage of distribution of resources according to abilities, then I take that package, rather than a package where you restrict people's freedom of thought and what kinds of choices they can make, even if it's combined with a distribution of resources according to people's needs.
Ultimately, you can't force people to adopt an abundance mindset. They're going to have to select it themselves, through self-exploration and soul-searching, and looking at the science. Then, some people consciously arrive at a more socialistic way of living, by choice. That's the way in which I think this is going to work out best—for capitalism to kind of flip itself on its head to arrive at that.
Joe Pinsker is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers families and education.