Professor Raj Raghunathan, a visiting faculty at the Indian School of Business, is affiliated to the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business. He is interested in affect and decision making, hedonic and utilitarian consumption, and consumer behaviour. His pioneering research has advanced our understanding of happiness, creativity and human fulfilment. In a conversation with Chitti Pantulu, Director of Marketing & Communications, Professor Raghunathan discussed the growing body of research on happiness, its implications for individuals, communities and organisations, and his own unique approach to the subject.
Chitti Pantulu: Everybody wants to be happy. Over the years we have seen several movies on the subject and it is also part of our daily conversation. To that extent, the pursuit of happiness is a universal activity. But the question is how does one actually define happiness?
Raj Raghunathan: As you mentioned, happiness is something that everyone is seeking. Defining happiness has become the primary concern of researchers interested in this topic. Over the last 15 years or so, this has been their main area of focus.
The interesting thing about happiness is that if you were to ask somebody, “How happy are you?”, they don’t know exactly what you mean by happiness. That doesn’t mean that people are confused when asked this simple question. More often than not, they respond, “Oh, I’m not feeling so good today” or “I’m great,” or something along those lines. People have an intuitive understanding of what happiness means.
It has been found that the people in the east tend to associate happiness more with the feeling of serenity,while people from the west tend to associate it more with the feeling of joy.
Can we categorise happiness? Does it help you in your work?
Recently, there have been attempts to categorise different kinds of positive feelings and label them, and there have been studies to identify some markers of each of these positive feelings. The attempt to identify differences among positive feelings is a worthwhile one because it clears up the whole domain for us. It is universally accepted that happiness is a positive feeling. But researchers have tried to go beyond this. There is a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chappell Hill, Barbara Fredrickson, who has written a couple of books — “Positivity” and “Love 2.0”.
In “Positivity,” she talks about 10 different kinds of positive feelings that one may experience and she has even ranked them in order of prevalence, that is, how frequently people experience these positive feelings. The first and most prevalent kind of feeling is one that she calls joy, and it is a feeling that one experiences when one thinks that life is going well, has everything one needs, does not really want anything major, is probably physically healthy, is surrounded by pleasant sensations, people and experiences, and so on. That is perhaps the feeling with which most people associate the word happiness. And then one may experience a feeling such as serenity, which is a more tranquil feeling compared to joy. Joy is more excitable. Fredrickson has listed eight other kinds of feelings, which include love and hope, and so on. All of these are positive feelings and everybody is able to connect with them in some way or another.
Do people all over the world have a singular definition for happiness?
No, the definition differs from culture to culture. It has been found that the people in the east tend to associate happiness more with the feeling of serenity, while people from the west tend to associate it more with the feeling of joy. Jennifer Archer from Stanford and Casey Gilner from Wharton have examined this difference. They found that the definition of happiness also varies with the age of the person. It turns out that older people tend to associate happiness more with serenity, and younger people, with joy.
You have also done some work on defining happiness. Please tell us a little bit about your work.
To get at people’s definition of happiness or at least their implicit understanding of happiness, what I did was rather than asking people directly what happiness meant to them (which basically shut them up), I asked them to tell me the last time they were really happy. Then I asked them to write it down. This gave me the opportunity to content analyse what they wrote. Based on that analysis, I learned what feelings/ emotions people associated with happiness.
Did you try this experiment with people at B-schools? What did you find?
Since I am at a business school, I have done these studies with undergraduate and MBA students and also with corporate employees. I found that the most common event with which people associate the term happiness is one that has a social connection. “I visited home for Diwali” or “I had a get-together with my friends at home” - these are the kinds of experiences with which people associate the word happiness. This shows that a sense of connection, love and belonging means happiness to these people.
The second most common feeling is pride. About 40 percent of people associate happiness with an event that has to do with love or a sense of connection, and 30 percent with pride. Now there are two kinds of pride. One is what you may call hubristic pride, where one feels superior to another person and therefore feels happy. It’s all about “I won that race,” or “I got the award” or “I won the case competition”. Then there is something called authentic pride, which has more to do with being better than one was before. It is not about comparing oneself to other people but comparing oneself to who one was before, for example, “I learnt how to become a better presenter,” or “I learnt this new skill” or “I am no longer afraid of Math”. Both authentic and hubristic pride also define happiness. Ultimately, there are all these different ways of labelling positive emotions and each could potentially be equated with happiness.
When did the study of happiness actually emerge as an area of research? Spiritual gurus, “godmen” and self-styled experts have been talking about it for a long time, but when and how did universities and serious researchers like yourself actually begin looking at this topic?
For the most part, psychology has been focussing on what we might call negative deviations. Sigmund Freud, for example, treated people who displayed abnormal behaviour that he theorised was a manifestation of repressed dreams/ states or childhood problems. The focus of psychology had historically been on abnormal behaviour. It was believed that it was more important to fix negative deviations and make people normal than to look at normal people who were existing or surviving, but not leading fulfilling lives. However, in 1998, the then president of the American Psychological Association, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Psychology Department Martin Seligman, said that we have been focussing and obsessing over the negative side of human beings and that perhaps we have a lot to learn from people who are normal. And come to think of it, many of us by definition are average or normal. What Seligman said was that rather than looking only at how we may cure people with behavioural deviations and make them normal, why don’t we also look at people who are “normal” and make them more positive and help them thrive and flourish and lead more fulfilling lives? With that presidential address of 1998, the focus of psychology shifted to supposedly normal people, and the field of what is called positive psychology began.
In 1998, the then president of the American Psychological Association, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Psychology Department Martin Seligman, said that we have been focussing and obsessing over the negative side of human beings and that perhaps we have a lot to learn from people who
As far as I’ m concerned, I was probably always interested in happiness. It was just a lucky thing for me that I completed my PhD in 1999, a year after Seligman’s historical address. I didn’t even know about his address and the whole movement until about 2005 or maybe 2006, but I had independently started working on happiness. The very second paper that I published was on the idea of hedonic adaptation, which is that we get used to things such as a fancy car or a great house and they no longer give us happiness, so we need something more in order to achieve the same level of happiness. Where is the end and how do we get around these problems - that is what the paper dealt with.
Later, I published another paper that had to do with how shared experiences and having a pleasant versus unpleasant experience with another person could impact your happiness level. It was just a lucky break for me that this parallel movement was happening in the world even as my personal interest in happiness was growing. And of course, a big change happened in my case when I started teaching happiness to business school students. My interest in the topic deepened, both in the research and the teaching sense.
Is it really possible to measure happiness in quantitative terms considering that it could be a subjective element and also mean different things to different people? Many nations are now including a Happiness Index as part of their development indices. We often hear that the Danes are the happiest people in the world. How scientific is this measurement process and, most importantly, is it really possible to put a quantitative measure to happiness?
As you may know, I am going to be offering a course on happiness starting in June for ISB students. As part of the course, I have interviewed over 20 people who are experts in some sub-domain of happiness. I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Professor Ed Diener who is known around the world as Dr. Happiness because he is the father of the field in many ways. He has been working on the topic of happiness since the mid-1980s. He does not call it happiness; he calls it subjective well-being. When I interviewed Professor Diener, I asked him whether happiness is measurable, and he started out by saying that he had spent the first 10 years as a researcher examining the measurability of subjective well-being and trying to understand how reliable it is. And the good news is that perhaps the easiest measure of happiness, which is the self-report — how happy you are on a 10-point scale, is actually a very valid measure of happiness. For example, if I were to ask you how happy you are, and you say 7/10, and then I ask your family members, your relatives and your colleagues how happy they think you are and take the average score of all those people, there is going to be a very high correlation between your report of your happiness levels and how happy they think you are. There is something going on that everybody is tapping into — maybe it’s your demeanour, how much you smile or some other behaviour.
It is well-established today that happy people live longer. In general, happy people are more creative, are more productive, have healthier lives, are more likely to get along well with other people and more likely to get married.
There are other ways of looking at happiness which could be considered more objective or scientific. I could take a sample of your blood and check your serotonin levels, for example. And it turns out that there is a very high correlation between your serotonin levels and your self-report measure of happiness. I could also do a brain scan. It is well-established that if a person is happy, certain parts of the brain light up, particularly in the left pre-frontal cortex. It has been found that people with a thicker left pre-frontal cortex are happier.
What sort of inferences do these findings help you to make at an individual level as well as at a wider community or country level?
There are many downstream consequences that we can look at now. It is well-established today that happy people live longer. In general, happy people are more creative, more productive, have healthier lives, are more likely to get along well with other people and more likely to get married. If you expand it from the individual level to, say, a county level, it has been found that counties in the U.S. with more happy people tend to have fewer incidents of sickness, fewer emergency situations in hospitals, fewer cases of heart attacks, depression, and so on.
Is it really possible to identify a formula for happiness in the sense is there some “secret sauce” to make one happier? And can it really be productised and marketed to people?
Even though I am in the marketing department of a business school, the idea of productising happiness sounds a little bit unappealing to me. But as to your question of whether in fact you can come up with a formula, for lack of a better word, or a recipe if you prefer, for leading a happy and fulfilling life, the answer seems to be yes. There are many different things that you can do in order to lead a happier and more fulfilling life. I say this on the basis of studies that have looked at many different strategies, some of which are easier to adopt than others for different people. Sonia, who is a professor at the University of California at Irvine, conducts research on productive happiness. She has a theory of what is called “fit”. For some people, certain strategies work better than for others. Let me just give you a quick example. It has been shown that an attitude of forgiveness is a very important determinant of happiness. So rather than carrying grudges and remembering all the negative things that people did to you, you can choose to forgive them. There are some people who find it easier to forgive and let go of negativity, but there are others for whom the act of forgiving is a traumatic experience and generates negative emotions. Thus, one needs to pick and choose. Perhaps for you, forgiveness may not be that easy, and expressing gratitude may be easier. Or, perhaps, you find both of these strategies tough but find that being generous to other people, donating money or being of service is easier. The good news is that there are many things that one can do to lead a happier life and you can pick and choose whatever suits your emotional needs.
How were these happiness metrics incorporated into pedagogy? Since when did universities actually start teaching happiness as a subject?
I would say that it is very rare to see these kinds of courses in business schools and understandably so. In business schools the focus is more on enhancing the success of companies or organisations, particularly in the private sector. This usually translates to enhancing the bottom-line so as to make bigger profits, increase market share, and so on. The focus is primarily on money and monetary related pursuits. Happiness is not a major focus. However, with the field of positive psychology emerging and flourishing, happiness too has emerged as an important aspect of the curriculum. In the past 15 years, there have been a lot of books on the topic of happiness. If you go to Amazon and do a search for books on happiness, you will probably find some 6,000 entries. Today, many liberal arts and psychology departments offer a number of courses on leading a happier life. In fact, this has been going on for a while I would say, but more so in the last 10 years.
There are some people who find it easier to forgive and let go of negativity, but there are others for whom the act of forgiving is a traumatic experience and generates negative emotions. Thus, one needs to pick and choose. Perhaps for you, forgiveness may not be that easy, and expressing gratitude may be easier.
What sparked your interest in this subject, and particularly, in teaching it?
I started teaching this class in 2009. Until then, I was teaching a very standard marketing course on Consumer Behaviour and I loved teaching it. But the topic of happiness was closer to my heart. My own experience had led me to it.
I had graduated from good schools, earned a Ph.D., and was a professor at a top ranking B-school, so almost everything was in place for a happy life. At some kind of objective level from the general perspective, I had a very successful life. But I felt that there was some emptiness inside of me in spite of everything. I noticed the same thing among many of my colleagues who also came from similar backgrounds. I realised as a personal truth what many know as almost a cliché — that money, success and fame do not necessarily buy you happiness. It is one thing to recognise this as, say, a poor farmer in Bangladesh where you haven’t gotten an opportunity to test drive the hypothesis and another to actually know it as a personal truth. And that actually is a very important difference.
That is how my personal journey began on teaching this class. I started putting this course together and started teaching it in 2009. At the time I wasn’t too sure how long I would teach it or whether students would, in fact, be interested in taking it. After all, these were MBA students who were supposed to be more interested in money. But it turns out that there is a deep enough hunger that I always had a waiting list for my class.
There are two parts to my next question. First, how is your own programme structured and what is its focus? And second, who are the people who should be in that programme?
Being from a business school, my whole approach to this topic is a little more application-oriented than philosophical. Over the years, I have played around with the content and structuring. The framework that I use is “the seven deadly happiness sins,” which seems like a cute way of capturing the content of the course because the seven deadly sins are well-known in biblical terms. I think it is a very good kind of framework on which people can hang all the other things that I am going to discuss during the course. I think this act of quantifying it makes it a little bit easier for people to assimilate and access the subject matter. Essentially, I talk about the seven deadly sins and I also talk about seven corresponding habits of the highly happy. I would say that, for the most part, the content and approach are probably going to be most appealing to people who are similar to me in the sense that they are relatively successful in life, relatively smart with a good educational background, have a certain rationalist, scientific bent of mind as opposed to a faith-based mindset, and have personally come to the recognition that more success, more wealth and more material success do not necessarily add up to more happiness.
Is your approach similar to or different from other approaches to this topic, and if so, in what sense?
Let me highlight the differences between my approach and some of the other approaches being followed elsewhere as part of a different curriculum. I think this idea of the happiness sins is very important and is perhaps the differentiating factor between my course and a lot of other approaches and books out there. I think many of the other approaches basically talk about a lot of things that have been found to enhance happiness levels, such as forgiveness or gratitude, and doing something that you are truly motivated and passionate about. All these things are very important, but they can leave you with the feeling of, “Okay, now I know all these things that lead me to happiness or are likely to lead me to happiness, so let me just cut and paste them into my life.” It is business as usual in terms of leading the life that you are leading, only you inculcate a little more gratitude, a little more mindfulness, a little more forgiveness into it.
I think my approach is a little more deep-rooted in the sense that it is very difficult to include or incorporate a particular happiness enhancing behaviour unless it is consistent with your deeply held values and your world views. You can’t simultaneously believe that it is a dog-eat-dog world or that it is “us versus them” and at the same time also somehow feel grateful, or forgiving or generous. I think it is important to first fix your values and look at what is wrong with the way in which you have approached life, which is where the sins play a very big part. All of the sins have to do with certain attitudes, world views, habits, etc., that have been counter-productive and that are embedded in deep-seated beliefs. And unless you do that internal enquiry and self-knowledge exercise first, those habits are going to be difficult to inculcate.
At the risk of generalising in a broad-brush way, I would say that if you look at the field of happiness, there are two dimensions: how scientific the approach is and how deep-seated are the changes that are called for? Gurus and spiritual/religious leaders, who take more of an inductive and intuitive approach recommend for deep-seated changes. For example, they may say that you have to surrender to God, but they don’t talk about exercising or getting organised. They don’t talk in terms of what might seem like tactics. They talk about deep-seated changes which don’t have any scientific validation.
Gurus and spiritual/religious leaders, who take more of an inductive and intuitive approach to recommending what might lead to a happier life, call for deep-seated changes. For example, they may say that you have to surrender to God, but they don’t talk about exercising or getting organised. They don’t talk in terms of what might seem like tactics. They talk about deep-seated changes but they are unscientific.
On the other hand, if you look at the scientific literature, it doesn’t necessarily talk about deep-seated changes in an explicit way although some studies may hint at it and some do talk about it. But you could walk away from scientific literature without making deep-seated changes, and only adopting strategies or tactics for happiness that have been empirically tested, for instance, “I will be more generous, I will follow my passion”, etc.
So on these two dimensions, the scientific community is not very focussed on deep-seated changes but it is scientific, and the religious community calls for deep-seated changes but is not very scientific. On the other hand, what I am trying to do is arrive at deep-seated changes that are important through a truly scientific approach. That is what I would characterise as the big difference.
Basically what you are saying is that there could be a meeting ground between the scientific approach and the intuitive approach of spiritual leaders. Yet, do you see a place for the intuitive, unscientific approach that is unsubstantiated by empirical data? Going by the number of people who follow gurus or godmen and the number and popularity of religious or spiritual TV channels, do you think there is some place in society for whatever these spiritual leaders actually espouse and teach with respect to the pursuit of happiness?
My “scientific” colleagues may take umbrage at me, but my response is that I am open to all kinds of approaches. I think that people vary in terms of their awareness, and a person may arrive at a conclusion entirely through an inductive, intuitive approach that may be ultimately proven through scientific approach. For example, Buddha, who many psychologists now consider to be the greatest psychologist, ever lived, had tremendous insights into the nature of reality, the nature of the mind and the reasons why we are not as happy as we could or should be. Those insights have stood the test of time. I think that is the big difference between an insight that is false and an insight that is true.
How do I know that you are feeling good? For all practical purposes, you are just passive and I am not convinced that you are feeling good. But if I am able to measure your brain activity using these technologies and see that the left pre-frontal cortex is more activated when you are meditating compared to the right side and compared to non-meditators, then I know that it is actually happening.
I look at “godmen” and the insights and theories that they generate as the hypothesis generation part of the value chain. And then it is up to the scientist to take the ones that are good - that appear intuitively appealing or reasonable or as having some face validity — and explore those. In this way, as a collaborative effort of humankind, we build up a quorum of knowledge that is sound.
What do you think brought about this change in research?
Until about 20 years ago, if you wanted to examine what was going on in the brain at a deep level, it would have been a little difficult. But with functional MRI and brain scan technology evolving and becoming more sophisticated, it became increasingly possible to do that. This is very important for examining the effects of meditation. Say you are meditating and you say that you are feeling good. How do I know that you are feeling good? For all practical purposes, you are just passive and I am not convinced that you are feeling good. But if I am able to measure your brain activity using these technologies and see that the left pre-frontal cortex is more activated when you are meditating compared to the right side and compared to non-meditators, then I know that it is actually happening.
I think it is very exciting that we live in a time when it is possible to a bridge the gap between scientific approach. And the spiritual approach. Richie Davidson from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has written a book called “The Emotional Life of Your Brain,” and it is based almost entirely on neuroscientific evidence of what happens to your brain and what are the different ways in which people respond to situations. He calls these emotional styles. There are six different emotional styles and each has a certain brain circuitry. What he has discovered is that people who end up leading fulfilling and happier lives have certain emotional styles and which in turn are based on neurological /brain structures and circuits.
Organisations are gaining interest in this topic as well. We hear of some interesting positions/designations being created in many corporations such as a Chief Happiness Officer or Employee Happiness Officer. In your view, how are organisations taking to this subject? And in terms of actually institutionalising happiness in organisations, how easy or difficult is it to actually transport what you are teaching from the individual to the corporation?
My approach so far has been very individualistic. I started with a self-centred question: what are the determinants of a happy and fulfilling life for me? Happiness for me were, in the things I talked about earlier — forgiveness, generosity, gratitude, and even pursuing one’s passion — there is a separation of the ego and a merging of the self with the exterior world. That is one of the big themes that emerged.
Another thing I was very gratified to learn was that happiness is not just something that feels good, it is also what is called functional, that is, it has a number of downstream effects that are actually productive and useful. In particular, what most business school people will be interested in is that it has good effects on relationships and health, and so on. But it also has major positive effects on your productivity.
In what ways might such an effect manifest itself at an organisational level?
Let’s say, for example, that your subordinate has failed at something, perhaps he has not met his previous month’s sales target. What are you going to tell him? Many people may intuitively say, “I am going to be harsh on him. I am going to tell him to pull up his socks or risk getting fired.” It is the old “carrots and sticks” approach to motivating people. It turns out that a much better way to motivate people is to be positive, even if they have failed. There is a 4:1 ratio of being positive to negative, that is, being positive four times for every time one is negative. It is not so much getting rid of the negative but of using it much more sparingly than I think is the case in most organisations.
There is something called negativity and dominance. When you feel negative, it occupies a lot of your brain and suppresses your ability to be creative, expansive and playful and to focus more on learning. You get into a panic, problem-fixing mode and become very narrow in your approach. transpose this sentence after ‘creative’. On the other hand, when you are positive, your brain capacity is fully utilised and you are able to tap into various parts of your brain and come up with with solutions that are more holistic and more creative. Particularly for people who are working in the kinds of jobs that you and I have, that is cognitive, intellectual or creative jobs, you are much better off being positive most of the time. Fredrickson says the positive to negative ratio you need to hit is 3:1. You need to be positive at least three times more often than you are negative when you cross over into the tipping point of being more productive in these kinds of jobs.
There is a 4:1 ratio of being positive to negative, that is, being positive four times for every time one is negative. It is not so much getting rid of the negative but of using it much more sparingly than I think is the case in most organisations.
Going back for a moment to your question about what organisations are doing in terms of institutionalising this concept, I think it is still relatively early days. I think we are still stuck at the carrots and sticks approach. In this context, a book that comes to mind is “Drive” by Daniel Pink, which talks about how we need to move away from the carrots and sticks approach (what he calls Motivation 2.0) to Motivation 3.0, where we allow people to find meaning in what they do and engaged with what they do. In other words, don’t motivate them through money and extrinsic rewards, but get them to feel engagement with the job. This transition is happening, and as a result we are becoming more inter-dependent, more collaborative, and are looking at team effort in order to come up with an output rather than towards one individual genius like a Steve Jobs. So we are transitioning as a field or as a world into that way of being.
Online Course on Happiness and Fulfilment
Indian School of Business (ISB), in partnership with online education services giant, Coursera, is offering the first ever massive open online course (MOOC) on Happiness and Fulfilment. This course is developed by the one and only “Dr. Happy-Smarts” (also known as Prof. Raj Raghunathan) and draws content from a variety of fields, including psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural decision theory to offer a tested and practical recipe for leading a life of happiness and fulfilment.
The course will feature guest appearances by a number of well-known thought leaders, including:
- Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational),
- Ed Diener (“Dr. also known as Happiness”),
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of Flow) and
- Marshall Goldsmith (author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There)
By taking this course, students will discover the answers to questions such as:
- Why aren’t the smart and the successful as happy as they could or should be?
- What are the “7 Deadly Happiness Sins” that even the smart and the successful commit?, and
- What are the “7 Habits of the Highly Happy” and how can you implement them in your life?
By the end of the course, students who have been diligent with the lectures and exercises, to not just only gain a deeper understanding of the science of happiness, but to also be significantly happier.
How easy or difficult is it to bring this element of positiveness into hiring strategies and, perhaps if one has to go to the other extreme, bring in a happiness quotient into employee appraisal and further to correlate these to the bottom-line impact? Is there any body of research that has gone into that?
There are many studies that have looked at the effect that employee satisfaction, employee well-being or happiness has on the bottom line. But there is a lot of work showing that that you are more likely to be successful as a company if your employees are satisfied and happy, and not just in terms of the company’s own profits but also in its stock market value, for example.
Now what does this mean in terms of its implications? Does it mean that ISB should start looking at how happy people are and then fire the people who are not happy enough? That seems like a harsh kind of conclusion to come to. I think the better conclusion to come to would be recognising that the well-being of employees is very important and do things and put things in place that enhance their well-being. A lot of companies are doing that. Google is a great example. They have something called Google University, where people within the University can research topics that ultimately lead to employee well-being. A book has come out of that university called “Search Inside Yourself” by Chede-Meng, which is an interesting title since Google is a search engine. The book is all about meditation, mindfulness and emotional intelligence and how they improve not just people’s happiness levels but also their productivity.
All these changes are happening, and I think that this is a very exciting time for the workforce, and the world too.
How easy or difficult is it to bring this element of positiveness into hiring strategies and, perhaps if one has to go to the other extreme, bring in a happiness quotient into employee appraisal and further to correlate these to the bottom-line impact? Is there any body of research that has gone into that?
There are many studies that have looked at the effect that employee satisfaction, employee well-being or happiness has on the bottom line. I would refer you to those two books that I mentioned earlier, and they cover some of the research in that area. There is a lot of work showing that that you are more likely to be successful as a company if your employees are satisfied and happy, and not just in terms of the company’s own profits but also in its stock market value, for example.