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Interview with Raj Raghunathan about Happiness

Professor Raj Raghunathan specializes in psychology, marketing, as well as the philosophy of happiness and decision making. He graduated from Birla Institute of Technology and Science and completed his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management. In 2000, he earned his Ph.D. at the Stern School of Business, New York University. He is a Professor of Marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. Prof. Raghunathan developed an online course called A Life of Happiness and Fulfillmenta 6-week course on Coursera platform. The course includes knowledge from the fields of psychology, neuroscience and behavioral decision theory. It has had over 75,000 enrollments and has been featured as a Top 10 course offered by Coursera. In 2016, Raghunathan also published the book, If You Are So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? Raj’s book explores how to become happy and draws on the concepts Prof. Raj calls ‘happiness habits’ and ‘happiness sins’. Raj has received several National Science Foundation Career Grant Awards. He is an associate editor at the Journal of Consumer Psychology, guest associate editor at the Journal of Marketing Research and is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Consumer Research.


1) The mechanisms of a happy and fulfilling life can now be explained using science. How do you define happiness as an academic? Does it have quantifiable components or is it truly a subjective measure?

Somewhat surprisingly, happiness is both a subjective experience and measurable. The subjective part comes in two ways — the things that make different people happy, and the types of emotions with which people implicitly equate the term “happiness”. The idea that different things make different people happy is, of course, straightforward. Going sailing may reliably make some  person happy, while for others, it won’t float their boat (so to speak).

The idea that different people equate happiness with different terms is a little more subtle. Prof. Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina finds and suggests (based on work by Dacher Keltner, a researcher at UC Berkeley) that “positivity” comes in 10 main varieties including joy, love, serenity, hope, awe, gratitude, laughter and interest. To me, happiness is the same thing as what Prof. Frederickson calls “positivity.” In other words, in my book, you are happy so long as you are experiencing one or more of these (and other) positive emotions.

What is really interesting about all of this is that, as Prof. Ed Diener and his colleagues have found, the simplest way to measure happiness is essentially by asking people how happy they are across a few items (like, “all things considered, would you consider yourself happy right now?”). This is a highly reliable and valid method. For instance, people’s subjective reports of happiness are highly correlated with some objective correlates of happiness, like serotonin (positive correlation) or cortisol (negative correlation) levels. Likewise, people who report higher levels of happiness tend to have a thicker left pre-frontal cortex, and also tend to be thought of as being happier by their close friends, etc.

So, in a nutshell, what might appear at first blush to be a problem for happiness research, namely, that happiness is too subjective, turns out to be not such a big problem after all.

2) In your work, you suggest that being creative and having fun are habits that should be cultivated to reach higher levels of happiness. Since fun is a very subjective concept (i.e. what is fun for one person, is not necessarily fun for somebody else) how do you suggest fun might be studied more rigorously?

As I mentioned in my response to the previous question, while it is true that what is fun for one may not be fun for another, what we subjectively experience when we say we are having fun is more similar than dissimilar across people. So, for example, even if my idea of fun (say, going on a hike) is quite different from that of yours (cuddling up with a book), you will understand what I mean when I say, “Going on a hike is really fun.” You might say, “that’s not what I would call fun, but hey — different strokes for different folks!”

The point is that it’s important to have fun — in whichever way that works for you. Why? Because you are likely to be more creative, more healthy, more productive and more altruistic when you are having fun (more generally, when you are happy) than when you are not.

3) Your work points out that people who are more educated and successful are not necessarily happier. However, one could argue that with expanded education comes broader knowledge and awareness of critical issues (e.g. global warming, poverty, discrimination, injustice, the division of people), and this insight could have a negative effect on one’s sense of happiness. Can one have a thirst for universal knowledge and increase their happiness at the same time? What, in your opinion, is the relationship between seeking truth and happiness?

It is true that more knowledge and more awareness can lower happiness levels. There was a study that a few of my marketing colleagues (including Ziv Carmon and Klaus Wertenbroch) conducted in which they showed that those who spend more effort and thought in coming to a decision about which product to buy are generally less satisfied with the product than those who make it based on lower levels of effort. A main reason for this is that, when you know more, the more you know what else is possible; so, you are less happy with what you have.

The mechanism to which you allude in your question (to conclude why better informed people may be less happy) is a related one. You suggest that being informed and knowledgeable about all of the ways in which the world is screwed up may be a buzz kill. True. And this certainly seems like an important reason why the smart-and the-successful are not so happy. But I also think that there’s merit to the argument that some of the very things that make us smart or successful — like a need to be superior, the desire to control others or outcomes, or that of engaging in elaborate analyses — when taken to unhealthily high levels, can also undermine happiness levels.

A final reason why success lowers happiness has to do with how access to the yardsticks of success — fame, money, power, etc. — can make us more self-centered and materialistic. Several findings show that being self-centered and materialistic are not good form for obtaining happiness.

4) From the perspective of neuroscience, emotions are important for our decision-making processes. In a Business Insider article, you warn ‘mind addiction’ can make us ignore our gut instincts and feelings (see: ‘Mind addiction’ could help explain why smart people aren’t as happy as they could be). From your research, why do you think we have found ways to short-circuit our intuition?

Great question. It’s not that thinking through problems and overcoming emotions is always bad. Clearly, we have all experienced situations where our emotions have hijacked — or at least derailed — our decision-making process. Impulsive consumption behaviors (e.g., overeating) are all examples of this. So, one big reason why many of us become suspicious of emotions is because we do not want to commit this mistake again. But in an attempting to avoid the mistake of being too impulsive, many of us run the risk of becoming “mind-addicted”.

I think society too plays a big role in instilling mind addiction. Take schooling. Children almost never get to learn about how emotions and instincts can be useful in decision-making. That is, pre-college education almost exclusively encourages the “mind” route to solving problems and making decisions.

On top of that, most of the goals we are encouraged to pursue, from individual ones (e.g., saving enough for retirement, losing a certain amount of weight) to societal ones (e.g., increasing GDP) are quantitative in nature. So, we end up never pursuing qualitative goals (like being happy, or enhancing levels of trust in society). This overly quantitative (vs. qualitative) focus also makes us more prone to relying on the mind to solve problems, getting us increasingly out of touch with our instincts and feelings.

A final reason for mind addiction may be that women are not as well-represented in positions of leadership. So, to the extent that listening to, understanding, acknowledging, and utilizing emotions is a more feminine trait than a masculine trait, society reinforces mind addiction.

5) Mindfulness has become a very popular concept recently, and you often mention it in your work as being a habit that can support happiness. Purportedly, Maslow never published the final version of his hierarchy of needs pyramid in which self-actualization is followed by self-transcendence. Do you think that mindfulness practice might ultimately prove to be a useful tool towards self-transcendence? Or, alternatively, do you see this practice as more a simple, yet very effective, evidence-based cognitive technique to help identify that a lot of what makes us unhappy is merely a waterfall of mindless thoughts and we have more power over these than most believe?

Good question again. I personally think mindfulness has the potential to both offer the “lower order” benefit of reducing stress and enhancing happiness and the “higher order” benefit of self-transcendence. What I mean by self-transcendence (and I imagine you do too) is not something that is necessarily mystical or spiritual. Rather, it’s just the subjective experience of not perceiving oneself as separate from something that we would “normally” consider external. So, for example, when we are so involved in an activity that we lose track of time, or do not feel self-conscious (the critical voice in the back of the head is gone), we merge with the activity to experience a state that Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously called “flow.” Flow is a transcendental experience in the sense that there is a subjective feeling that one has merged with the activity in which one is involved.

Likewise, being in love is self-transcendental, because one feels this sense of merging with the object of one’s love.

In a similar way, mindfulness can provide a transcendental experience — providing one is able to do it correctly, which may require practice. By “doing it correctly,” I mean doing what is often considered the main aim of mindfulness — “being aware without judgment”. Being aware without judgment means being aware from the perspective of what might be called “bare attention”. Bare attention is very different from mind attention. Mind attention is what leads us to judge, categorize, comment, etc. on whatever is going on. Bare attention, on the other hand, means just being aware of the object of one’s attention without the accompanying commentary. It is difficult to do, but can be learned through practice. Once one is able to successfully take the stance of bare attention, one experiences this transcendental sense of being merged with the object of observation, resulting in what Douglas Harding called a “headless experience”. Sam Harris describes this experience very well in his book, Waking Up, as well.

Comments

TG

Interesting interview! Especially the fun and mind addiction parts.