A scientific pursuit of happiness

The Indian School of Business (ISB) and MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) will offer a six-week course on ‘A Life of Happiness and Fulfilment’, on Coursera, the online education provider. Before you wonder if you read that right, professor Raj Raghunathan understands the scepticism. Raj has been teaching marketing at The University of Texas, Austin, and divides his time between the US and India. He’s been teaching the course on happiness at ISB since 2012 and has seen fence-sitters walking in with pre-conceived notions. “Most people feel happiness is not amenable to a rational approach; it’s not the topic itself but the approach that is scientific. In the last 15 years, there have been scientific studies on happiness due to the development of Positive Psychology,” Raj explains. He reveals that his students eventually understand that the course involves extensive reading. “Those who think they’ve signed up for a ‘light’ course are mistaken,” he emphasises.

Positive Psychology

Raj traces the growth of Positive Psychology, “(Sigmund) Freud, called the father of psychology, was more a psychiatrist than a psychologist. He focussed a lot on the negative side — why people are abnormal and so on. This focus spilled over to psychology.” For 60 to 70 years, Raj says, the focus remained on the negative deviations and how these abnormalities can be corrected.

In 1998, Martin Seligman delivered a speech at the American Psychological Association that changed this. “He asked what about the people thriving and flourishing, can’t we learn from them and move the average person to that level. An average person may not have ‘problems’ but there is scope for improvement. Many people were in alignment with this thought and Positive Psychology emerged,” says Raj. The spotlight on sub topics like mindfulness and meditation came from this understanding.

Raj had completed his Ph.D in marketing and psychology in 2000 when Positive Psychology was emerging. By 2007, there was enough writing and research. Books such as ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ by Dan Gilbert, ‘Happiness Hypothesis’ by Jonathan Haidt and ‘The How of Happiness’ by Sonja Lyubomirsky found wide acceptance. Raj will be adding his own book, tentatively titled ‘If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?’ to this list next year.

Exercises for self

When Raj began teaching this course, people wondered its scope in a business school. “In a business school there’s free market economy. You can, for instance, relate physics to business and teach it if there is a demand. I found not just demand but deep hunger to learn about happiness,” he says. Soon, there was a waiting list for his course. Today, more than 25000 people have signed up for the soon-to-begin online course on Coursera.

At ISB, his lectures are of two-hour duration each, one session per week, with embedded exercises. “In six weeks, candidates get an understanding of positive psychology,” he says. Every student comes with implicit theories about happiness, he observes. “Not everyone can articulate what gives them happiness but they believe in certain things. At the end of the course, they are clearer as to which of these theories works for them,” he says.

A simple exercise could be eating healthy or beginning the day with a 20-minute walk, which has a positive impact on the rest of the day. A tougher exercise is to be a kinder person. “Being compassionate, people feel, benefit others. But in reality, it makes them happier. There are studies to show that those who have donated $10 to others are happier than those who spent it on themselves,” says Raj. His former students continue to stay in touch, eager to understand more.

In a class, he wins the trust of his students and encourages them to share personal experiences. “I operate from a space of being non-judgmental. Everyone comes with a past history and genetic hardwiring and it isn’t a good approach to say what is right and wrong. Students introspect and visit places that they would have felt reluctant earlier. These zones could evoke insecurity or discomfort.”

Learning by experience

Raj feels the course on happiness is relevant in this age of competition. “My father worked in the railways. Those days, there wasn’t much hierarchy. Probably someone working in the private sector earned more, but not the amount that is possible today. Twenty years ago, if someone had told us that more power, beauty and money is not going to make us happy, we would have agreed but deep within we’d have been a bit greedy for all those. Why wouldn’t you want all the perfumes or gadgets that your visiting NRI cousins have? Now, with experience, after owning two cars and double incomes and vacations abroad, people know they aren’t any happier. This personal experience makes the subject more acceptable.”

The arc of the course, he says, begins with the fundamentals and later explores complex aspects of happiness. “When it comes to choosing a job, we know that money or power isn’t as important as liking and enjoying the job. But, we de-prioritise this happiness when it comes to making a decision. These are easier to comprehend. Eventually, I address metaphysical domains and end with mindfulness,” says Raj.

Being compassionate makes people happy. There are studies to show that those who have donated $10 to others are happier than those who spent it on themselves

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