Come On, Get Happy and Other Things from the Harvard Business School

March 29, 2022

So what is the hot new course at the Harvard Business School?

Is it a course on mergers and acquisitions or classes on leveraged buyouts? Is it Financial Consulting 101? Maybe it’s how to be an expatriate senior executive for a Fortune 500 company. But then again, it might be sessions on leadership for 21st Century organizations.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the popular new course at America’s leading academy of capitalism is none of the above. Instead, Wall Street Journal reporter Lindsay Ellis says the latest in-demand course that Harvard Business School students flock to is managing happiness. “One of the toughest parts is just getting a spot in the course,” she writes.

There are 180 spots in Harvard Professor Arthur Brooks’ Leadership and Happiness course, but they fill up quickly. Many students who don’t get into the class ask fellow students for copies of their notes and lecture summaries. One of Professor Brooks’ central beliefs is that to be a good leader, you also have to be happy.

Brooks has his students look at happiness in four key areas: family, friends, meaningful work, and faith or life philosophy. He has various exercises where students can determine if they are “over-indexing” (or “under-indexing”) in each of these areas. The hope is that students will emerge from this class with tools to master their work-life balance better. Brooks feels it is important that executives learn to enjoy both work and life.

The Wall Street Journal’s Ellis reports that while this class might sound “touchy-feely” in the world of hard-nosed business, it is highly simpatico to the thinking at several leading corporations. “Many companies are scrambling to boost morale, reduce turnover, experiment with new ways of working – even offering wellness retreats for employees,“ Ellis notes.

The Harvard Business School does not seem to be alone in this trend, and other leading business schools are now offering classes on similar topics. For example, the Stanford Graduate School of Business has Organizational Behavior 374: Interpersonal Dynamics, which teaches self-awareness techniques for improving communication and relationships. Meanwhile, the Yale School of Management offers Mastering Influence and Persuasion, which tries to help students more authentically persuade and motivate people.

Ellis interviewed MBA students who knew they needed more balance in their lives. They knew they could be very easily career-obsessed to the point of seeing love relationships dissolve. Also, some were aware that they could still feel empty even after achieving their career goals.

This new interest in happiness has expanded to include Nobel prize winners in economics. Princeton University’s Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his studies on what causes happiness.

A second Princeton professor, Angus Deaton, won another Nobel Prize in economics for looking at how we measure economic activity. Standard gross national product measures of the nation’s output only look at things like how many cars were produced or how many tons of coal were mined in a year. The standard measure does not look at how much pollution was caused by these activities and whether or not people are happier because these products exist. Professor Deaton has created measures that attempt to look at the happiness levels within a nation. His studies have shown that it is not always the case that more money produces more happiness both within a nation and an individual.

I am delighted that Brooks’s Harvard Business School class deals with faith and life values. I believe these “touchy-feely” areas have an important influence on executives at all types of organizations.

But turnabout is fair play, as the saying goes. While the business schools are introducing happiness and life values classes into their curriculum, many seminaries are now offering classes on how to read a balance sheet, lead a congregation in financial matters, and creatively market projects. Unity Worldwide Spiritual Institute has added financial management and marketing class to its core curriculum in recent years.

All this talk about happiness brings back recent memories of our URV Spirit Circles reading of The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who recently made his transition.

The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu make an important distinction between happiness and joy. Happiness can be produced by very ephemeral things which can leave you high and dry at the drop of a hat. True joy is much deeper than happiness and is the result of a spiritual connection with God – and there is not one and only one way of how God can be defined or experienced.

I think it is vital for all of us to, every once in a while, take time to sincerely journal, pray, and meditate on the four areas detailed by Professor Brooks. Where are we ‘under-indexing’ or ‘over-indexing?’ What can we do to bring ourselves back into balance? Our egos may not be strong enough to do the job of rightsizing. But as Jesus affirmed, “All things are possible with God.”

I too suggest that we go for joy and not surface-level happiness. When we feel this joy we can feel peace – and be effective leaders – even in very difficult situations.

Also, I suggest that when we do this journaling work, we do not just think about these observations in our minds or say them with just words. I suggest we write them down. Somehow when we write them down we get a better picture and richer results.

Lastly, with all this talk about happiness, I can’t help myself. I want to share two songs with you. First, click this link to listen to that happiness song from the Partridge Family. Second, click this link for Pharrell Williams’ Happy video. I wonder if Professor Brooks shows these YouTubes to his Harvard class?

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

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