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Behavioral Science

Can happiness be taught? These 2 MIT Sloan business experts think so


A 2005 study found that up to 40% of happiness is determined by an individual’s activities and practices. A new class at MIT Sloan aims to help people make the most of that opportunity.

The course, “Pursuing Happiness and a Meaningful Life,” is taught by MIT Sloan senior lecturer and   an entrepreneur in residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.

“We want business people to focus more on having a meaningful and fulfilling life — not just on making money and acquiring material goods,” said Pozen, author of “Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours.”

Happiness isn’t just a personal goal; research has shown that it has clear business ramifications, and companies are taking their workers’ happiness and satisfaction seriously.

“Someone who is happier or has a higher degree of life satisfaction is going to be a better person in the workplace, a better team player, a better performer,” said Neal, who is also an MIT Sloan lecturer. “We’ve all probably been in bad work environments where you don’t want to show up, you don’t want to do the work, you don't want to see these people, and that’s not good for anyone.”

Here are some takeaways from the course that can apply in the classroom or the meeting room.

Be kind to others, and manage yourself

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If you think about others and do things for other people out of kindness, you’re going to have a higher level of life satisfaction.

Whether it’s buying a latte for the person behind you in line at the coffee shop, mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn, or helping a colleague when their computer is frozen, “what all the research shows is you get so much value yourself when you reach out and do things for other people,” Neal said.

In their course, Neal and Pozen also discuss managing emotions and how emotions have an effect on one’s happiness.

“You have to get in touch with your emotional responses to situations, which may involve fairly automatic reactions like the fight-or-flight response,” Pozen said. “Then you can take control of the situation and modify your emotional response — what is sometimes called emotional intelligence.”

Strengthen your mental and physical well-being through mindfulness and gratitude

Another factor that contributes to happiness is being in the moment, or “savoring” an experience. One way to do this is practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness at work is helpful for interacting with coworkers. Maybe you’ll spend more time with someone whom you notice is struggling. Or, rather than passively attending a meeting, you’ll engage in the conversation or acknowledge someone whose comment got cut off.

Relatedly, practicing gratitude is another way of pursuing happiness. It can be as simple as writing down a handful of things that you’re thankful for every day, or putting intrusive thoughts into perspective by recognizing how fortunate you are to have a job and your health, Neal said.

Gratitude might also take the form of awe or appreciation for “something larger than yourself,” Neal said. Awe helps frame the understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around you and that we’re all in this together. A sense of awe could come from something like looking over a vast mountain range on a hike, watching a beautiful sunset, or listening to a piece of classical music.

“Something that just brings you this sense of ‘wow,’” Neal said.

Bolster friendships and relationships

Humans are social creatures, and they need close relationships to have a higher level of happiness and self-satisfaction.

These close relationships are usually between you and someone you choose to have in your life, rather than a family member like a parent or sibling — though this isn’t always the case. They just have to be people with whom you feel you can really be yourself and have good conversations, and who accept you for you, Neal said.

Fostering and maintaining these relationships is important at any stage in your life.

“As you get older and your children leave home, you will have to work harder to maintain existing relationships and find new friends,” Pozen said.

One way adults can do this, Pozen said, is to create discussion or peer groups.

Build resilience and learn how to rebound from failure

Forgiveness — of yourself and others — is also part of pursuing happiness. Don’t hold grudges. Learn from your own failures, be resilient, and bounce back.

Importantly, we need to learn how to lean into sadness and negative emotions when we fail, Neal said. There’s often a desire for an immediate fix or to cheer up. Instead, Neal recommends reframing that instinct.

“It’s OK to be down and to feel this emotion and feel miserable that it didn’t work out or something you really hoped for didn’t happen,” Neal said. “Be realistic; experience those down moments, because that’s life. By experiencing those moments, you’ll then be able to really enjoy it when things are good or you do get what you want.”

Read: Probing the origins of happiness

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216