Wheatley Institute: The 3 parts of happiness and how to have more of them

Harvard professor and scholar Arthur C. Brooks spoke at BYU about why traditional definitions of happiness are wrong and what makes up true, lasting happiness

Every semester at the start of his happiness class, Arthur C. Brooks asks students what happiness is.

They give a litany of common answers, such as the feeling of being with people they love or the feeling of doing something they enjoy.

“And I say, ‘That’s beautiful. That’s lovely. That’s wrong,’” Brooks said. “Happiness is not a feeling. And that’s very good news.”

Brooks is a University of Utah impact scholar, a New York Times bestselling author, a columnist for The Atlantic, and a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, where he teaches courses on leadership and happiness.

On Thursday, March 28, Brooks spoke about the three components of happiness at a Brigham Young University Wheatley Institute forum titled “Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier.”

“I’m not going to say that you’re going to be happy in some cosmic sense, because happiness is not a destination, it’s a direction … [But you can get] happier by understanding the science of enjoyment and satisfaction and meaning,” he said.

The 3 parts of happiness

Brooks said treating happiness as only a feeling is like treating a Thanksgiving dinner as only the smell of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy.

While feelings are evidence of happiness the way that the smell of cooking food is evidence of dinner, “if your happiness were a question of feelings, you’d be chasing feelings for the rest of your life. And, in point of fact, that’s what most people do, and that’s the reason they’re so frustrated. … That’s no way to live.”

Instead of just a feeling, Brooks said happiness is a combination of enjoyment, satisfaction and meaning, and he broke down definitions for each.

First there’s enjoyment, which Brooks said many people equate with pleasure. But pleasure is “an animal phenomenon” — a primal urge that cares only for survival and passing on genes, and which can create addiction if pursued exclusively.

That doesn’t make pleasure bad, Brooks clarified; it’s simply an incomplete life goal. And it can’t be equated with enjoyment, which he described as a “human phenomenon” and defined as pleasure plus people plus memory.

For example, Thanksgiving dinner isn’t enjoyable only because eating food is pleasurable — no one wants to eat turkey alone in their apartment, he said. Rather, Thanksgiving dinner is enjoyable because the food is added to family (the people) and traditions (the memory).

“All things in your life that bring pleasure and that could lead to addiction will hurt you if you do them alone. That’s kind of the rule of thumb,” Brooks said.

Harvard professor and author Arthur C. Brooks speaks about happiness at the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center at Brigham Young University, hosted by the Wheatley Institute, the University of Utah and the Marriott School of Business, in Provo, Utah, on Thursday, March 28, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The next part of happiness is satisfaction, which Brooks defined as the joy a person gets after struggling for something. For instance, if someone could simply walk into a college and receive a diploma, there would be no satisfaction in it. “If you don’t have a little hunger, the food is no good.”

That said, satisfaction is temporary, and the pursuit of it can become an unhealthy behavior if people get stuck on the “hedonic treadmill,” Brooks said — it’s why even billionaires sometimes reach for greater wealth.

To break this kind of thinking, Brooks encouraged people to think of satisfaction as all their “haves” divided by all their “wants.” While an inefficient, temporary way to increase satisfaction is to increase the “haves” — the numerator — a better strategy is decreasing the “wants,” the denominator.

“Manage the denominator, manage your earthly wants … I can manage the desire, and [then] the desire does not manage me,” Brooks said.

The final component of happiness is meaning. Brooks said having adequate meaning in life comes from being able to answer “why” questions. These can take a variety of forms, but the two he asks his students are “Why are you alive?” and “For what would you give your life this day if called to do so?”

Brooks said many people don’t have answers to these questions, and that’s okay; these questions are simply places to start as someone considers what truly makes their life meaningful.

He shared the story of his son Carlos, who seemed unmotivated and directionless as he graduated from high school. Brooks said he and his wife were worried about what their son would make of himself — until Carlos did some soul-searching and realized college wasn’t the right path for him. Instead, he spent a season doing hard labor on a farm, which in turn helped him realize he wanted to join the Marine Corps.

For the next four years, Carlos was a special operations Marine and sniper. The job was “scary for a parent, but good for a boy,” Brooks said, adding that when Carlos came home four months ago, “he was a man.”

Now, Carlos is married and expecting his first child. And he can answer Brooks’ “why” questions without hesitation: he’s alive to serve others, and he would give his life for his faith, family, fellow Marines and country.

These are Carlos’ answers, not necessarily anyone else’s, Brooks emphasized. But like Carlos, everyone is capable of answering the “why” questions for themselves — “and the day that you’re convinced of those answers, your life will change.”

University of Utah President Taylor R. Randall listens to Harvard professor and author Arthur Brooks speak about happiness at the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, on Thursday, March 28, 2024. The talk was hosted by the Wheatley Institute, University of Utah and the Marriott School of Business. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Mental health and happiness ‘metabolisms’

Brooks ended the forum by discussing why some people are naturally happier than others, even when life circumstances are similar. He attributes this to different happiness “metabolisms” — just like physical metabolisms are influenced by genetics, habits and circumstances, the same factors influence a person’s happiness levels.

And while that reality could be seen as depressing, Brooks sees it as empowering. “Because if you know that you come from [a certain type of] family, you can manage your habits more effectively. But you have to know yourself.”

He also touched on the struggles of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are maladaptive forms of normal negative emotions. Brooks said it’s important not to eradicate negative emotions because they keep people safe; but if those emotions are turned up so high that they’re interfering with everyday life, that’s when a person should seek help.

He reminded listeners that having negative emotions doesn’t make them broken — it makes them human.

“Those of you who are Christians like me, we worship a God who suffers,” he said, adding, “[That] means there’s nothing wrong with you. On the contrary, you have the divine within you. That’s a good thing.”

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