The Secret to Happiness—as Discovered by a Harvard Scientist

The Secret to Happiness—as Discovered by a Harvard Scientist February 16, 2022

finding happiness
Ante Hamersmit via Unsplash

What do you want from life? As you grow older and move into the second half of life, have your priorities also changed? Are you satisfied with your current way of living or do you yearn for a more connected, less distracted way of life?

These are some of the questions you might find yourself asking upon reading the new book From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. It’s by social scientist Arthur C. Brooks whose popular, standing room only classes at Harvard were recently featured in The Wall Street Journal.

Brooks’ basic take on happiness is that, to paraphrase a famous Rolling Stones song, “we can’t get no satisfaction.” He refers to this lack of satisfaction as “the greatest paradox of human life.” He explains that “we crave it, we believe we can get it, we glimpse it and maybe even experience it for a brief moment, and then it vanishes.” Brooks has witnessed this in his own life, writing:

Time and again, I have fallen into the trap of believing that success and its accompaniments would fulfill me. On my 40th birthday I made a bucket list of things I hoped to do or achieve. I imagined that if I hit them, I would be satisfied.

Ten years later, when Brooks is about to turn 50, he finds the list and realizes he had achieved every item on it. He is also hit with another realization: None of it had brought him the lasting joy he had envisioned. In his words, “each accomplishment thrilled me for a day or a week—maybe a month, never more—and then I reached for the next rung on the ladder.” We scratch one item off the list and another takes its place.

Brooks reinforces something all of us at a certain age come to know. Money and success can’t buy you love or happiness or anything of lasting value. Sure, it helps keep a roof over your head, food in the fridge and a car in the driveway. But as the author points out, “forever chasing money as a source of enduring satisfaction simply does not work.” He quotes the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who once said:

Wealth is like seawater; the more we drink, the thirstier we become.

It’s time we stopped chasing happiness.

 In an old issue of his Behavior Gap blog, the economist Carl Richards makes a reference that Brooks also uses. It’s called the “hedonic treadmill.” It’s not your ordinary jogging treadmill, but one that works like this: The more we have, the more we want, so the faster we run on the treadmill. We keep chasing things, never getting anywhere.

That poses a problem which Richards illustrates from his own life experience:

This never-ending cycle of fixating on what we don’t have, attaining that thing, not ending up any happier, and then fixating on the new thing, is futile. I’ve been on the hedonic treadmill for over 20 years, and frankly, I’m exhausted. I’m sick of putting happiness on some unattainable pedestal just around the corner, forever out of reach.

But Richards has found an out, a way to get off the treadmill. He does something he simply refers to as “sitting.” Here’s how it works:

Each time you start to think about that one thing that will finally make you happy… do nothing to try to achieve that. Instead, just sit and wait until the feeling passes. And then, you get on with your life. I know we all love to exercise, but so far, sitting feels a lot healthier than spending endless hours on the hedonic treadmill.

To get more out of life—start wanting  less.

Brooks believes that the real secret to a happy life is “not to increase our haves—the secret is to manage our wants.” When we are able to peacefully live and coexist with what we already have, we give ourselves a chance to lead more contented lives. We escape the exhausting burden of wanting more and more and more.

The author tells us that “as we grow older in the West, we generally think we should have a lot to show for our lives—a lot of trophies.” But he points out that according to many Eastern philosophies, we’ve got this backwards. In his words:

As we age, we shouldn’t accumulate more to represent ourselves, but rather strip things away to find our true selves—and thus, to find happiness and peace.

This includes being fully present in our own lives, each moment of each day. Brooks has found that “we can find immense fullness when we pay attention to smaller and smaller things.” The Buddhist author and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh explains the principle in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness:

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.

This quote is about much more that washing dishes. It’s about everything we do in life. If we are thinking about the past or future at any given moment, we are not alive during the time we are <insert activity here>. And if we can’t pay attention to activities as simple as doing the dishes, this tends to extend to other areas of our lives. We sleepwalk through what should be meaningful experiences, often with the people who matter most to us.

Brooks suggests we heed the advice found in the classic Taoist text the Tao Te Ching. Written 2,400 years ago, it emphasizes the virtues of naturalness and non-action. By abandoning our lists of goals and endless quest for more, we might realize that the happiness we seek is already present. As the Tao says:

When there is no desire, all things are at peace.

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