Health: Why the smart and successful aren't necessarily happy

Doing well but glum? The author of a new book and a Mumbai shrink discuss why the smart don't always ace happiness

One client currently undergoing therapy with city-based clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany is 30-year-old Rohan Savla (name changed), a high-achieving Mumbai professional. He is suffering from depression. “He was intellectualising life too much, leading to an obsessive compulsive personality trait. He felt the urge to read constantly and work all the time. At home too, he would talk only about success and achievements with his wife. During therapy, he realised that he wasn’t giving himself a break to rejuvenate. He believed that successful people don’t take a break, as they will lose out on time to achieve. He developed chronic back problems along with severe anxiety, both stress-related. Therapy helped him streamline his thought process and regain balance of life,” reveals Hingorrany.

However, Savla isn’t the only one. She observes, “I have seen a growing trend where success can lead to chronic unhappiness, if one’s life isn’t balanced appropriately. It could lead to a constant need for instant gratification, growing impatience with people and too much expectation from one’s self and others, resulting in relationship problems with colleagues and partners. In many cases, we see frequent burnouts or high achievers, who take small pleasures for granted.”

Happiness vs smartness
This subject, in fact, forms the crux of author Raj Raghunathan’s new book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? A marketing professor at the McCombs School of Business (The University of Texas), Austin in the USA, Raghunathan teaches an online course on happiness to over 1,25,000 students across the globe and the book is a result of extensive research into happiness of students, lawyers, artists, etc. “By definition, the smart and the successful have superior IQ, greater drive, superior critical-thinking ability, a better work ethic, etc. So, one would assume they are better at achieving goals, and given that happiness is one of our most important goals, they would lead more fulfilled lives. And yet, findings reveal otherwise. For instance, those with a university degree are not much happier than those without one. Though there is a small positive relationship between wealth and happiness, it is not as significant as one might expect it to be. Fame too has little effect on happiness,” he says.

Raj Raghunathan
Raj Raghunathan

Structured as a self-help tool, the book speaks about seven things that individuals do to sabotage their happiness levels. These are termed as sins. Each sin is followed by a habit and exercises that individuals can practise to lead a happier life. “The smart-and-the-successful aren’t as happy as they could or should be because of two things. Firstly, some of the very things that make us smart (for example, a tendency to over-think) or successful (an achievement orientation) can come in the way of happiness. Secondly, they are just as clueless as the rest of us when it comes to the topic of happiness. So, they may be better at solving academic problems or in getting ahead in their careers, but they commit the same “happiness sins” as the rest of us, and they seem just as unaware of the happiness habits,” says Raghunathan.

Here’s how the smart-and-successful can also lead a happier life:

5 exercises for joy
1) Maintain a journal: Recount the things that happened in the day and reflect on them. “Even if you do just that, the work by my colleague, Jamie Pennebaker shows that you will be happier in the end. In the process of recounting things and making sense of them, we end up achieving psychological closure on the events that trouble us. This helps us move on, and not carry baggage from the past,” informs Raghunathan.

2) Eat right, move more:
This goes for everyone. Eat right, move more and sleep better. “It helps you become happier by giving you sense of internal calm. It makes you feel good from the inside,” says Raghunathan.

3) Notice three good things: Keep a count and record them in a journal. According to studies, the practice is so powerful that it can even get one out of depression. It works because most individuals have the tendency to notice negative things more and be deeply affected by them too.

Include more fruits and healthy meals in your diet. Representation pics
Include more fruits and healthy meals in your diet. Representation pics

4) Express gratitude: Though it sounds awkward, summon up the courage to appreciate someone who played a positive role in your life. According to the author, you’ll almost definitely experience a boost in happiness levels. Plus, it helps you forge a more intimate relationship with people and feel more secure.

5) Practise mindfulness: Though the most difficult, it’s the most powerful exercise. “There are many different mindfulness practices, including Vipassana and Sudarshan Kriya. I would recommend just trying out a few and then picking the one that seems more enjoyable and natural for you,” he adds.

7 sins that crush joy
1st sin 
Devaluing happiness
What it means: Giving something else (like money, fame or beauty) greater priority over happiness.
Instead, you should: Make choices such that you are more likely to experience happiness on a regular basis.

2nd sin
Chasing superiority
What it means: The need to be better than anyone else at something.
Instead, you should: Do things that get you lost in the activity; typically, this happens when you do something you are passionate about.

3rd sin
Desperate for love
What it means: The need to be the centre of attention; wanting others to nurture and care for you.
Instead, you should: Practise the need to love and give, serve others, be kind and compassionate.

4th sin
Being controlling
What it means: Being keen on getting others to behave like you want them to; being desperate for certain outcomes to occur.
Instead, you should:  Take responsibility for your own happiness. Don’t blame others.

5th sin
Distrusting others
What it means: Assuming that others (especially, strangers) are untrustworthy until proven otherwise.
Instead, you should: Do things to minimise the chance of being cheated, while maximising the chance of having trust reciprocated.

6th sin
Passionate or indifferent pursuit of goals
What it means: Extreme reactions to outcomes, or being apathetic to goals.
Instead, you should: Pursue goals with vigour but remain emotionally unaffected, in case of undesired outcome.

7th sin
Mind addiction
What it means: Believing that the more you think about how to solve a challenge, the more likely you are to arrive at a better solution.
Instead, you should: Practise mindfulness — the ability to pay full attention to something.

Tips for the happy soul
>> Avoid bringing work home.
>> Make time for smaller joys like taking a walk in the park, catching up with an old friend for coffee, a romantic date with your partner, a walk down memory lane with old albums, watching a comedy show or baking a cake with your kids.
>> Listen to old songs or have long conversations with your parents reminiscing about the past.
>> Avoid being judgmental to create a positive vibe.
– Inputs by Seema Hingorrany

For the Mumbaikar
For busy city folk, the lack of time often plays spoilsport in pursuit of happiness. Raghunathan counters, "A perception of what’s called ‘time abundance’ is critical for happiness; so, it’s difficult to be happy if you lead a frenzied, fast-paced, life. But many of us are adept at feeling a certain sense of internal calm — and a feeling of time abundance — even though we may be leading very busy, frenetic, lives. Gandhi, for example, was famous for getting by with very little sleep and working extremely hard. And yet, he had a sense of being almost languidly slow in the things he did."

If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy?, Raj Raghunathan, Penguin Random House UK, '324 (Amazon) and '474 (Flipkart)

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