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Seeking “happierness” and embracing the ups and downs of life with Oprah Winfrey and Arthur Brooks

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Famed talk show host Oprah Winfrey visits campus with HBS Professor Arthur Brooks to discuss their new book.

“Happierness.” Yes, that is a new word. And it is pretty remarkable that the television icon Oprah Winfrey and renowned HBS Professor Athur Brooks could give a talk at HBS for over an hour that could be summarized by a mere singular word. It makes sense, though: the inventors of the word are none other than Winfrey and Brooks themselves, two people who are masters of communication and audience engagement. They are both also decades-long proclaimers of how to live thoughtful, impactful, and yes, happier lives.

In front of a packed Klarman Hall, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg moderated a conversation with Winfrey and Brooks about the realities and science of both happiness and unhappiness— including how to embrace the harder parts of life. And if you are wondering, there was indeed a giveaway, a tradition for which Winfrey is well known. A copy of Winfrey and Brooks’ recently released book “Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier” was gifted to each attendee.

On the origin of “happierness”

After reading Brooks’ column in The Atlantic during the pandemic, Winfrey sparked a conversation with the author. There was a mutual alignment around the importance of inspiring people around the world to think about how to live a fulfilling life. Describing their work on creating the book together at Winfrey’s home, Brooks shared a moment when Winfrey said the key is “happierness.” The word stuck, and it was for a reason: it embraced the fact that striving to live a life characterized by happiness comes with its challenges, which is a normal and imperative part of the process.

Brooks, an acclaimed professor and author who has dedicated much of his life to studying happiness, shared the reality behind the ideal that we spend so much thought and effort trying to achieve: “Happiness is not a destination, it’s a direction. You need negative experiences to teach you the things that you need to make you a better person, a more prosperous person, a person that makes progress in life.” Speaking to the students in the room, Brooks explained that life comes with a continuum of feelings— which means that it is only natural that we will have feelings on both sides of this range. He explained that “there’s this misconception that if you feel bad, something is wrong with you. Wrong! You’re at Harvard, of course you feel those things… you need therapy if you don’t feel those things, quite frankly.”

Drawing a parallel to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ number one hit (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Brooks stated that the “truth is you can’t keep no satisfaction… mother nature wants you to run, but she doesn’t care if you’re happy.” Rather, the equation for enduring satisfaction is “haves divided by wants.” A goal— albeit a challenging one— is to decrease your wants. By doing so, you can avoid the vicious cycle of feeling compelled to increase your have’s each time you get closer to finding satisfaction.

Striving to be happy is not an occasional engagement. Rather, it requires a thoughtful approach and routine commitment. Brooks shared an analogy with the audience: a “happiness 401(k).” One should seek “to put a deposit in all four accounts every day: your family, your friends, your work that serves other people, and faith— something transcendent to your daily life.” By contributing to these different aspects of life, you are taking the steps to create happiness in your life, while simultaneously contributing to the well-being of those around you.

The value of understanding personas

In their book, Winfrey and Brooks developed a framework to categorize different personas. There is the “mad scientist” who has an unusually high positive and unusually high negative mindset. “You feel things,” according to Brooks, a self-declared mad scientist. When you combine intense positivity with low intensity negative, you find a “cheerleader.” These people “can see that things aren’t such a big deal.” While cheerleaders are very likable, they also have their downsides: they struggle to see threats or negativity. Brooks and Winfrey categorize one who mixes intense negativity with a low intensity of positivity as a “poet.” Poets are “steady, sure judges,” who often contain feelings of “melancholy.” As for those who are low intensity across both negativity and positivity, it is simple to categorize them: “steady.”

While these personas are interesting to think about on an individual basis, it is also helpful to consider them in combination. Taking the topic of dating, Brooks recommended seeking to find someone “who completes you.” In a remark that gained laughter from the crowd, he exclaimed that dating someone with similar characteristics is “like dating your sibling.”

Winfrey encourages students to acknowledge everything they have done

Cultivating gratitude is a vital process to bettering oneself. Winfrey shared that she has kept a gratitude journal since the age of 15. Speaking to the HBS students in the room— some of whom have recently moved from around the world to Boston and others who are trying to figure out what their post-MBA role might look like a few months from now in the uncertain economic environment— shared some assuring thoughts: “Anytime you start to feel down on yourself, just look at how far you’ve come. Look at what it took to get here in these seats. I mean, it’s incredible. When you think about your life and all the things that happened and all the things you thought were going to take you out… how there were times you didn’t believe you would get here but you did… it’s pretty extraordinary.”

It is easy to think we are the only ones who are wondering how others perceive us. Winfrey showed that at the end of the day, we are all humans who crave validation. No matter how well known we may be, we are always wondering if our actions and words are resonating. Winfrey shared that she often found guests on her show thinking about questions ranging from “Could you hear me?” to “Did you see me?” As she developed an enhanced understanding of this common search for validation, Winfrey “was able to become a better interviewer.” At its core, she learned how to make her guests “better in that seat… and tell [their] story in a way” such that when they left the stage, they received what they desired.

Running the most popular television show in America came with its tougher days for even the host herself. In fact, according to Winfrey, “there would be days where my tank would be empty.” There were instances where Winfrey would be feeling under the weather and she would explicitly ask to “borrow some energy” from the audience. Being honest about how you are feeling— even when it is not your best day— is what allowed Winfrey to continue being in her impactful seat for two and a half decades without a missed show.

Winfrey encouraged students to ask themselves the big question: “why are you really here? You come here to serve and love… the work is to not make yourself perfect, but to start to make yourself whole.” Winfrey underscored the need to think about how you can serve a larger purpose. After she opened her school in Africa, she was convinced that it would be her legacy. Maya Angelou had other thoughts and told Winfrey “you have no idea what your legacy will be… your legacy is not your name on a building… your legacy is every life you touch… and you are building your legacy here and now.”

The fact that Winfrey is still thinking about her legacy can serve as a reminder to everyone that it is okay if it takes some time to make your impact. In the wise words of Winfrey: “be easy with yourself and it’s all going to work out.” The best place to start today: embrace happierness.

Chuck Isgar (MBA ’25) loves all things startups. Most recently, he served as the Chief of Staff at Scenery, a Series A-stage startup backed by investors such as Greylock. Previously, he was awarded a Schwarzman Scholarship, which provided him the opportunity to earn a Master in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Chuck co-founded and was the CEO of Intern From Home, a recruiting technology startup that served students from over 600 colleges and was featured in publications such as The New York Times. Chuck earned his bachelor’s from Brown University, where he served as the Co-President of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program. He loves to golf, cook, and go on long walks.

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