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Who's in the Video
Arthur C. Brooks is a professor at both the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, where he teaches public and nonprofit leadership and management practice. Before joining Harvard in[…]

How does one become truly happy? Arthur Brooks, author and Harvard professor, explains.

Throughout his career, Brooks has pinpointed the essence of real happiness. His key insight? Happiness is not just a feeling, it’s a state of mind. 

In this interview, Brooks shares  three primary  elements of well-being, and explains how each one  – enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning – contributes to your own happiness factor. Enjoyment, he explains, involves more than mere pleasure—it’s about shared experiences and lasting memories. Satisfaction arises from overcoming challenges, and meaning comes from understanding life’s coherence, significance, and purpose.

Brooks further breaks down the pursuits that genuinely contribute to happiness: faith, family, friendship, and meaningful work. He stresses that happiness is not a final destination but a continuous direction. By focusing on these core aspects, we can build a fulfilling and happier life.

Arthur Brooks: One of the biggest mistakes that people make is confusing happiness and feelings of happiness. Happiness is the feeling I get when I'm with the people that I love, or happiness is how I feel when I'm doing what I enjoy. And I say, "That's beautiful. That's great!" That's wrong. Happiness isn't a feeling. Feelings are evidence of happiness—like the smell of your turkey is evidence of your Thanksgiving dinner, and that's incredibly good news for everybody because there's all kinds of reasons that you shouldn't just have happy feelings. It's normal that you have negative emotions every single day. And if you didn't, you'd probably be dead in about a week.

But if we really want to get at the phenomenon that's creating the feelings, we need to go underneath those emotions and find out what's actually driving them in the first place. I'm Arthur Brooks. I'm an author and a professor, and I specialize in the science of happiness. People talk a lot about bad feelings and good feelings, and that's a complete misunderstanding of emotion itself. Emotion is nothing more than information about the outside world. When there's something outside of you that's a threat, we have negative emotions—fear, anger, sadness, disgust—and those are incredibly important. They keep us alive; they tell us there's a threat. And when there's something that's an opportunity for us, something that's lovely, something that we really want in our lives, then we have positive emotions of joy and interest or surprise. But we can't classify them as bad or good. We really could, I guess, classify them as all good because we need them all and they keep us alive.

I've looked at data on millions of individuals who have the highest levels of well-being, and they all have three elements in common in their lives: Enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning. Now, enjoyment is something that people think they understand, but often don't. They mistake it for pleasure. Pleasure is kind of an animal phenomenon. It's a signal like any other feeling that something can give you calories or mates that can help you survive and pass on your genes. It's not something that actually leads to happiness. Enjoyment is more complex than that, and it's experienced in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the executive center of the brain. Enjoyment is pleasure, plus people, plus memory. That's the reason a beer company doesn't have a commercial with a guy pounding a 12-pack in his apartment by himself.

The second macronutrient of happiness is satisfaction. Satisfaction is a real mystery because it's the joy we get after we struggle for something. And if we don't struggle enough, it's not sweet. My students, they could cheat to get an A on my exam, but if they did, it would give them no satisfaction. Last but not least is meaning. I can go a long time without satisfaction and even enjoyment—I'm a pretty self-disciplined person. But I can't go an hour without meaning and be happy, and neither can you. "What's the meaning of life?" That's a big question, and it's really three sub-questions: We call them coherence, significance, and purpose. Coherence is "Why do things happen the way they do?" Significance is "Why does it matter that I'm alive?" And purpose is "What's the direction and goals involved in my life?" And if you have answers to those questions, you have meaning. But if you don't have answers or you don't have good answers to your own satisfaction, that's what you need to go looking for.

Ancient philosophers, really starting with Aristotle, but most importantly Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, classified the worldly rewards that we crave so much into four categories: Money, power, pleasure, and fame. There's a ton of scientific literature out there that says that Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, and everybody else in-between, was spot on the money. If those are not the things that you should try to accumulate, what should you be going after? Not money, power, pleasure, and fame. It's faith, family, friendship, and work that serves others.

Now, when I say faith, I have to be a little bit careful because people could misinterpret that. They could think it's some specific religious faith. There are many ways where people can find the peace and perspective they need in life. Philosophy or meditation, or walking in nature without devices, or studying the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach, but you need to stand in awe of something bigger than you, and that's the first category. Second is family life. We're evolved as a kin-based species. We have to know our own and take care of them, even if we don't like them. And if you pass on those relationships, if you neglect those relationships, if you create a schism in those relationships, you've sacrificed your happiness.

Third is friendship. Real friendship takes time. People my age will say, "I don't have time to keep up with my high school buddies." I'll say, "You can't afford not to, man." Now, that doesn't mean you have to have 100, but it means you have to have more than one and certainly more than your spouse. Last but not least is work. And that does not mean over-indexing on work, and working all day and all night. It turns out there's only two things from work that bring true joy: Earned success and service to others. Earned success is creating value with your life for your hard work that's acknowledged and recognized. That's why merit is so important. Second is serving others. Even if you're working in a workplace where you don't know the point of your work, but you're doing something that lessens the load for the person in the next cubicle, then it can be a source of real satisfaction for you.

So those are the four—that's your happiness pension plan. Faith, family, friends, and work. Pursue those things and you're pursuing happiness. And this is the big point: Happiness is not a destination. Happiness is a direction. Getting happier requires knowledge and work. It requires changing your habits. And you can, and that's the good news.