What does happiness mean? How can we be happy? Earlier this month, Oprah Winfrey and Arthur Brooks gathered at Harvard Business School to discuss these exact questions.

Winfrey initially found Brooks’ research during the pandemic. Intrigued by his weekly Atlantic column, “How to Build a Life,” she reached out to collaborate. The two compiled neuroscience research, social science findings, and personal experiences to create a handbook on happiness, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, which debuted at number one on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

After the release of their book, Brooks and Winfrey joined in conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, to discuss happiness – what it is, what it isn’t, and how to get more of it. Claudine Gay, Harvard University president, and Professor Tsedal Neeley, Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Research, opened the event with a brief introduction.

As defined by Brooks and Winfrey, happiness is a direction, not a destination, and it encapsulates both good and bad moments. Happiness, Brooks explained, is a measure of enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning. Addressing Harvard University students, faculty, staff, and community members, Brooks and Winfrey reassured the audience that we won’t always feel bubbly and joyful, especially in high-pressure environments and as high achievers, and that’s okay.

“There’s this misconception that if you feel bad, then something’s wrong with you,” said Brooks, the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, and director of the Leadership and Happiness Lab at the Center for Public Leadership. There are lessons to learn from negative emotions, and there are biological and neurological reasons why it is more difficult to focus on the good versus the bad. In the United States, Brooks explained, it takes five good experiences to balance out one bad experience. 

It’s not only normal to experience fear and negative emotions, but it’s also healthy. Emotions are signals, and they help us course correct when we might not be on the best path. With this perspective in mind, Brooks and Winfrey offered an alternative way to relate to negative emotions: Take your pain, learn from it, and share it with others.

“Happiness will come to you if you do the work. Doing the work means getting the knowledge, changing your habits, and sharing it with others,” says Brooks.

Just as Brooks and Winfrey practiced by writing and publishing their book, the two recommended that the audience practice vulnerability. Vulnerability creates connection, and connection creates meaning. 

In a culture that praises achievement and measures success with money, pleasure, power, and fame, Brooks and Winfrey urged the audience to take a step back and realize what it took for them to get to where they are. Rather than focusing on material gain, Brooks touted, “If you want more happiness in your life, show more love to other people in your life.” 

When asked how to cultivate happiness at a low point in life, Winfrey and Brooks explained that intentionally choosing “gratitude over resentment” can change our perspectives. Winfrey shared a recent time when she was feeling discouraged, started writing a gratitude list, and ended up with over 20 items in just a few minutes. Before she knew it, her mood shifted. 

Brooks and Winfrey encouraged people to shift their focus. What if we started looking at our discomfort as opportunities for growth and our pain as a reason to connect? What if we shifted the happiness paradigm from “how does this serve me?” to “how does this serve others?” 

With a new definition of happiness and an eye on gratitude, Brooks and Winfrey ended on an uplifting note.

“Use your pain to lift other people up,” says Brooks. “Your pain is a gift. Your joy is a gift. Your life is a gift.” 


By Annie Christman