The Leadership & Happiness Laboratory, founded and directed by Arthur Brooks, the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, has an ambitious goal: to start a happiness movement. Using a rigorous, data-driven approach, Brooks is building the Happiness Lab, housed at HKS’s Center for Public Leadership, into a hub for the science of well-being where insights can be shared with new generations of public leaders. The lab’s inaugural conference, held over two days in June, brought together experts from across disciplines, from Harvard and beyond, to share their expertise and consider how their field will continue to grow. We asked Brooks, who also teaches a class on happiness at Harvard Business School, about the event, the science of happiness, and its place in a school of public policy.
Q: This is the first Happiness Lab event. You had experts in economics, epidemiology, psychology, and more. What did you have in mind when you were putting this event together?
In the last 30 or so years, the literature on well-being has exploded, but from so many different and siloed angles. Psychologists talk to psychologists, behavioral economists to behavioral economists, and so on. In putting together the Leadership & Happiness Symposium, I saw two clear paths forward for those of us who have dedicated our careers to research on happiness. First, the event could be an interdisciplinary discussion wherein we break free of our silos and talk with one another about where we agree, disagree, and how we can learn from each other. Second, I hoped to both teach and inspire our participants about the great possibilities in this area—especially for our leaders in academia, business, politics, and families. Looking back on the symposium, I think we accomplished both goals.
Q: Why is it important that the Kennedy School and the Center for Public Leadership host this type of event?
The objective of the Leadership & Happiness Laboratory is not to embark on new research. That work is deeply important, but that demand is being supplied by hundreds of academic departments around the world. There is a distinct market gap in our happiness space: Where can leaders learn the science so as to apply it in their lives? For their constituents? For their companies? For their families? A place like that did not exist before the Leadership & Happiness Laboratory. At this symposium (our first) we began the conversation on how leaders can learn and teach this material, so that it can spread far and wide across our society and culture. That is, after all, what the Kennedy School and the Center for Public Leadership strive to do: Provide our leaders with the tools to improve communities, countries, and, indeed, the world. In that vein, there was no better place to host this symposium.
Q: How does happiness fit in at a public policy school? Is it something like a soft skill that can be taught? Is it something that can be woven into other disciplines?
I get this question a lot. At first glance, it might seem strange that happiness science can fit into a rigorous public policy school. But if we dig a little deeper, studying the bedrock principles of happiness—enjoyment (something much deeper than pleasure), satisfaction (the joy from accomplishing something you worked for) and meaning (understanding your direction in life and your significance in the world)—these principles underpin and help solve the questions of policymakers. How do we combat the loneliness epidemic? What would it take to decrease deaths of despair or society’s suicidal ideation rate? Why does social media pose a particular risk for our teens? How can we strengthen communities? How can individuals put a plug in political polarization?
The happiness science provides deep-seated answers to these terribly tricky questions. And in this way, it is something that can be taught to people who care about progress, and it is certainly something that can, and should, be interdisciplinary. The science of happiness is, in the end, the science of human behavior and principles for improving our lives. Any age-old public policy question oscillates around these points.
The final note of the Leadership & Happiness Symposium was undeniably optimistic. In a world full of crisis and tragedy, there are science-backed solutions to finding the good life and serious leaders that are taking the best of what doctors, scientists, and philosophers have already figured out and applying it to the pursuit of happiness. The symposium showed that there is not only a demand for more happiness in our society, but a new generation of leaders rising to answer the call.
Photos by Ansel Dickey, Vermont Social