The Universal Pursuit: An Interview With Dr. Raj Raghunathan

Diane Sun | Director of Communications

If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? by Dr. Raj Raghunathan Raj Raghunathan is a Professor of Marketing at the McCombs School of Business whose research on consumer behavior incorporates disciplines from psychology to economics. He has been awarded two McCombs Research Excellence Awards and a National Science Foundation Career Grant for his work.

In April 2016, Dr. Raghunathan published his first book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, continuing the themes of his online course and discussing the friction between career success, individual achievement, and personal happiness – topics that resonate deeply with college students. In this interview with our Communications Director Diane Sun, Dr. Raghunathan draws on his research expertise and personal experiences to offer students advice on the most seemingly elusive pursuit of modern times.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Your official title is “Professor of Marketing,” so how did you get interested in researching happiness — such an unrelated topic?

On one hand, it does seem like a distant topic. Yet well-being is important for everybody, and businesspeople are no exception. Everybody wants to lead a happier and more fulfilling life. And it turns out that if you are a happier person, you’re going to be more productive, live longer, and be healthier. Thus, happiness is important for business people, particularly employees, because happier employees take less sick leave, they’re more collegial with other people, and they’re more productive.

It’s a good question as to how I, a marketing professor, started teaching this. Fifteen years after I graduated from my MBA program, I discovered that many of my friends weren’t necessarily happier even though they were really successful. I felt that I might be doing disservice to my students if I didn’t talk about this important topic. Nobody else seemed to be talking about it, so I started this course on happiness. It’s been seven years I started it, and it’s still going strong.

In your own research, how do you operationalize “happiness”? It’s a broad concept, since everyone has their own ideas of what happiness is, and it doesn’t seem like something one can directly measure.

You can measure happiness. It turns out simply asking people how happy they are — by using The Satisfaction with Life Scale, for example — is quite a reliable and valid way of measuring their happiness levels. The Satisfaction with Life Scale has five items, like “everything taken into account, am I satisfied with my life?” and participants answer each item from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”


The five items on the Satisfaction with Life Scale and each item’s correlation with an individual’s overall score1.

It turns out that happiness levels measured by this scale are highly correlated with the amount of serotonin and dopamine in your bloodstream and how happy other people think you are. It’s also highly correlated with several traits that we know go with happy people — such as being more collegial or less prone to fall sick. The self-report is actually a very reliable and easy way to measure happiness.

But at the same time, even though it is easy to measure, happiness is a subjective state. For you, happiness might mean a sense of joy, for me it might mean a sense of freedom or a sense of love. It is very, very important for individuals to arrive at their own definition of happiness and concretize it in their own mind. Once you have a concrete definition of happiness, it becomes a little easier to lead a happy life.

If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? by Dr. Raj RaghunathanAt UT, in the professional world, and even in the title of your book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, it’s readily accepted that intelligence is a means of becoming happy, or even a prerequisite to happiness. Where did this notion come from and how accurate do you think it is?

In general, we all seem to realize that being happy is important. As children, we instinctively gravitate towards what makes us happy. Over time, we learn that certain things make it easier for us to be happy. When we display smarts, when we are good at problem solving, everybody praises us and showers us with adoration. So, we start to want to be intelligent and show off because we get this thing that we really like – like attention. Likewise, money gives us freedom to do things as we please. It also gives us access to basic necessities which are obviously very important.

Over time, we learn that things derived from intelligence – status, money, and power – opens doors for us. They help us do things that we really enjoy doing and we learn, or are almost classically conditioned, to associate these things with happiness. We believe our happiness comes from chasing these things, but they are actually only means towards happiness, which is where the trouble lies.

How do students fall into the trap of mistaking the means of happiness for happiness itself? The loudest ethos on college campuses now is to ‘pursue your passion,’ choosing the path that is right for you and not following the crowd. What happens along that path to cause this sense of dissatisfaction?

In my studies, I found that people have good intentions. They want to pursue their passion, do something intrinsically motivating and meaningful, but I think people underestimate the pressure that peers put on us. Looking around, one of the things that jumps out at you – particularly in the business school – is that the most salient yardsticks used to measure others are the yardsticks of extrinsic rewards. What is your salary at the company you are joining? What is the prestige of that company? How high profile is it? How much do you travel and lead a glamorous lifestyle?

In this environment, you are driven towards these extrinsic things that are easily measurable and are quantified. You lose sight of what intrinsically matters: job satisfaction, how meaningful the work is and how much it contributes to society and your own growth. That’s an understandable mistake. It’s very seductive to look at these extrinsic yardsticks. Yet, in the presence of these yardsticks, you have to remind yourself of what is truly important.

As many students come to learn, status markers are neither a prerequisite nor a substitute for happiness2.

Most people can imagine that, for example, having solid relationships, or feeling that you’re a kind person would readily make one happy. Can you elaborate on these paths to happiness that don’t require material wealth?

In general, I think that there are three things that contribute to happiness. None of these necessarily cost money, although money can help acquiring them.

First is a sense of progress towards mastery. For example, if you play the guitar, being able to practice every day, learning the chords to one song and being able to move on to something more complex. The second thing is a sense of belonging and relationships with others, and the third is a sense of autonomy, where you feel you can do as you please and are not under somebody else’s control.

But the ultimate, all-important fourth thing is your mindset. If you perceive that you live in a world that is abundant in terms of all the things that you desire: opportunities to pursue mastery, opportunities for friendship, and opportunities to acquire autonomy, then you are likely a happier person.

Students from specific majors on campus – business, engineering, and so on – are inevitably in a high status field. In that kind of environment, even the smallest differences in prestige become pronounced, and many choices made are motivated by the fear of being in the bottom rung. What advice do you have for students in such a position?

I think that in posing your question, you hinted at a solution to it. The important point is to ignore your relative standing to other people as much as possible. Try to minimize the amount of time you spend comparing. It’s very difficult. As human beings, one of our basic instincts is to compare ourselves to other people. The abundance mindset I mentioned earlier helps with not comparing with others. If you believe you live in a world with sufficient opportunities, you get out of zero-sum thinking and make fewer social comparisons.

Instead of focusing on what you vs. others have, I would suggest focusing on “what do you enjoy doing?” and “what are you good at?” Sir Ken Robinson, in his book The Element, calls this intersection your “element.” If you focus on your “element,” you’re likely to find yourself doing quite well, regardless of which organization you’re in.

Your primary takeaway here is that social comparisons are antithetical to happiness and to focus on intrinsic sources of happiness. Do you have any parting words to students regarding how to catch these habits and ultimately break them?

I have two recommendations. Both of them might sound like ‘unsexy’ things, but as I’ve found in my past research, they will have a big impact.

First, maintain a gratitude journal. Get into the habit of noticing three good things that happen every day. They don’t have to be very big things – something as simple as finding a great parking spot or seeing someone smile at you. Just writing down three good things on an everyday basis is going to fine-tune your mind into becoming a happier mind.

The second thing is to lead a healthier lifestyle. That breaks down into three important segments. One is eating right. Another is exercise. Go to the gym around two to three times a week, ideally every day, and spend around forty-five minutes to an hour there.

The final thing is sleeping better. I think this is the most important advice for students because there are so many exciting things going on around them. It is easy to feel like you are missing out if you choose sleep over participating in these things. But if you haven’t slept well, only part of you is really involved in the activity. Would you rather be half present at a party every week or would you rather be wholly present for the ones that you do attend? I would say it’s much better to have the second experience. You will also end up doing better on your exams, benefit more from friendships and relationships, and so on.

These are my two recommendations: 1) maintaining a gratitude journal and 2) leading a healthier lifestyle. If you do this, I guarantee to you that you’ll be happier.

If not, write to me, and I’ll give you a free copy of my book.

Dr. Raghunathan’s “A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment” online course is open to all students and has been featured as a Top 10 Course by Coursera, and his book If You’re so Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? is available on Amazon.  More information about Dr. Raghunathan’s work, his new book, and the course can also be found on his website.


  1. Vera-Villarroel, Pablo, Urzúa M, Alfonso, Celis-Atenas, Paula Pavez Karem, & Silva, Jaime. (2012). Evaluation of Subjective Well-being: Analysis of the Satisfaction With Life Scale in Chilean Population. Universitas Psychologica, 11(3), 719-727.
  2. Image from Lee, J. (2014, October 14). Giant duck ‘passes out’ on Seoul lake. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from

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