Srikumar S. Rao, who teaches at Columbia Business School, London Business School, the Kellogg School of Management and elsewhere, has done pioneering research into workplace motivation, and he advises senior executives on becoming more engaged in their work and discovering deep meaning in it. His celebrated MBA course, “Creativity and Personal Mastery,” which he long taught at Columbia, has become the only business school course with its own alumni association. In it he counseled students on how to discover their unique purpose, creativity and route to happiness through group work and a philosophical perspective. His latest book, published this year, is Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful–No Matter What.
I sat down with him to find out what it’s all about.
Forbes: Why is happiness at work important?
Srikumar S. Rao: I believe that if you don’t derive a deep sense of purpose from what you do, if you don’t come radiantly alive several times a day, if you don’t feel deeply grateful at the tremendous good fortune that has been bestowed on you, then you are wasting your life. And life is too short to waste.
This is important in all of life but particularly at work, because we spend so much of our waking moments at work, and the amount of time we spend there is increasing. Also, many report that they experience undue stress at work, as competition increases and globalization shrinks the world. This takes a tremendous toll on individuals, and there is also a societal cost, because unhappy disgruntled employees are more prone to health problems, less productive and a general drag on others.
Is happiness at work reflective of the workplace, or is it more a matter of the individual?
An excellent question. The short answer is both. However, the workplace is frequently beyond the ability of an employee to change. So the process of being happy has to start with that employee. The wonderful paradox is that once you begin the internal transformation, the external world also begins to change, spontaneously.
How is your course different from Tal Ben-Shahar’s positive psychology class at Harvard?
I know about his work but am not familiar enough with it to give a definitive answer. I don’t focus on happiness as a goal or an end. I encourage the participants in my program to discover how the mental models they use to make sense of the world are often dysfunctional, and I teach them to craft and use others. As they do such inner work, they automatically report that they’re happier as a byproduct.
Tal Ben-Shahar’s class is very popular with M.B.A. students, just as is yours. Why would business school students in particular go for such a thing?
He designed his class for undergraduates, not for M.B.A.s, but in any case at business schools they don’t even acknowledge, let alone address, the really important questions of life. Questions like “Who am I?,” “What are my values?,” “How do I express my values at work?,” “What makes me happy?,” “What do I want my legacy to be?” I address those issues head-on. I don’t, and indeed can’t, provide answers, but I do provide a powerful framework for analysis, and participants in my program use that framework to come up with their own unique answers. That is a lifelong process.
To what extent is all this based on academic research?
I am ahead of academic research in this area. Such research is still in its infancy, and it will unfortunately take a long time to enter the mainstream. The good news is that savvy individuals aren’t waiting for the results of such research but are running with their own intuition and experience. They can directly testify to the validity of my methods for executives at all levels, including among CEOs of major organizations.
How are the lessons in your new book relevant to a world haunted by events like the fall of Lehman Brothers that seem to have been caused by greed and excess ambition?
It is precisely in such a world that what I share is most needed. The fiasco wrought by overcompensated, inadequately monitored investment bankers would not have happened had the principles I lay out been widely enshrined. Again, there is good news. The scope of the financial tragedy has caused many to rethink their priorities, and I am guardedly optimistic that a new order will emerge.
Our new world is highly competitive, though. We all have to stay on our toes continuously. Where can someone find the time to practice what you preach?
There is erroneous thinking embedded in your question. You don’t need time to practice what I preach, and it doesn’t take away from anything you would otherwise do. What I do is lay out a method of viewing the world, and my exercises are designed to be done in your everyday life. So what you need is not more time but more willingness to try my approach. Those who have sincerely tried it report that the benefits are many, many times beyond those of anything else they have attempted.
Can you give me some examples of how lessons and exercises from your book have changed people’s lives?
Sure. One of the participants in my program was left jobless when the entire division where he worked was eliminated. He told me that as a result of having taken my course and practicing its exercises assiduously, he was emotionally unshaken, and it took him less than a day to bounce back. He also mentioned that he had colleagues who got depressed, whose marriages were breaking up, who were taking refuge in drink and so on. He weighed his options and turned entrepreneurial, and now he’s having the time of his life.
How are your classes different from what’s in all the popular literature out there on positive thinking and well-being?
I am not a big fan of positive thinking. The term suggests that there is something negative that you have to counteract by being positive. That is an artificial duality. I have a couple of chapters in Happiness at Work where I talk about this explicitly. Far better is to not categorize as bad, things that happen to you. Then you don’t need “positive thinking” because nothing “negative” has occurred. That is a far more effective approach, and it can be learned.
How happy have you been in your own life? And how do you apply your own lessons?
Another excellent question. Let’s just say that if you ask yourself “Am I happy?” you are not. I wouldn’t change my life for anything. I am exactly where I want to be and have no plans to ever retire. If you posed the question “If you had all the money in the world, what would you do?” my honest answer would be that I’d do what I’m doing right now.