Unlocking the Secrets to Happiness: Insights from a Harvard Professor

In this video, Arthur Brooks, a professor at Harvard University, answers questions about happiness. He explains that happiness is not just about having lots of sleep, but rather about lowering one’s unhappiness levels. He discusses the satisfaction dilemma, where achieving a goal may lead to depression or uncertainty. He suggests finding gratitude by being aware of and managing one’s emotions. Brooks identifies the three components of happiness as enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. He warns about the negative effects of excessive social media use and emphasizes the importance of adjusting expectations and embracing mortality. He concludes by discussing the wisdom curve and the role of wisdom in leading a happy life.

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Key Insights:

  • The secret to happiness is not lots of sleep or a good sleep schedule. Instead, focusing on sleep can lower unhappiness levels.
  • Achieving a goal can bring temporary satisfaction, but it can also lead to depression or uncertainty. The key to maintaining happiness is finding satisfaction in the process, rather than solely focusing on the end result.
  • Practicing gratitude can be challenging when feeling sad or frustrated, but it is a conscious decision to be grateful that can help manage emotions.
  • Happiness is a combination of enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. Finding coherence, significance, and goals in life contributes to overall happiness.
  • Having a sense of purpose is one of the macronutrients of happiness. It is essential to answer questions about the meaning of life and what you are willing to sacrifice for.
  • Excessive use of social media can lead to depression. It is recommended to limit social media usage to 30 minutes a day and not substitute it for in-person relationships.
  • Aging generally brings a slight decrease in happiness until the late 40s or early 50s when it starts to increase again. Seeking treatment for mental illness or substance use disorders is crucial for maintaining happiness.
  • Adjusting expectations as you age becomes easier as you gain a better understanding of how things work. Realizing that nothing lasts forever helps in finding contentment.
  • To overcome mortal anguish, it is essential to lean into and experience fear. Facing and accepting mortality can help transcend the fear of dying.
  • Practicing mindfulness and being present in the moment is crucial for fully experiencing life. It involves being aware of thoughts about the past and future and focusing on the present.
  • Wisdom increases with age and is characterized by teaching, mentoring, recognizing patterns, and using information to serve others. Cultivating wisdom can lead to a fulfilling and happy life.
  • To truly unlock happiness, it is important to think about and adopt new habits. Sharing happiness with others is key to maintaining it.


I’m Arthur Brooks a professor at Harvard University and the happiness columnist at the Atlantic. I’m here today to answer your questions on Twitter. This is happiness support.

First up, @simpi Samantha who just found out that the key to happiness is a good sleep schedule. Who knew? Well, the secret to happiness is not lots of sleep or even a good sleep schedule. One of the funny things about diet, nutrition, exercise, sleep is that they don’t actually bring happiness, but they do lower unhappiness, which can be your problem. Now, it sounds like I’m splitting hairs, right? Most people think that unhappiness is the opposite of happiness. It’s not. They’re actually processed in different hemispheres of the brain. Happiness on one side, unhappiness on the other. The right side is negative basic emotions. And the way that we know this is because the left side of the face, which is controlled by the right side of the brain, is more active when we’re feeling negative emotions. So simply Samantha, my guess is that you know you’ve got someone happiness in your life. And look, we all do. Some of us have higher negative feeling levels than others. If you’ve got that and you want some relief, that’s what’s going to bring it. So it won’t make you happier. It’s not the secret to happiness, but it sure is good for having less unhappiness. Have a good night’s sleep.

@queenoffire85 asks, „Does anyone ever experience depression or uncertainty after achieving a goal?“ Oh yes, they do. This is the real riddle of happiness. This is the satisfaction dilemma in a nutshell. Yeah, if I get that watch, I’m gonna love it forever. I get that car, I get that house, I get that relationship, I get that job, that money, that fill in the blank. It’s going to be so great. And it is, for a minute. Now, there’s neurophysiology behind this too, there’s a neuromodulator in the brain called dopamine. And you want it, you work for it, you’re gonna get it. Dopamine, dopamine, dopamine. You got it! Oh, oh, I guess I need to start again. Here’s a little tiny way to think about how to solve that problem. You and everybody, mother nature teaches us that to get satisfaction and keep it, you need to have more. That’s the wrong model. Your real satisfaction is all the things you have divided by all the things that you want. Now you can try to increase your satisfaction permanently by having more, or you can work on the denominator of halves divided by ones. You can work on wanting less. That turns out to be the right formula. Shake it off, shake it off. I got it, shake it off.

@maskscrauld, how do I practice gratitude when all I feel is sadness, frustration, and confusion? Back to your question, how do I feel gratitude? You decide to be grateful, is the bottom line. The brain kind of is in three parts, it’s not exactly this way, but just for reference, there’s the ancient part that has all your motor functions and breathing and brain stem and spinal column. Then you got the middle part, your limbic system that takes signals from the outside world and takes a kind of machine language and turns it into feelings that happen to you. And then from there, it delivers those signals into the neocortex of the brain, the wrinkly part on the outside of your brain, the most evolved and amazingly human, of which is the prefrontal cortex, a bumper of brain tissue right behind your forehead. And it gets these emotions and you decide what they mean and what you’re supposed to do. Now, a lot of people go through life in just kind of a limbic state, being delivered emotions and if you’re sort of a limbic person, feeling like you’re managed by these things, kind of hoping for the best, then your limbic system is in charge. But that’s not your only option, you can be in charge yourself. But what you have to do is to experience your emotions in the prefrontal cortex of your brain. And it’s a very simple process if you put your mind to it. It’s called metacognition. Metacognition means being aware of your emotions and your thinking. This is what humans are uniquely available to do. My dog Chucho, he’s not metacognitive, he can’t be. He feels it, he does it, he sees the cookie, he eats the cookie. But I can actually deliver that information to my prefrontal cortex and make an executive decision about what I’m going to do, notwithstanding my feelings. Here’s what I ask my students to do at Harvard. I ask them to make a gratitude list on Sunday nights. I make that, they make a list of the five things they’re most grateful for. And then every night during the rest of the week, take five minutes and look at your gratitude list. Sundays, update your list. In 10 weeks, you’re going to be between 15 and 25 percent happier because you decided to be grateful. You manage your emotions so they didn’t manage you. And if you do that, it’s a game changer. Being in charge, you’re never going to be the same.

@haze1136 asks, pretty rabbit, as I lay here I wonder, what is the true meaning of happiness? Happiness is actually a combination of three identifiable things that we all need and we all want, in both balance and abundance. These are the macronutrients of Happiness. Your Thanksgiving dinner is protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Well, your happiness is enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. Enjoyment is not just pleasure, it’s pleasure with consciousness. It’s using your prefrontal cortex. Satisfaction is the joy that you get from a job well done. It’s your reward for striving, for working, for even suffering. Purpose, what’s that? Well, that’s really a question of finding coherence in your life, finding goals in your life, finding significance in your life. If you have those three things, you have happiness.

@georgestyles asks, is happiness connected to having a purpose? Purpose is literally one of the macronutrients of happiness, but it’s a weird one. It’s actually hard to figure out even what it is. If you’re feeling like life doesn’t have enough purpose, that life doesn’t have enough meaning, answer the following two questions: Why am I alive? And, for what would I be willing to die? If you don’t have an answer to one or both of those questions, you’re going to have an existential crisis, and you need to go in search with your life of an answer to those two questions. I’m not going to tell you what those answers are. They’re different for different people. So yes, does purpose lead to happiness? Oh yeah.

Can social media cause depression? Yes, so it seems. Here’s the basic bottom line: social media is like the junk food of social life. High calories, low nutrition. You’re starving for this neuropeptide called oxytocin, it bonds people together. You get almost none of it when you don’t have touch and eye contact, but you crave more and more social contact when you’ve been on social media for so long. So you binge it. It’s basically like binging french fries and then wondering why you feel crummy and you’re gaining weight, but you’re not getting your nutrition. Here’s the deal: if you’re going to use social media, make sure it only ever complements your in-person relationships, and you use it very sparingly. I’m talking about a total of 30 minutes a day across all platforms, and never, ever, ever substituting for an in-person friendship. If it substitutes for any friendship or goes outside of those bounds, it’s going to lower your happiness.

@pujaescal, got to get the middle initial, I know. How does age affect happiness? And she encloses a graph. And what it does is it looks at different ages, the average happiness level in a particular country at a particular time, and it looks the same every place. What do you think is going to happen? Let’s just say you’re in your late 20s. Are you going to be happier, unhappier in 10 years? Now most people watching me are optimists. Most people think they’re going to be happier at 38 than they were at 28. And the reason is because they all have these goals, and they think that they’re going to meet their goals. Most people think they’re going to get happier as they get older, and it’s going to reach a max point and then it’s going to head back down again. The truth is exactly the opposite. Most people, on average, they get a slight diminution of their happiness from their early 20s until their late 40s, early 50s. But it’s like 8 to 7 on a one to ten scale. This is not a huge problem, noticeable but not horrible. Then in your early 50s, it turns around and you start back up again. And almost everybody actually gets increasing happiness from their early 50s until about 70 except two groups: people who have unremediated mental illness and people who have untreated substance use disorders. So if this is you, get treated for anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and get treated for addiction.

Next question comes from @laughingalltheway. How do we adjust our expectations as we age? That’s a good one. One of the things that actually gets better and better and better as you age is your expectations about the future because you understand how things work. There’s this tyranny that people don’t understand until they’re usually a little after 50 years old. They think that if they get that thing that they want, they’re going to get it and they’re going to enjoy it and it’s never going to go away. And then it does. They also think that if something bad happens to them, that they’re going to stay in a bad mood or sad or angry or afraid forever. Here’s what you learn after 50: nothing lasts and it doesn’t matter. There’s a thing in that all biologists talk about which is homeostasis, the tendency of every biological process to go back to its equilibrium. Well, it works emotionally as well. Your anger, your sadness, your disgust, your fear, your joy, your interest. Those things don’t last. For good and for bad. Your heart is broken, it won’t last. When you figure that out, this is power. And if you harness that, every year is better than the last or it can be.

@third_eye_pryan asks, „Because I’ve been working on being present. To be present means to be here now.“ That’s the words that Ram Das used to talk about. We have a special kind of language that we put on that now, it’s called being mindful. Mindfulness is hard because we’re time travelers. You’re thinking about the past, you’re thinking about the future. The average person, by the way, spends 30 to 50% of their time thinking about the future. That’s unbelievable. You’re not here now. Think about how much you do that. By the way, you go on vacation, you’re like, „I’m gonna make some memories. So I’m going to take a picture, picture, picture.“ You’re thinking about now as if it were the past in the future when you’re looking back on the present. That’s unbelievable time travel. We do it all the time. Here’s the problem: you missed your life. You missed it. You know the great Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh? Y’all have to read „The Miracle of Mindfulness“ because it starts off with him describing what it’s like to wash the dishes. „I’m washing the dishes and I’m conscious of washing the dishes because if I don’t think about washing the dishes, I will not be present in the act of washing the dishes.“ That means working on being a mindful person. Maybe it’s with meditation, maybe it’s with prayer, maybe it’s with therapy, and sitting with your hands folded on your lap, looking out the window of the train, saying, „I am sitting on the train right now because I don’t want to miss my life.“

Finally, @shimeri_AAA wants to know the definition of wisdom. Psychometricians, those who study different forms of intelligence, find that we have a thing called fluid intelligence early on in our 20s and 30s, the ability to focus, to innovate, to solve problems, to think quickly. People tend to peak in knowledge professions at their ability to solve problems, to innovate, to focus working memory in their late 30s. But there’s another curve behind it called crystallized intelligence, which increases through your 40s and 50s and 60s and stays high in your 70s and 80s. It’s the wisdom curve. The essence of wisdom is teaching, is mentoring, it’s leading teams, it’s recognizing patterns, it’s understanding what things really mean and using that information in service of other people. And it gets better. And if you choose to cultivate it, it can make your life as happy as it could possibly be as you get older. That’s not only the consolation of age, that’s the promise of wisdom.

Well, it looks like that’s all we’ve got for today. Those are your questions. I hope you’ve learned a lot from this time. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I hope you’re a little bit happier. But here’s the key thing: if you really want to lock it in, here’s the secret. You’ve got to think about it and you’ve got to adopt new habits in your life. And most of all, here’s the most important part: you’ve got to share it. Go share it. Then you’ll never lose it. Thanks for taking some time with me today.