Practical Optimism

Optimism Works: “Identify what you are truly passionate about.”

This is Optimism Works, a series that interviews people who, through optimism, have made achievements in their life and career. Dr. Raj Raghunathan, a marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin, teaches the importance of optimism, among other things, in his course A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment. Here, he gives a glimpse into how he’s turned something he’s passionate about—the study of happiness—into a successful career.

Dr. Raj Raghunathan has always been interested in the concept of happiness. But while on a class trip to India, he realized his research had the potential to become something much more, in the form of a new college course designed to provide students with the means to live not only a successful life, but a happy one. Dr. Raj took the plunge and, despite the general assumption that this idea didn’t fit into the world of business, created a course that is now one of the most popular marketing electives at the McCombs School of Business and reaches more than 350,000 students worldwide. He couldn’t have done it without practicing what he teaches in his own life, which is to find your passion and stay optimistic that it will bring you true happiness.  

When did you first decide that you wanted to study happiness for your career?

I decided that I wanted to study happiness around 1998—when I was still a PhD student—but it became my sole focus when I started teaching a class on happiness in 2009. I was always interested in happiness, even as a child. However, the reason I decided to teach a class on the topic was because of something specific. In the spring semesters of 2006 and 2007, I took about 35 of MBAs from the McCombs School of Business, at UT Austin, to India as part of a class. During that trip, I got to see my college-mates from fifteen-odd years ago. And I noticed something very interesting about my college-mates: that career success doesn’t automatically translate into “life success”—how happy, fulfilled, and satisfied you are with your life. That’s when I decided that, as an educator, my primary purpose was to provide my students with tools required to lead a happy and fulfilling life, and that merely educating them to become successful managers and leaders wasn’t enough. 

When you were getting started, what feelings do you remember having about that goal?

It was definitely a scary thing to do—to offer a course on a topic that most of my own colleagues felt didn’t belong in the business world. However, I told myself that if I didn’t do it, I would regret it for the rest of my life. I knew that I could always go back to teaching a marketing course if I didn’t get the approval I needed, or if students didn’t show interest in it. So, I did have a safety net. But I still felt anxious because it was such a bizarre idea, especially back then, to teach a course on a topic that most people didn’t associate with business. Looking back, I’m obviously glad that I did it!

What was the very first step you took? How did you stay on track?

The very first step was to ask my students—when we were still in India—whether they’d be interested in taking a course on happiness. I remember this moment like it was yesterday. It was 2007 and we were at Gorai Beach in Mumbai, at the farewell party on the final day of our two-week trip. We were all hanging out around a bonfire when I turned to my students and just asked them. They all responded with an enthusiastic “yes”! Now, I knew that most of them were a couple of beers down, so I had to take their response with a pinch of salt, but it did give me the motivation to put together a preliminary one-pager on the course.

Describe the moments when you felt like giving up. Why didn’t you? 

I may be somewhat unique and lucky—or maybe my memory is particularly bad—but I never really felt like giving up on teaching this course or doing research on happiness. That’s partly due to the copious hunger for the topic. Even the first time I taught the course, I had a waiting list! 

I did, however, run into huge obstacles while writing my book. My first publisher canceled our contract, then I lost my supportive editor, and my second publisher wasn’t giving me as much of an advance. These events were definitely stressful. But as for teaching and researching happiness, I consider myself very lucky to have had a great ride thus far, and I’m grateful to be making an impact—particularly through my online courses, which have over 350,000 students from all around the world.

Optimism is the fuel that gives you energy to continue despite setbacks. 

Where have you found support along the way?

My family is obviously a huge source of support. For many of my initiatives (e.g., my website, the “pay it forward initiative” for my book—whereby anyone can get a copy of the book for as low a price as they want to pay), I’ve spent quite a bit of my own money, and my family has been nothing but supportive. My colleagues have also been supportive, even though they were skeptical to begin with. I’m now frequently asked to deliver talks on happiness for various McCombs stakeholders. And I’ve found support in the student community. I now have over 11,000 followers on my Facebook page, and I routinely get emails from students around the world telling me how much of a positive impact my work has had on them. Nothing can be more gratifying than that as a teacher! 

What has been surprisingly hard? Surprisingly easy?

The most difficult part has been convincing the practitioner world—the business leaders—of the importance of happiness in the workplace. Even though many studies show that happier employees mean higher productivity and profits, leaders and organizations are still hesitating to invest more into employee happiness. However, I’m sure this will change in the next decade or two.

What’s been surprisingly easy is getting invited to give talks on the topic. I do one talk or podcast a week, which is lovely!

How do you define success?

I’d say that I have led a successful life if, at the end of it, I feel like I had an emotionally full and positive life. What I mean by “full” is that my life has not just been pleasurable, and not just positive (i.e., lots of positive emotional experiences like love and joy and pride), but also has had lots of meaning (i.e., satisfaction from having helped others) and purpose (i.e., satisfaction from having learned and grown in important ways). 

How does optimism play a role in your career and your life? 

Optimism is extremely important, particularly if one is trying to do something unusual. It’s the fuel that gives you energy to continue despite setbacks. It’s what makes you more resilient, and makes you say, “that didn’t work out like I wanted it to, so let me try a slightly different approach,” and helps you keep going. 

One key positive mindset that has been invaluable to me is something I call “dispassionate pursuit of passion.” It’s too intricate a concept to explain in a few sentences, but it’s related to the attitude that “the universe is benign” or that “everything is for the best.” This mindset has allowed me to retain at least a sliver of optimism even in the most trying situations. 

What advice do you have for other people, trying to do what you’ve done or simply trying to achieve a life of happiness? 

I’d say three things. First, identify something that you are truly, deeply passionate about. This could take a while, particularly if you have been doing meaningless things—just to pay the bills—for a very long time. Then, figure out a way to devote at least some time every week connecting with your passion. Do this even if this activity doesn’t pay you any money. Finally, have faith that things will work out eventually. This is, of course, easier said than done if you are prone to feeling pessimistic and fearful of the future. One practice that can help you in this regard is to maintain what’s called a “3 good things” journal. Every evening, just before going to sleep, write about the day’s events and end your entry with three good things that happened. If you do this consistently over even just a few weeks, you’ll start becoming more optimistic and resilient. Just try it! 

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