Arthur Brooks discusses his ongoing efforts to promote happiness.

My happiness class at the Harvard Business School is very oversubscribed. It’s about happiness, after all. Who wouldn’t want that? The 180 slots fill in about nine minutes, or they did this year. And there are hundreds—about 400 on the waiting list. There’s also an illegal Zoom link they think I don’t know about.

On the first day of class, I ask my students a very simple question. I say, “Look, you worked hard to get into this elective. It’s about happiness. Obviously, you must know what happiness is.” And I cold call ’em. This is what we do at Harvard, where you pick people out of the crowd and you cold call ’em, and I say, “What is it? What’s happiness?”

And one after the other, they say something like this. “It’s the feeling I get when I’m with the people that I love.” “It’s the feeling I get when I’m doing what I enjoy.” And I say, “Wrong.” That’s like saying your Thanksgiving dinner is the smell of a turkey. No, happiness is not a feeling. Feelings are evidence of happiness.

According to most good social scientists, happiness can be understood as kind of a combination of three phenomena: enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning. Enjoyment is pleasure, plus effort and human elevation. Satisfaction is the joy of an achievement or a goal met or the reward for a job well done. And then there’s meaning.

You know, you can make do without enjoyment for a pretty long period of time, and a lot of people go without very much satisfaction. But without meaning, you’re lost. That is the point made in the famous work of the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, that he made in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Without a sense of meaning, a sense of the why of our basic existence, our lives just can’t be endured.