A few days ago Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, came to IESE to give a seminar on Capitalism and Happiness. I’d like to expand on some of his ideas about happiness, which can also be found in this article from the New York Times and in this video:

As Brooks explained, drawing on studies in psychology and sociology, 48% of what individuals define as having a happy life is the result of congenital factors: biological aspects, temperament and character, family influences, etc. However, that is not enough to establish a “determinism” of happiness, because the fact remains that 52% corresponds to other factors.

Out of that number, 40% is due to temporary and circumstantial factors, which are often linked to a specific, unrepeatable event: living in a particular place, getting that job, fulfilling that dream you’ve had since childhood, etc. The remaining 12% depends on the decisions we make, and, to a large degree, can also influence the other 40%. So, if we stop to consider that fact, the degree of happiness we desire in our lives is actually up to us .

According to Brooks, this 12% is based on four factors, which represent the keys to a happy life: faith, family, social life and work. The first two aspects correspond to a generalized experience: No one at the end of their life regrets having spent too much time with their family or having an overly intense spiritual life — quite the contrary.

Enter To Grow in Wisdom.
“Enter To Grow in Wisdom”. Harvard University. Source: Flickr, Rachael Voorhees

Happiness also has a very clear social dimension: It is very difficult to be happy when isolating oneself. And no one regrets having spent too much time with friends (although it is a different story if one reaches the conclusion that they have chosen the wrong friends). Lastly, work is something that could be less intuitive. Work enters the equation of happiness, not when perceived as a means to get money, power, or social recognition, but as a valuable activity in itself, which enriches the personal development of the person working, and the development of the society in which the work is done.

Seen as such, one’s work or profession has a vocational sense. This has also recently been highlighted by other authors, such as Harvard Professor Rakesh Khurana, and in a paper from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and, incidentally, it ties in closely with IESE’s mission and the way we perceive our own work in management training. Doing meaningful work contributes to a happy life.

Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind. Source: Flickr, Rachael Voorhees
“Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind”. Harvard University. Source: Flickr, Rachael Voorhees

Aristotle said that happiness is about fostering knowledge (Aristotle had a rather intellectual outlook on life, which led him to view contemplation as the ideal conduct), having friends and a little luck. Translated into today’s terms, it would look a lot like what Brooks describes. Other authors, such as John Finnis and Mortimer Adler, have made their own lists of the things that make up a happy life. All these authors, one way or another, describe happiness as a combination of various aspects, which people need to know how to choose and combine properly.

Happiness cannot be boiled down to simply having a pleasant life. Pleasure is the result of happiness, but pleasure is not what matters — that can be obtained as a result of a happy life, or other, less happy ways. It’s about filling our life with things that make us happy.

Thinking about how to characterize a happy, meaningful life, as proposed by Arthur Brooks, I am reminded of one of the gates outside Harvard University. Above the gate there is a double inscription in stone, a quote attributed to Charles S. Eliot, the university’s president. At the entrance it reads: “Enter to Grow in Wisdom.” On the other side of the gate, on the way out, is the inscription: “Exit to Serve Better Thy Country and Thy Kind.” Grow in wisdom, serve your country and your fellow human beings. What a way of life.


Joan Fontrodona, Business EthicsJoan Fontrodona is professor and chairman of business ethics department and academic director of the IESE Center for Business in Society

He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy (University of Navarra) and an MBA in Management (IESE Business School).