Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on happiness and human performance. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Arthur Brooks was the keynote at my virtual 30th Harvard Business School reunion which I summoned up the energy to log into when I was in the midst of a severe depressive episode.  His talk reminded me of my studies many years earlier with Tal Ben Shahar, the creator of Harvard’s most popular course ever on happiness,  and gave me hope. I saw a tiny glimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

Months later, he sent me a review copy of From Strength to Strength which I covered as I launched my Happiness & Leadership column (see lessons).

Grace Ueng

I then had the chance to share my story with him last fall (interview with Arthur Brooks) and he told me that he would be bringing together leaders to Harvard’s campus the next year to share best practices in teaching happiness and well-being.  I had the chance to be a part of Harvard Kennedy School’s inaugural Leadership & Happiness Symposium this summer.

I was delighted to review his book being released today, Build the Life you Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, my role model for interviewing leaders.  The greatest compliment I’ve received is that I am “the Chinese Oprah.”

 Art & science

I was given access to their pre-release electronic galley, so I read the book on my iPhone.  When I thought I still had forty e-pages left to read, I realized the last chunk of the book was dedicated to footnotes citing renowned authors, scholarly papers, and lots of neuroscience and psychology research.

Throughout each chapter, Arthur frames his content around real life research. He begins the book with a touching tale about his grandma, Albina.  He also cites ancient teachings from Greek and Eastern scholars, composers and poets. He is both academic and accessible.

What is Happiness?

 Oprah shared that in her decades of interviewing tens of thousands of people, her audiences all said that what they wanted most in their life was just to be happy.

The description for my HappinessWorks workshop reads as follows:

When asked what they most want for their children, parents say “I just want them to be happy.” 

Then why is happiness not taught in school? Well, Harvard changed that…

People struggle to define happiness. Ancient philosophers struggled to agree.  Different cultures define happiness differently.

Legacy leaders shun the use of the word “happiness” or “well-being” in describing these workshops for their employees. They have not been exposed to the data that shows the financial impact of happiness and well-being to ROI (Workplace Wellbeing and Firm Performance – University of Oxford).

Deloitte’s Workforce well-being imperative describes legacy organizations as those that view  (1) work and life as separate (2) well-being as the responsibility of the individual, and (3) perks and benefits as the best solution, which sadly often are not utilized or do not work.

Deloitte describes forward thinking companies as those that recognize work as a key determinant of well-being and as a shared responsibility.  Transformational organizations have enlightened leaders who understand how the structure of their teams impacts well-being.

How is happiness trending?

In the past decade, Americans saying they are “not too happy” more than doubled from 10% to 24%. Now nearly 1 out of 4 people are not happy. On the flipside, Americans saying they are “very happy” has shrunk from 36% to 19%. Less than 1 in 5 people are very happy.

In 2019, the year before COVID, 6.5% of Americans reported symptoms of depression. Just one year later, in May 2020, this figure jumped nearly four fold to 25%. 1 in 4 people reported symptoms of depression.

The importance of liking your work

In 2022, only 16% of  the population were very satisfied with their work, 37% were somewhat satisfied, and 47% were somewhat or very dissatisfied, or just glad to have a job. Quite grim.

Workaholism is often an escape from something that we are suffering – such as depression – and becomes an addiction.  Arthur paints the picture of Winston Churchill’s life where he worked nearly all the time to escape from his severe depression and anxiety. And this temporary escape can make the suffering worse, not better.

Liking your job is a key part of happiness.  Arthur emphasizes the importance of finding meaning in your work by providing service to others and therefore, having earned success. You will then experience work that is love made visible, a worthy pursuit.

“Work is love made visible.”

– Lebanese poet Kahil Gibran


How do you do this? You must first understand yourself.   And then you can determine how to make your work less stressful, more joyful and a source of personal growth.  And if we cannot change our circumstances in our work, we can change our reaction to it.


In this weekend’s edition, the Wall Street Journal had an excerpt from their book: The power to decide how you feel describing the theory of metacognition which gives us the ability to shape our emotional response to things that we may not favor.   Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is the act of experiencing your emotions consciously, separating them from your behavior, and refusing to be controlled by them.

Neuroscience explains why we have negative reactions to fear, fight or flight is our evolutionary protection to not be a tiger’s lunch. Chronic stress, however, can lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or depression and anxiety.

Metacognition offers a healthier and more permanent solution. 4 practical ways to get started:

  1. When you feel intense emotions, simply observe your feelings (Playing the role of neutral observer).
  2. Journal your emotions – one of the best ways to achieve metacognition because it forces you to translate rudimentary feelings into specific thoughts.
  3. Keep a repository of positive memories.  This can interrupt the doom loop and improve your overall mood.  I provide my workshop participants and coaching clients with prompts to write for 15 minutes for several days in a row on their envisioned future. Research shows this helps individuals actualize the futures they want for themselves.
  4. Look for meaning in the hard parts of life.  I had my annual physical today with my doctor who helped me a great deal during my depressive episode.  He recounted what a very difficult time it was for me.  I told him that now that I am on the other side, I realize my well-being is much higher than my former baseline because of going through the worst of times.I now appreciate the good, and the good appreciates.  If I had not experienced the bad, I would not appreciate the good as much as I do now.

Happiness is not the goal, and unhappiness is not the enemy

Arthur explains that complete happiness is not the goal, nor is it even possible. Happiness is instead, a direction we can strive toward, to becoming happier. Perhaps I should rename my workshops to HappierWorks.

Also, unhappiness is not the enemy. In fact, happiness and unhappiness most always coexist.  Arthur and Oprah share the same message that my pastor repeated in his sermon yesterday, we will all face suffering in our life.  This is a fate no one escapes.  Suffering is what connects us with each other.   My severe depressive episode was incredibly important for me to want to do the work I am now doing.

Oprah explains that happier is not a state of being, but a state of doing – not a thing you wait around and hope for but an achievable change you actively work toward.  Why my mantra for my workshops is that the science of happiness works, but it takes ongoing work.

Happiness is not a feeling

 Happiness is not a feeling or an emotion.  True, feelings are associated with happiness, just as the savory aroma of a home cooked meal is evidence of a good Thanksgiving dinner.  But the aroma is not the meal.  Your emotions are signals, and what you do about them is completely your call. When we are faced with difficult circumstances that we cannot control, metacognition gives us the ability to share our emotional response appropriately.

I often have my workshop attendees and coaching clients take the PANAS test.  This is the positive affect, negative affect schedule, a psychometric tool developed three decades ago by psychologists from SMU and University of Minnesota. You can too: link (register for free to create an account and then the test takes just a few minutes).  Arthur has all his HBS students do the same.

People generally assess their feelings as a blend of positive and negative emotions. All together, people discern some negative feelings about half the time, on average, and positive feelings about three-quarters of the time.

Arthur  is a Mad Scientist similar to his HBS students in the scatterplot.  Oprah realized they work so well together, because they are complementary;  she is a Judge.

In meeting Oprah, Arthur had the realization that the reason why she has not “lost her mind” even though she is likely “one of the 5 most famous people in the world,”  is that she is a Judge.  Her emotional balance keeps her from experiencing the highest highs or the lowest lows.  She is the rare person in Arthur’s world of presidents, politicians, and other famous people, who has cracked the code on how to be a public person and to be privately content and happy at the same time. She finds joy in simple things. She is at peace.

Although many think they would love to be famous, Brooks cautions that it’s not as fun as it may appear.

“Fame is super hard on the brain,” he says. “And so people who get famous before they’re 15, for example, many never recover because the reward circuits are just blinkered forever.”

Be the Teacher

 I am like Arthur, I have a genetically wired predisposition for depression and anxiety, so he and I have to work extra hard to keep above our baseline. Hence the double meaning of “works” in my HappinessWorks.™  While I share with workshop participants the science of positive psychology and how it works, I also tell them happiness takes ongoing work. Why I believe in having accountability through cohorts and ongoing check-ins.

In their final chapter, Oprah and Arthur tell readers to teach this book.  His Leadership & Happiness Laboratory at Harvard Kennedy School holds the core belief that all leaders should be happiness teachers.

It is what Arthur is doing at Harvard.  It is what I am doing here in the Triangle. I write a weekly column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire, which I suggest my coaching clients read.  I point them to relevant content  to help their situation.  I teach HappinessWorks™  and related Workshops to companies directly and through Duke Fuqua Executive Education.

I highly encourage you to teach happiness (aka well-being or human performance) in your organizations.  Your teams will appreciate you for it and you all will be more successful as a result.  Trust me, the data speaks the truth.

What will you do this week toward contributing to your workforce’s well-being?

About Grace Ueng

Grace is a strategy consultant,  leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth. Her company offers workshops ideal for retreats to move your team forward: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn. Join her Happiness & Leadership community to be a happier and better leader.