Harvard wants MBAs to learn how to be happy at work

As business schools train the business leaders of tomorrow, skills such as emotional awareness and improving well-being take their place alongside negotiation and financial modeling. Courses on happiness, relationships, and balance are some of the most requested courses in top MBA programs. Their popularity reflects both the demand for soft skills and students’ desire for a more balanced life, as well as the intention of schools to develop better bosses.

At Harvard, the 180 spots in Arthur Brooks’ “Leadership and Happiness” are filling up fast. Some students who don’t participate in electives attend classes virtually or ask other students for course recaps, students say.

Participants learn to cultivate the happiness of their teams, as well as their own. A central tenet is that happiness is the key to being an effective leader. Happiness is not just the product of chance, genes or life circumstances, argues Dr. Brooks, but of usually dealing with four key areas: family, friends, meaningful work and faith or the philosophy of life.

“Think carefully about each of the four parts of your portfolio,” reads a slide presented on the first day of classes this semester. “Which one are you over-indexing in? According to the program, students will complete the course with tools to better compete in the job market and enjoy work and life.

The seven-week half-credit course was first offered in the Spring 2020 semester, as Covid-19 arrived. Happiness at work has since taken on a new urgency for employees and managers, as workers quit their jobs at record rates and rethink their goals. Many companies are working to boost morale, reduce turnover, experiment with new ways of working, and even offer employee wellness retreats.

“Leadership and Happiness” started with 72 students; over the past two years, the school has more than doubled enrollment, but Harvard said it still can’t accommodate everyone trying to enroll.

It is one of several MBA courses designed to teach otherwise left-brained, high achievers the more general skills of management. At Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, “Organizational Behavior 374: Interpersonal Dynamics” — better known as “Touchy Feely” — teaches self-awareness to improve communication and relationships. Yale School of Management students can enroll in Mastering Influencing and Persuasion, which promises to teach students how to more authentically persuade and motivate others.

Dr. Brooks has also started talking about workplace happiness to companies. About 16,000 employees of Allstate Corp. listened to a virtual conference he held for the insurer in December; several thousand more watched the recorded session the following week, the company said.

A social scientist who joined Harvard in 2019 after leading the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute for a decade, Dr Brooks said he sometimes felt alone as boss. He said he was inspired to present the class at Harvard after observing the same with other leaders.

Classroom presentations can mix Bible verses and Buddhist teachings with psychological research on wellness or romantic love. It asks students to distinguish “true friends” from the more transactional “deal friends”. (True friends “have a nice quality of worthlessness,” Dr. Brooks said. “I don’t need you, I just love you.”)

Bartosz Garbaczewski, a second-year Harvard MBA student, says he enrolled in the course this semester to learn how to better balance work and life. Two long-term romantic relationships had come to an end as he pursued professional success in the energy and tech industries. He wanted to improve the chances of the next one.

“I’m not going to prioritize money in my career,” he said. “If I’m happy, it will come.”

When he graduates, Mr. Garbaczewski says he wants to prioritize the happiness of his team. Part of that, he said he learned, will be putting yourself in other people’s shoes.

Dr. Brooks’ students assess their relationships, materialistic values, and other emotional measures. During a recent morning class, he projected the students’ anonymized scores onto a screen at the front of the amphitheater.

Some high-achieving students, he said, rank high on finding meaning and accomplishment, but score lower on positive emotions. “You’re constantly postponing your gratification,” he said, which can lead to burnout.

This resonated with Ashley McCray, an engineer and class consultant. She remembers being named to a 2019 list of top businesswomen in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but focusing on the next goal instead of savoring the accomplishment. “It was little, ambitious Ashley’s dream, and I made it happen, and I felt nothing,” she said.

She said she heard about Dr. Brooks’ class before she came to Harvard and is now the ‘VP of Happiness’ for the HBS student body, sharing happy times on campus on social media. and helping her classmates rejuvenate with therapy dogs and on-campus massages.

Mark Giragosian, a 2021 HBS graduate, now works in private equity in Boston. He stores a series of reminders for daily practice in his desk drawer. One is taken straight from the classroom: living in “watertight vessels”, that is, remaining aware of future goals, but living in the present.

These tips are especially useful when things go wrong, he said. Mr Giragosian said he advises stressed associates to fix mistakes, then move on and not get overwhelmed with things they can’t change. The course also helped him understand his own fear of failure. People don’t fear failure itself, Dr. Brooks tells students, but how failure will make them feel.

“There should be a limit to the level of stress I should indulge in at work,” Mr Giragosian said.

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