What do you do when you get a score of 1.79 out of 5? Go back to the drawing board to re-evaluate, refocus and realign? But what if it’s a measure of your happiness levels, not your academic or work skills, that is being put to the test? Then the way forward is a little different.
As a writer, chasing deadlines, not happiness, was my modus operandi. In 2018, I enrolled in Yale University’s Science of Well-Being course, aimed at transforming the way one thinks about happiness, on Coursera. Led by professor Laurie Santos, the course spanned 10 weeks and included “rewirement” work like savouring experiences, maintaining a gratitude journal, indulging in acts of kindness to strangers and actively making social connections. At the end of the course, I had managed to climb to a level of 3.08, and the list of things that made me happy was quite different from what I had assumed it would be.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is the most popular course in the 320-year-old history of Yale. The university offers a free version online via the Coursera platform and the Yale website lists the current enrolment count at 3.38 million people, with the pandemic bolstering the number of those who have joined. In March 2020, 600,000 people signed up in an attempt to make sense of life in a pandemic; and 10.5 million visited the site. Santos called it “surreal” in an article posted on the Yale News website; the course seems to have been rediscovered during this time “as a way to reconnect with essential lessons of life as people worldwide entered an anxiety-ridden time of seclusion”.
In her beautifully written book, Wintering, British author Katherine May writes about her own personal winter, referring not just to the cold season but to tough times. Even as May calls for “an active acceptance of sadness”, she is insistent that misery is not the answer and firmly believes that “happiness is the greatest skill we’ll ever learn”.
Looking at happiness as a skill that can be learnt is not a new idea. Aristotle called it “eudaimonia”, an ancient Greek term for the state or condition of being in good spirit, and believed that man’s very purpose is to live a meaningful and good life. The difference is that while earlier you may have had to devote years of study to it, now there are people willing to teach you this esoteric art for a fee.
The pandemic and its uncertainties have crystallised fears of mortality as well as those nebulous 3am thoughts we could earlier dismiss in the clear light of day: What am I doing with my life? Am I happy? Am I living a good life? And along with numerous online courses, podcasts, blogs and newsletters that distil the wisdom of the ages into nuggets of applicable change-making, now we have happiness coaches, even in India, that individuals, companies, schools and even government organisations are turning to.
These trained experts make it their mission to “spark joy” in Marie Kondo fashion—albeit for your mind rather than your closet—and say that tidying up negative emotions and practising mindfulness can indeed be life-changing. “From the head to the heart” is how Karan Behl, chief happiness officer at Happiitude, a company that focuses on workplace happiness coaching, puts it.
The social rewards of unhappiness aka why we think stress is good
“I got tired of working with people with long faces,” says Behl, when asked why he decided to start the company in 2013. Happiitude, which has created tools, methodologies and frameworks designed around the science of happiness to help clients, also offers training programmes for happiness coaches. Their modules include audits, training, workshops, board games and other motivational tools, all designed to increase your happiness quotient.
“Unhappiness comes with its own set of social rewards. People tend to believe that they are not doing anything significant if they aren’t stressed or constantly busy. Children too use being unhappy as a way of getting more attention from their parents,” says Behl. “However, I see a major shift in the past two years, especially since the pandemic started. Happiness coaching is now a real option for people.” When Behl started out, he had a course every quarter. Now his company runs seven-eight courses simultaneously and the programmes, available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Turkish, train people to be certified happiness coaches, certified mindfulness coaches or workplace happiness specialists, with enrolments within India and abroad. To date, they have certified 2,000 happiness coaches, 1,200 of them during the pandemic itself.
Behl believes even a small shift in mindset can make a big impact on the happiness levels of teams and individuals at the workplace. “For instance, my initial designation was CEO and with that, my focus was on execution. When I changed it to chief happiness officer, my focus changed to people,” he says.
Of course, the monetary compensation is rewarding. Behl says individuals and companies are willing to spend the ₹25,000-35,000 and make the six-week investment the coaching requires per individual, whether someone chooses to enrol on their own or is sent by a company. “We train our coaches and set them on a track to work with corporates or set up their own practice. They can charge anywhere between ₹50,000-80,000 per group workshop they hold as coaches, and they do see a good ROI in training as a happiness coach,” he says.
Governments are taking note too. Behl worked with the Dubai government in 2017, training some chief happiness officers as part of the government’s ministry of happiness initiative. Closer home, when Madhya Pradesh launched a department called Anand Vibhag, Happiitude certified and trained the officers in charge.
Still, Behl feels there’s a long way to go when it comes to making people aware of the importance of happiness training, especially convincing them that this is firmly rooted in science and not in the world of woo. Most of the people who enrol are already coaches, consultants, or from the HR field. But we also have quite a few individuals who want to quit their jobs and start something of their own sign up, he notes.
When asked about the response to his programmes, he says, “I can tell you that we used to get 8-10 daily inquiries before the pandemic; this number increased to 70-80 during the lockdown and the response has remained like this, with at least five-seven inquires converting per day.”
In a Christmas present to herself, Delhi-based Blossom Kochhar, chairperson of the Blossom Kochhar Group of Companies, signed up for both the individual and corporate Happiitude certifications in December 2019. The total of six months of happiness training proved useful during the pandemic. “There was chaos, we had to work from home, and in the midst of all this, I started online coffee with Blossom sessions with my team where I would tell them whatever I learnt in the course about gratitude, helping people, compassion, and how to be happy. Once we started work, I found that my team found the adjustment hard and team spirit had to be rebuilt. I shifted the happiness coffee sessions to physical, in-office ones, and also added in other details I learnt where we started involving the families of our employees in activities we held,” says Kochhar. “We gave our employees an open platform to talk about what made them unhappy or happy; we coached them on ways to increase compassion and gratitude and I must say it really worked. When it is a happy office, people work so well, and my team has come back to me saying it has not only helped their productivity in the office but also improved their relationships with their families.”
“Happiness goes viral”
Fitness expert Anshula Verma Dawar started out by delivering basic fitness workshops to companies. Along the way, she felt the need to focus on something that had an impact on people’s mental health as well as their physical well-being. Realising this was an area she wanted to concentrate on, Dawar set up HappyFitYou, a well-being education brand, in 2018 to cater to companies, colleges, communities and individuals.
Dawar and her team tailor coaching options that can range from workshops to a programme that goes on for some months or a year depending on client preferences and also conduct happiness workshops for individuals and groups. From leadership problems to communication gaps, stress, anxiety and lack of motivation, there is considerable demand for both her group and one-on-one coaching sessions. The latter can cost upwards of ₹1,000 per hour.
“I am a coach and I don’t put a specific number for the individuals who come to me for coaching. I do charge everyone. But I charge them according to their financial ability,” she says. During the pandemic, she reduced the cost of her sessions by 50% to allow more people to avail of her services.
Dawar claims she was the youngest happiness coach in India when she started her company in Mumbai—she was just 24. She got married and moved to Zambia in early 2020 and is now shuttling between the two countries, offering both virtual and in-person sessions. Her website displays her tag line: “Happiness goes viral”, a phenomenon that she believes has in recent times taken on a life of its own. “We have come a long way since the time mental health was a taboo topic. Opening up and accepting help is normalised now,” she says.
“Look at it this way: Various studies done over the years have estimated that you have anywhere from 6,000-60,000 thoughts in your head per day. Learning about happiness can teach you to select the right ones,” she says. To help you do this, every workshop of hers incorporates a fun activity, which can be as small as hugging someone or circulating a smiley sticker to five people in your life. In Zoom sessions during the pandemic, she has been dividing people into virtual groups and having them switch on their videos to show actions of kindness without speaking. “By mimicking hugging or even by smiling, people instantly feel at ease and these ice breakers create harmony and instantly put you in a happier state of mind,” she says.
“In the race to achieve our goals, we often forget to be grateful and to appreciate the people around us and the point of these activities is to offer a different perspective on living. It’s a way to actively remember to be kind. While our idea of happiness differs from person to person, it is, in fact, an option for all of us, and the pandemic has normalised the idea of getting help in this area,” she says.
However, Dawar says she ensures that the lines between coaching and therapy do not blur. “I set the expectations straight at the start. My job is to help people reach their highest potential in any aspect of their life through guidance and training. This includes setting objectives, understanding through assessments, providing feedback, identifying goals, and going ahead with achieving these goals. However, there are times when clients need solutions that only trained therapists can impart and I refer them to one in that case,” she says.
One client who eschewed therapy or medication for happiness coaching was Mumbai-based company secretary Kavita Mendon, who says she had “forgotten how to be happy”. “We often fantasize about happiness and believe it has to be a certain way. Sometimes we get into this thought process where we want to experience or crave certain happy moments or situations with people whom we consider special. But when it doesn’t materialise exactly the way we want it to, we end up disappointed. This has happened with me,” she says.
Through happiness coaching with Dawar over two months, she learnt how to analyse, manage and balance her emotions, identify her trigger points, reduce the intensity of the bitterness she carried and break old, negative patterns—and take a relook at what happiness meant to her.
“Happiness for me is now not restricted to certain moments, experiences, people, or being successful in life. It has a different meaning—appreciating things as they are and not expecting them to unfold in a specific way,” she says. “It was an impulse decision and I am happy that it worked out well for me. The biggest change is that I have gone from feeling like I was being emotionally suffocated to being at peace with myself—physically, mentally and emotionally.”
Mumbai-based Srividya Iyengar, executive director of The Chartered Institute of Global Workforce Management, believed her life was spiralling out of control. Small things would often make her fly off the handle and she wanted to understand what set her off. Last August, she enrolled for happiness coaching sessions as part of the workshop Dawar held at the city’s Jain University, and says she has learnt to stay calm, hone in on her emotional triggers and manage her thoughts.
But she noticed an even bigger change. “I was someone who was scared to be happy; I felt that if I was too happy at any point, I would attract something awful,” she says. Iyengar had reached a point where she found herself checking her laughter due to anxiety that being over-joyous would lead to something going wrong. “While I know that quite a lot of people feel this way, for me it was a dominant thought that overrode everything else in my life. Most importantly, I no longer worry about laughing too much,” she says.
For Mendon, the fact that she couldn’t venture out during the pandemic contributed to her feeling of helplessness. Companies too are realising that the lockdown has given rise to a new set of well-being issues, especially with work-from-home. During the pandemic, says Dawar, more workplaces have started hiring counsellors, psychologists, coaches and trainers to help tackle mental health issues and guide employees to develop a positive mindset. “Not just corporates, quite a few schools have realised the need to teach happiness to their students too,” she says.
Governments get on the happiness wagon
A case in point is the Delhi government, which has over the last three years introduced a Happiness Curriculum across its schools with the objective of enhancing the mental well-being of children by helping them build stronger relationships, teaching them about the importance of mindfulness and a better approach to problem-solving. Several schools in states like Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand have followed suit. A pilot programme in Uttar Pradesh is slated to start this April in 150 schools in 15 districts, for students from classes I-VIII.
Riddhi Doshi, a Mumbai-based child psychologist and parenting counsellor, applauds the change but believes it needs to be implemented across all cities and sections of society rather than being restricted to the privileged. “The new draft education policy for 2020 that was released by the government focused on creating an experiential learning system but left out mental health and wellness for children. I campaigned extensively and submitted white papers to Unicef, the UN and the education ministry to appeal for mental health to be a vital part of the education system here,” she says.
Doshi finds that the pandemic has given parents a way out in a society that earlier looked down on therapy and mental health concerns. For her, it’s important to start teaching children as young as 3 about happiness and she finds an enormous change in children who learn this via schools or through their parents. “They are more in tune with their emotions, more confident, and far better able to cope. I love how beyond only schools doing this, some parents are enrolling their children in mindfulness classes. This is priceless as far as helping their children’s growth is concerned,” she says.
With a PhD in philosophy, Ashish Ambasta, founder of Happy+, a happiness habit formation company comprising happiness experts, psychologists and researchers, has worked in this field for 20 years. He sees a more positive attitude towards happiness in society and in the workplace today. Companies have moved on from “engagement” and “positive stress” as the ruling buzzwords to “happiness”, he says.
“Earlier, happiness was too personal a word to be used at the workplace. Productivity meant employees being engaged. But something was clearly missing and a sea change was needed. The new generation is no longer satisfied with jobs that do not allow them to live as human beings. As they become conscious of owning their identities beyond being just employees, corporates will have to fall in line, and those who don’t will fade away,” Ambasta says.
“Our framework involves first assessing a person’s happiness levels, post which we start them on happiness building activities for weeks/months to experience positive emotions, and we keep measuring the progress at regular intervals,” he says.
The activities are tracked via two apps, a paid one called HappyPlus that is geared towards companies and organisations and a free one called Happbit for individuals. Signing up gives you daily prompts to help you build gratitude and happiness in ways that range from asking you to thank a family member who went out of their way to be nice to you, to writing a letter of gratitude to yourself. Within two weeks to a month, depending on the number of tasks you have to complete, the gratitude component of your happiness is measured and evaluated. The future, believes Ambasta, is Indian workplaces and institutions following the Nordic model of people going above and beyond as far as their work ethic is concerned because they are happy and fulfilled.
Happiness, however, is a muscle that needs to be flexed constantly in order to work—and waiting to do this till one reaches the corporate level isn’t enough. This is what has prompted some elite Indian colleges to go the Yale route. At the Indian Institute of Management, Indore, Ambasta’s organisation delivered a course on happiness to students of the 2019 batch. “The feedback I got from students was that they gained clarity on what was really important in life. It’s better to get this knowledge at the beginning of your career rather than at the end to help guide your choices in life, both personal and professional,” he says.
Anveeksha Kapur, who was part of the course as a student, finds the learnings useful in her HR career now. “The biggest takeaway for me was learning that happiness can be measured and controlled rather than believing that it was just a spontaneous feeling. The principles of positive psychology and activities like daily journaling that were a part of the course are practices I continue to do today,” she says.
When asked about his take on India ranking 139 out of 149 countries in the UN World Happiness Report 2021, Ambasta says that a far more extensive sample size and research is needed. It’s something his team is attempting. They are in the process of conducting a nationwide study to understand this ranking and will present their findings to the government to help facilitate change in the field of happiness in India. “The idea is to ask the same questions as the UN survey but with a far larger sample size of a minimum 25,000 respondents, as compared to the UN sample size of approximately 3,000 respondents, to get a more realistic answer before stating that India simply isn’t happy. We will release our findings on 20 March, the same day that the World Happiness Report comes out,” he says. The questions, which cover life evaluation and episodic happiness, include asking people if they are satisfied with the freedom they have to choose what they do with their life, if they have donated money to a charity in the past month, if they smiled or laughed as they went about their day, and if they have confidence in the honesty of the election system.
Most of those working in the happiness industry don’t see this as a fad. “The pandemic has changed the way we look at life. People are seeking avenues of happiness and are willing to take tough decisions in the short term if that decision has a long-term impact on happiness. Earlier, it was about owning a new gadget, now it’s about experiencing fresh air in Ladakh. Priorities have changed and the quest for happiness is going to stay,” says Ambasta.
Behl adds: “So much change has already happened. As long as uncertainty isn’t going anywhere, people will continue to question their existence.” Ambasta cautions that while pursuing happiness isn’t going to suddenly catapult one into nirvana, it is certainly going to make a positive impact if we all add happiness to our mix of goals.
What’s even more crucial, though, is a willingness to work at flexing the happiness muscle. “Earlier, the idea was that people would consider themselves to be largely happy if they were not undergoing psychiatric treatment or therapy of any kind. Now people have realised that there’s a journey from being ‘generally happy’ to being truly happy, and for this journey to last it requires more than just paying a happiness coach. What is needed is consistent daily work. People have to take ownership of their own happiness,” says Ambasta.
Mumbai-based Varkha Chulani, a clinical psychologist, warns against believing that happiness can be purchased. “It’s a state of mind and a process. If the underlying internal unease or disease isn’t addressed, no amount of coaching can help.” While Chulani agrees that covid-19 drove home the point that everyone has just one life and most could do with a reset and reflection on what makes them happy, she offers words of caution. “This thought is what made people opt for programmes and courses that could put them in a better frame of mind. But here one has to guard against toxic positivity—where the constant need for positivity can make us fragile and start to panic the minute something feels off. Rather than saying it’s about positivity or negativity, I would say let’s put the emphasis on reality. The faster we get used to dealing with actual, real happenings, the more emotionally settled we will be,” she advises.
Chulani points to two kinds of change—superficial and lasting. The former lasts a few months and leads you back to the starting point, while the latter goes down to the brass tacks to understand the ideological basis for the distress. “If your coach or course is properly equipped with the right expertise to go deep into the issue and make a philosophical change, it can have long-lasting, positive results,” she says.
Chulani says it finally boils down to the tombstone test, where a person is asked what they would like to have written on their tombstones. If you can write that you have lived a fulfilled life, it justifies the path or person that helped you reach here. Dawar agrees, circling back to Aristotle: “At the end, when you are on your deathbed, the main thing that matters is whether you lived a good life and gave back to society. If you can answer yes, that you made a difference and did your bit to create a world for the new generation to thrive, you can die peacefully.” If investing in happiness can set you on the right path to achieving this goal, it makes the investment worthwhile. After all, as the billionaire Warren Buffett once said—you can’t buy time and you can’t buy love. But now, as it turns out, you just might be able to buy happy.
Faye Remedios is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on wellness.