Faculty Spotlight

"Choosing Happiness" An Interview with Naresh Agarwal

man jumping on the middle of the street during daytime photo
Photo Credit: Andre Hunter

Happiness is really about wellbeing and taking care of yourself. And having the tools to do so.

This is a conversation between Naresh Agarwal, Associate Professor in the School of Library and Information Sciences and Director of Information Science and Tech Concentration at Simmons University, and Taylor Eubanks, graduate student in the Gender and Cultural Studies program, about his manuscript on happiness.

What project are you working on for the Hazel Dick Leonard fellowship?

Naresh Agarwal: This fellowship has given me a chance to convert my thoughts on happiness into book form. I started the process in September 2019 and wrote a rough draft, but now I can put it into a more concrete shape.

How did a book on happiness get started?

Naresh Agarwal: I don't remember when I started to think about happiness, but I created PowerPoint slides on it around 2010. I used to teach a class called LIS 403 'Evaluation of Information Services' where I taught students how to gather data using research methods, like surveys, experiments, interviews, and so on. As part of that, they learned to create research models with different variables, where one thing is affecting another.

"Initially I called it 'be happy always' but I renamed it to 'choose happiness' because while we might not feel happy all the time, we do have a choice on how much to let circumstance affect us."

At the very last class at the end of the semester, in the last 20-30 minutes, I gave them a talk where I developed a research model on happiness. And that had a profound effect—some of the students were in tears, and some were asking why I didn't do the presentation earlier. Since then, I have been doing the talk at the end of every class of the semester, as a parting gift to students. I've also given it at various conferences and workshops. I have a brief survey I ask attendees and students to take, and I now have years of data collected.

What are your thoughts on happiness?

Naresh Agarwal: I think it's a perspective, a way of looking at life. The strategies I discuss are ways of making lemonade when life gives you lemons. When the fruits are sweet, we don't look for reminders to be happy. But when we go through tough times, that's when we need them.

Practicing these regularly helps us recover more easily during tough times of our lives.

Our mind is very powerful and likes to call attention to itself all the time. It is easy to get lost in the mind that is always judging other people or ourselves. I've found that every time I'm sad, upset, or miserable, it's always about me – I may not be getting something what I think I should be getting; or somebody was supposed to do something for me, or supposed to behave in a certain way. The moment I pull myself out of that victim mode and make it about giving rather than getting, about what I can do instead to contribute, I regain the power.

Initially, I called it [the first chapter of the book] "be happy always" but I renamed it to "choose happiness" because while we might not feel happy all the time, we do have a choice on how much to let circumstance affect us. I think knowing the difference is important because then we know that what somebody else does is not in our control. For the things that we do not have control over, we can choose how to react to it. And everybody's struggling. When they're struggling, maybe they behave in a mean manner. So, rather than judging the person who is behaving badly toward us, we need to look at the person with greater empathy than we do with most people.

Do you think choosing happiness means you then have space for that empathy?

Naresh Agarwal: Yes, then you have space to say "it's not about me, the behavior of that person is about their own struggles." I think at the end of the day, if we are not bothered by how somebody else treats us, then we are thinking and reflecting on our own lives instead of what other people do. Through reflection, we can try to ensure, where possible, that every interaction we have with others is left on a good note. The exercise is simply about watching your mind.

"It is more about giving a person a set of tools and letting the person choose those tools or not… Because we all have our own unique contexts."

The fact is that we all go through difficulties. But some people are able to navigate through the difficulties better and some people struggle more. Some people are also more privileged than others. We had a discussion during a fellowship meeting about how [choosing happiness] might be too simplistic. People might have mental difficulties, people might have depression, experienced loss, or there might be systemic inequalities perpetuated, and it's not always a simple thing saying, "Oh, just just be happy." I don't think this book should be a replacement for therapy or social support, or for fighting systemic failures.

I will say, "Take as long as you need to be in your state of mind, grieve as long as you need, take your time because you cannot rush through your emotions. You can only pass through it. You cannot sidestep it." I think some amount of this happiness industry is toxic, in the sense of it being commodified, or suggesting that it's your fault if you're not happy. I think that shouldn't be the case at all. It is more about giving a person a set of tools, those that might have worked for me, and letting the person choose those tools or not, depending on what that person is going through. Because we all have our own journeys and nobody really understands what somebody else is going through.

How does that relate to the end of the chapter when you say we need to own and embrace all of our different emotions that we have, but can't stay living in that place?

Naresh Agarwal: It is about being able to move on even if, for whatever reason, we're attached to those emotions. Let's say you feel let down or hurt or insulted or guilty based on something that might have happened. You feel sad about it, or you or you want to cry, and that's all right.

You certainly don't have to laugh at the moment. You want to feel the emotions so you can let them go. There is no time frame, no hurry to switch emotions. It's more about being aware of your emotions and then choosing happiness when you feel ready.

I think the reason "be happy" may be seen as troubling in some ways is that people have a different idea of what happiness is. Happiness is really about wellbeing and taking care of yourself. And having the tools to do so. Eventually, work is happiness, acceptance is happiness, being there for each other is happiness. I think it's more about choosing happiness, rather than being happy.

What is your hope for this book?

Naresh Agarwal: Nothing – in the sense that, if a single person does not pick it up, I'm fine. It is more something on my mind, something I feel I have to give to the world, or even to just document and put out there, and get it out of me.

But hopefully, it will be useful to some people. And even if it's useful to one person, or even if one part of the book, or one sentence in the book, is useful to someone or helps a person during a difficult time, that's enough for me.

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