Faculty Spotlight

Choosing Happiness: Uncovering the Journey to Happiness

An adult and a child wearing raincoats and dancing in a puddle

An interview between Professor Naresh Agarwal from the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons University, and Ivy Waikwa, an undergraduate student majoring in Psychology, to discuss Professor Agarwal’s work on modeling happiness and what brings about happiness in people’s lives.

Can you tell me about the project you are working on for the Hazel Dick Leonard faculty fellowship?

Dr. Agarwal: My current project is to write a book on happiness. It's not a short-term project and has been a work-in-progress. I've been doing talks on happiness since 2010 during the last 20 or 30 minutes of each of my classes when the semester ends. I do that as a parting gift to my students and typically it has had a profound impact. Many of them write to me saying how much it impacted them and nobody had talked to them about these things, and it's something that they struggle with or have realized over time. So, after doing these talks for many years, in 2019, I created a structure of a book based on the seven lessons or commandments that I've learned in life. I’ve added one more over time. In a course on ‘happiness and leadership’ that I taught to undergraduates in 2023, I designed practical assignments for students. In our day to day lives, there are three things that a person can do for their happiness. One is about doing things for personal growth or always trying to upgrade yourself in some way, which can be learning an instrument, or trying to work on your hobbies - anything that interests you. The second is trying to work on your physical and mental health by doing things like working out, doing some form of exercise, eating right, or getting enough sleep, something I’m still trying to work on. It can also be spending time with friends and family, either in person or through phone communication or video chats. The third is trying to do something to be useful to other people because we get a sense of self-worth when we are useful to people.

I do wonder what inspired you to start this project apart from the influence of teaching your students about happiness?

Dr. Agarwal: I conduct research on human information behavior - how do people interact with information and technology, and on knowledge management in organizations. While outside my main research area, this work on happiness is meaningful to me. I feel that the book and these reflections might help people. I may not have pursued it primarily when going up for my tenure, although I did continue various strands of work, but as a full Professor now, I feel the time is right for this passion project along with my other research. Also, I’m not rushing towards any deadlines because I feel that for these kinds of things, you need to make progress but also allow it to take its time like when you're making tea. You can’t force the tea if you want to get it right. You have to allow time for the tea leaves to mix in the hot water, slowly blend, and then you get the aroma.

People have these ideas of what happiness looks like. What would you say are some of the common misconceptions that people have when approaching happiness?

Dr. Agarwal: I hesitate to say that people have misconceptions about happiness. Let us say that I have a certain idea of happiness, but I’m not living the life of that person. People have grown up in certain circumstances in a particular household and are grappling with various issues differently than how another person would. It's all different people's mental models and their ways to look at things. So, I wouldn't say that they have a misconception in whatever way they have which is working for them. It’s making them carry on and have a place in the world because at the end of the day, I think each one of us is simply trying to survive, to be loved and accepted. Even if I thought that someone had a misconception, I would want to go hug them and tell them that I don't judge them and am completely fine with whoever they are. They wouldn't need to change and agree with my point of view. This book is more about sharing the lessons that have worked for me. People can then choose if anything works for them or not based on their unique circumstances at different points in time and place. If I say that you should always be happy no matter what, I can only tell this to myself. But if somebody has just lost a loved one, I can't go and tell that person to always be happy. That person needs my hug and support, and not my commandments on happiness.

Do you ever feel as you're writing this book that there's so much more to think about, write about, and to talk about?

Dr. Agarwal: Yes, and I think that's one reason why this book will take a long time to finish. There’s a lot that comes with it. I told you about the happiness talks that I do every year or at the end of every semester, right? I noticed that even though I'm talking about some of the main points, the nuances, things I say, and many of the examples I give are actually different each time. That’s because by that time, I would learn some new things. I would have some more new experiences to share. So, it's always some new insights that you gain over time. In a way, I think the insights will be a work in progress. When the book gets published, I feel that no matter how much I am able to put it out there, it will be useful to people, or at least to some people. Even if it's useful to one person in the world, and can help that person go from thinking of themselves as not good enough to thinking that they can make all the difference and change in the world, I think that would be enough. Usually, we see that any of the persons who we think have changed anything, like if you look at Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., or Barack Obama, these are ordinary people who have realized the extraordinary power that they have.

What else would you like people to know about happiness?

Dr. Agarwal: I think people know about happiness. All that I'm trying to do is recognize and help them recognize things which they already know. It might be that those are things which are at the back of their mind because there's so much information flowing and people are not able to make sense of it. In the end, I would want the reader to come out saying that I already have everything that I need, I don't need anybody else to make me happy, I'm complete in myself, and recognize my gifts. I’m there to share my gifts with other people and the world. In a way, I think the book is like a mirror. So, I’m trying to show the mirror to a beautiful person that they already are.

Edited for length and clarity.

Publish Date


Ivy Waikwa