That is a neat title for a piece, isn't it?

I wish I could claim credit for it, but it is actually the title of a new book that will hit the shelves next month.

Raj Raghunathan, a professor of business at the University of Texas at Austin, has a somewhat unusual take on what he is supposed to do. I have met hundreds of business school professors and had weighty discussions on teaching.

A few don't particularly care about teaching and view it as a necessary evil for their faculty position. Most want to do a good job of communicating the intricacies of their particular discipline to students. A smaller number would really like to get their students excited about the ideas they share and get them to delve deeper.

Raj is one of the few, a very few, who views his job as helping his students lead happier, more fulfilling lives. He discovered that business schools do a pretty poor job of this. So do most other educational institutions.

He began to offer a course on happiness. It was soon oversubscribed and his teaching ratings soared. Many let him know that The Happiness Course was the most meaningful part of their business school education. This started Raj on what has now become a life work: What are the determinants of a fulfilling and happy life and how can one achieve this?

Go back to when you were a young kid. Can you remember being filled with joy for no particular reason and being entranced for hours watching ants in a hive or butterflies flitting or rain pattering on the ground? When is the last time you felt like that? Why do we seem to lose our capacity to be happy as we grow older and can we do something about this?

The answer is a resounding 'yes'. The reason we are not happy as we scurry around building our businesses or advancing our careers is that we are diverted into making false tradeoffs. He illustrates this with "The Genie question." Suppose a Genie were to appear before you and give you three wishes, what would you pick? Most would ask for vast wealth, stupendous success and fulfilling relationships.

And why is this? Because we think that these will make us happy. So why not ask for happiness directly? Virtually no one asks the genie for this. The reason is insidious. We get distracted by subsidiary goals. We also devalue happiness in pursuit of intermediate objectives that appear more tempting.

The Happiness Paradox explains why business school students universally choose high paying jobs in finance over lesser paying ones in say manufacturing even though they freely admit that they would actually have a life in the latter as opposed to being chained to their desks in the former.

The book has many insights that are blindingly obvious after they have been explained to you. For example, pursuing happiness actually makes you unhappy. This is because when you are fixated on happiness, you evaluate how happy you are. And invariably you are less happy than you would like to be so you actually become unhappy about unhappiness. The way out of this trap? Make happiness a priority but don't chase it.

Do activities that you like and are good at. Let happiness ensue. It's similar to trying to fall asleep. If you are focused on making it happen, you are guaranteed to spend hours tossing and turning. Instead, calm your mind, turn off electronic interlopers read an enlightening book and you are in slumber land.

The last chapter makes the case that the quest--not obsession--for personal happiness is actually a win-win-win-win solution. Your happiness level goes up, your chances of success improve, you feel fulfilled by altruism at the personal level and meaningful productivity goes up on a societal level. Now that is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

The book ties into a website that gives you many exercises and additional resources. Full disclosure--Raj took my course when I was teaching at Columbia Business School and is now a valued friend.

Published on: Mar 30, 2016
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