Campus theme lecture explores relationship between happiness and business

Southern Oregon University’s School of Business sponsored a three-speaker lecture to a packed audience Monday as part of “Exploring Happiness,” SOU’s ongoing Campus Theme series.

The well-attended presentation, entitled “The Business of Pursuing Happiness,” featured a range of perspectives on the relationship of happiness to business, each speaker representing in their turn the profit, non-profit and SOU faculty perspectives.

Joan McBee, associate professor of business management at SOU, started off the event with a biographical sketch, recounting her experience of being one of eleven children raised by a U.S. Army colonel who taught them the value of hard work as a means of achieving happiness through personal achievement.

In her brief talk she spoke of being inspired by author Eric Weiner’s 2008 book “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.”

She shared the author’s conclusion as her own, namely that when it comes to searching for happiness, money and prestige are secondary to relationships and appreciation for the small pleasures of life, which are in the long run cumulative and rewarding no matter how small and isolated they appear in the present.

J. David Wilkerson II is an architect and one of the principals of Ogden Roemer Wilkerson Architecture, southern Oregon’s largest architectural firm based in Medford. He spoke in Monday’s lecture for the role of profit in reaching happiness and emphasized the need for a “balance between need and greed” and “being versus doing.”

According to Wilkerson, being in and aware of the moment is important in avoiding falling into a habitual routine that can rob dedicated career workers of a rich inner and experiential life.

“The words ‘Enjoy the journey’ are always on my screensaver because I always have to remind myself of that,” he said.

After giving some background on his twenty-plus-year career history, from humble beginnings in the architecture industry in Virginia to his “hot-shot” days in New York City and finally to his current work in Oregon, Wilkerson spoke of the joy he gets in giving some of his profits back to society through volunteer projects and charity.

Wilkerson said this giving back of success helps balance one’s emotional life, a “balance point that changes throughout our lives.” The key to finding constancy in that shifting of emphasis in professional life, he said, is relationships with others.

“For me, it’s about the relationships that I have, trying to establish deep and lasting relationships,” he said.

Finally, Amy Cuddy gave a highly-energized and enthusiastic talk about happiness and business life from the perspective of a non-profit businesswoman. Cuddy is program officer for the Oregon Community Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to generate charitable funds for community projects and causes.

Cuddy began by saying she was at a loss for knowing where to begin when researching beforehand for the talk, saying there has been a recent surge in popularity of the topic of happiness among both academics and the general public and in the mainstream media culture.

“Happiness is the new polenta,” she said. “It’s served everywhere whether you want it or not,” she said.

Cuddy pointed out that the ubiquitous and pervasive concern over happiness in current popular culture is indicated in some popular book titles, such as journalist and author Oliver Burkeman’s recent book “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.”

She explored a series of possible explanations for what she called “the explosion of [interest in] happiness.” One explanation is the growing-up of the baby boomer generation, she said, while another is the national reaction to the events of Sep. 11, 2001.

Cuddy preferred a more fortuitous explanation.

“We are fortunate to be born in this country,” she said, although she added there were caveats that should be recognized.

“Anything I say tonight is not applicable to depression or abject poverty,” she said.

She cited the “hierarchy of needs” proposed by the late American psychologist Abraham Maslow and said that happiness is most likely accessible only to “regular people who are not abjectly poor or clinically depressed.”

For one thing, Cuddy said, happiness requires “Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose,”  a formulation she quoted from a video based on a book by artist and author Daniel Pink, who has written extensively about how modern technology creates changing workplaces.

Much of Cuddy’s talk was full of references to recent psychological and sociological studies on happiness. Several of these indicate a clear and undeniable connection between money and happiness, she said, pointing especially to a recent Forbes article that declares “Money Does Buy Happiness! (We Were Shocked, Too)”

But Cuddy also mentioned other studies which find that donating money decreases sadness. For example, Cuddy is impressed with a 2006 the National Academy of Sciences ran a neurological study of brain states on subjects who engaged in charitable donation behavior.

For the nonscientist, “The Economist” magazine provided a summary of the study, which claimed to demonstrate that “[the human brain’s] reward system is engaged by donations in the same way as when monetary rewards are obtained.”

Cuddy also speculated on whether or not happiness is truly a choice, a question she said required an excursion into the age-old “nature vs. nurture” debate.

“I would say happiness is more about the little things,” she said. “It’s also about consistency.”

She ended her talk with three pieces of advice that she said makes up a “toolbox” for creating happiness. First, she said, prioritize people and relationships. Second, try to find an organization with a mission statement you can buy into, since happiness in the workplace is strongly correlated with one’s relationship with coworkers. And finally, she said, seek out and embrace complexity rather than boring repetition.

The final Campus Theme lecture for winter term will feature Mark Krause and Rachel Jochem, both from SOU’s psychology department, in a double-lecture on happiness and brain states set for March 6 at 4 p.m. in the Meese Room of SOU’s Hannon Library.

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