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Oprah Winfrey, Harvard Business School Professor Discuss New Book on ‘Happierness’

Oprah Winfrey, right, speaks at the Business School alongside co-author Arthur C. Brooks.
Oprah Winfrey, right, speaks at the Business School alongside co-author Arthur C. Brooks. By Thomas J. Mete
By Thomas J. Mete, Crimson Staff Writer

Television host and producer Oprah Winfrey and Harvard Business School professor Arthur C. Brooks discussed their new book “Build the Life You Want” at the Business School, reflecting on their past experiences and journeys to “happierness.”

Moderated by Jeffery M. Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, Wednesday’s panel featured tips to “crack the code” and find true happiness in life from Winfrey and Brooks, who is also a professor of the practice at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“Bring some lift to your own life and meet the rising of your life,” Winfrey said. “Meet the reason why you’re actually intended to be born, why you were created, and start to measure up to that in a way that makes you feel more whole and fully alive. And then be able to spread that to the rest of the people in the world.”

Winfrey, known for giving away gifts during her daytime talk show, called the book a “gift.”

“I know many of you are like, ‘Well, I have to pay for it.’ I wish I could have them all under your seat,” Winfrey said.

Harvard President Claudine Gay briefly introduced the panel, reflecting on the impact of the book — which she had “on playback in my mind” — when she saw Harvard undergraduates moving in for the first time after becoming University president.

“People were experiencing their feelings rather than becoming overwhelmed by them,” she said. “The book puts it very eloquently and I kept reciting this in my head that they felt the feel and then took the wheel.”

The unlikely duo’s relationship inadvertently formed during the pandemic when Winfrey read Brooks’ weekly Atlantic column titled “How to Build a Life” and reached out to Brooks — a connection that led to a joint project to “lift people up and bring them together in bonds of happiness and love.”

“We as columnists, we do our work, we put it out into the world, we bless it, and sometimes Oprah Winfrey is reading it,” Brooks said.

“Reading those columns made me a better person,” Winfrey added.

Brooks touted four fundamental holdings in the “happiness 401k” that he believes will lead people to true happiness, discovered through his research at Harvard in the happiness field and with inspiration from Winfrey.

“You need to put an investment into one of all four accounts every day: your family, your friends, your work that serves other people, and your faith,” Brooks said.

“This is what I’ve learned. This is the reason that in dark moments over the past few months, I would say, ‘What Would Oprah Do?’” he added.

During the discussion, Winfrey opened up about her depression following the negative critical reception of her 1998 film “Beloved.” She admitted the response had her “eating macaroni and cheese for breakfast every morning,” but taught her to emotionally detach from her work in the entertainment industry.

“Your pain is a gift. Your joy is a gift. Your life is a gift, but you have to see it as such,” Brooks said.

Goldberg, the Atlantic editor-in-chief, flagged faith — one of the book’s four pillars of happiness — as a controversial subject for many Americans and questioned its necessity in the search for happiness and purpose to bring peace to one’s life.

“It would be really challenging to maintain a level of satisfaction, enjoyment, and meaning thinking you’re at the center of it all,” Winfrey said.

“By faith, that means something transcendent to your daily life,” said Brooks, who is a practicing Catholic. “You’ve gotta get small is the bottom line.”

Brooks and Winfrey also distinguished between addiction and happiness.

“You don’t need to have more. You need to want less. That’s the formula,” Brooks said.

“That’s a tweetable moment,” Winfrey added.

Correction: September 14, 2023

A previous version of this article misquoted University President Claudine Gay as saying, “They felt the field.” In fact, Gay said, ”They felt the feel.”

—Staff writer Thomas J. Mete can be reached at Follow him on X @thomasjmete.

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