There are plenty of objective reasons to be unhappy—you’re failing at work, heartbroken, struggling to make ends meet, or suffering from a physical or mental illness, for example. But if you made a big list of all the unhappy people in the United States and you removed everyone whose malaise came was down to one of these easily explainable causes, you’d still have a pretty huge number of unhappy people.

Being financially secure, professionally successful, and loved should be a great basis for happiness, but as we all know from personal experience, it’s perfectly possible to have all these things and still be pretty miserable.


Why is that? University of Texas at Austin business professor Raj Raghunathan wrote a whole book to try to answer this tricky question. It’s entitled If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? and Raghunathan recently spoke with The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker about the lessons he learned putting it together.

The wide-ranging conversation is fascinating throughout, but one section in particular seems relevant to ambitious entrepreneurs and other professionals. To be truly happy, we all need to feel like we’re good at something—a feeling of mastery. High achievers generally have plenty of skills and accomplishments. They’re objectively good at stuff. But they often don’t enjoy the full happiness boost that should come from doing good work.

Why? Because they go about measuring mastery all wrong, Raghunathan says. Many people use social comparisons to determine their level of accomplishment, which is a terrible approach. “One big problem with that is that it’s very difficult to assess. What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension?” he asks.