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In the book 'Build the Life You Want,' Oprah has some advice for being happier

Arthur Brooks and Oprah Winfrey taping their podcast about happiness
Harpo, Inc./Huy Doan
Arthur Brooks and Oprah Winfrey taping their podcast about happiness

For 25 years, Oprah Winfrey gave away some of her favorite products each holiday season on her self-titled TV show. But almost 12 years after The Oprah Winfrey Show's finale episode, the media mogul is now giving away something a little less tangible – advice on how to be happier.

Winfrey has co-written a book on happiness with social scientist Arthur Brooks. It's called Build the Life You Want, and it's inspired by a column that Brooks writes for The Atlantic. To accompany the book, they're also hosting a new podcast streaming series where they answer questions from their readers.

In a conversation with A Martinez on Morning Edition, Winfrey opened up about her book with Brooks and how the first film she starred in was an inflection point in her lifetime quest to be happier.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Oprah Winfrey:

I have known since the moment I was on the set of The Color Purple in 1985 and watching Steven Spielberg, Quincy Jones, Alice Walker all work together and creating that film, something resonated in me that said, I want my work to feel like this. And so from that moment forward, I thought, I want to come to work every day feeling the way I felt every day when I was on set doing The Color Purple. So that feeling of being fulfilled, being satisfied, having meaning and enjoyment while you were doing it has followed me through. Now, I didn't know that there was a science to that, but that's how I've moved throughout my life since 1985.

A Martinez:

So it sounds like anything else, you got something that you want to duplicate or replicate or get to again and you figure out a way to get to it again. I think that's almost a way to get to a scientific kind of way to do things.

Arthur Brooks:

Yeah, that's kind of the scientific process, basically. It's kind of that more or less how we do research, but the data that we're getting is the experience that we have in our everyday lives. The problem is that, as Oprah and I talk about in this book, many people start with the very wrong concept of happiness itself. They think of happiness as nothing more than a feeling, which it's not – happiness as evidence or feelings or evidence of happiness. If we're chasing feelings, our happiness is going to depend on what we had for breakfast or whether or not we got yelled at by our partner and that's just no good. We need to actually be able to manage it a lot more. One of the most important things that we talk about is getting people more comfortable with the fact that unhappiness is part of a happy life as well.

A Martinez:

Is it because you need to know what is unhappiness to know what happiness is?

Arthur Brooks:

Well, that's part of it. I mean, Oprah talks about this really, unbelievably compellingly about the fact that the contrast really matters.

Oprah Winfrey:

Well, the contrast matters so much because even now, because I know there's a science to it, when I'm going through a challenge or crisis or a difficult time, I know that the bounce on the other side of that is going to be so much better because I allow myself to feel whatever it is that's going on, that's making me uncomfortable, that's making me unhappy. So that when I get to the other side of it, I can actually be happier. And so, for me, I think, well, we were talking about putting these ideas together, I said to Arthur, so what we're really looking for is happier- ness. This is the thing, A, to know that you can't make yourself instantly happy tomorrow or right now, but you can do little things to get happier.

Arthur Brooks:

All of us can. It's so important for us to understand this. This book that we put together, it's an ordinary language. This is not for scientists, but it's based on the best plan such that it's kind of the owner's manual for your emotions. There's a neuropeptide in the brain called oxytocin. That's the molecule of human connection. You get it from eye contact and touch in person. You don't get it from social media. And so the result is all the time we're spending on our phones when we're with other people, we're depriving ourselves from that hormone that our brain needs to actually give us the love that we seek. And we have the protocols, the hygiene that people can use to manage their own emotions, to feel much, much better.

Oprah Winfrey:

Yes. And it's so interesting. Years ago, I remember being at the airport in Chicago at O'Hare. The plane was late, and I had my head down and I was just so tired. Now it's 3 hours. And, you know, when they keep saying it's delayed. And a woman comes up to me, taps me, how she recognizes me with my head down, taps me and says, 'You're not acting like you do on TV.' And I said, 'Excuse me.' And she goes, 'Well, on TV, you're hugging everybody. I needs me a hug.' So I got up and I hugged the woman. My introverted self in public isn't walking around hugging people all the time.

Arthur Brooks:

And by the way, this is one of the great secrets to being happier, acting as if you were the person you wanted to be. I teach happiness because I want happiness. This is the point. We have traded off contact for convenience in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic. We've made convenience decisions at the expense of contact decisions, and we don't know what actually is doing to our brain chemistry. We need to work in person more than we do, despite the fact that it's really inconvenient to do so. And, you know, to that extent, you know, when Oprah and I were framing up this book, we got together and spent a bunch of days together in person. That was really important. Eye contact, touch, talking about these particular ideas such that we could have sufficient oxytocin.

Oprah Winfrey:

Sharing meals, taking walks.

A Martinez:

Now, there's going to be people that are going to say, look, how am I going to be able to find happiness? Is there a tool, something that they can be armed with on hearing our conversation that can help them get toward that?

Oprah Winfrey:

I'm telling you, if you do something to make someone else happier, it's almost like it comes back to you exactly 100 fold. I got that when I was a little girl living in Mississippi. And it was so rare that we ever got actually like a real candy bar, like a Three Musketeers or Snickers. Oh, my God, Almond Joy. And I learned for myself, even as a little kid, that the candy bar tasted better if I had somebody to say, 'Isn't this good?" If I could share it with somebody. And so that philosophy of sharing what you have, understanding that all things in life get better when you share it, and when you do something for someone else, the benefit comes back to you as well as to them. That's where I get my great joy.

Arthur Brooks:

And you know, the big point here is that people say, if I had particular gifts, if I had that wealth, if I had that power, if I had that fame, if I have that intelligence, if I have that Instagram following, then I'd be happy. That's wrong. You would be happy if you used your gifts in service of others.

The audio version of this story was produced by Iman Maani and the digital version of this story was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Reena Advani
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.