Why Harvard and a Hong Kong oyster sauce company want healthcare to focus on happiness

They say finding happiness is priceless — but $21 million toward the cause can't hurt. 

That's the gift Boston-based Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health received to establish a center for happiness research, which launched in late April.

Known for their international Chinese-style sauce and condiment business, the Lee Kum Kee family made the donation. The center is named for family ancestor Lee Kum Sheung, who is credited with inventing oyster sauce in 1888. Five generations and many sauce recipes later, the family decided it wanted to give back to the global community in a big way — by funding a center dedicated to finding the psychological, social and emotional strengths that protect against disease.

We caught up with Kasisomayajula "Vish" Viswanath, PhD, a professor of health communication at Harvard and co-director of the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness. Here he shares what Harvard plans to research, how it will impact healthcare and how the Lee Kum Kee family chose Harvard for its cause.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited lightly for clarity and length.

Question: To start, why create a happiness center?

Dr. K. "Vish" Viswanath: Many people bring multiple meanings to this concept of happiness, all the way from psychological wellbeing to issues such as meditation, mindfulness, and so on. While there is some relationship between happiness and health, the direction of that relationship is not clear. First, we do not understand the mechanisms that link happiness and health, and we want to better understand what those mechanisms are and the causal direction.

Second, we have very little idea how much external stressors are factors — such as poverty, segregation, racism, unemployment, recession — and how these external stressors influence that relationship [between happiness and health]. Often happiness is thought of in individual terms, putting the responsibility on the individual. The fact of the matter is you just can't mandate someone to be happy. You have to think through what social conditions influence that relationship, such as social engagement, connections or support.  

Lastly, we will look at how to take this research from the lab setting to the public to influence the policy and practice of public health. There are a lot of people sending out happiness recipes under a variety of guises from wellness to meditation programs — all kinds of things. The challenge is finding which have scientific basis to inform the recommendations we want to make to policymakers and practitioners, so that relationship [between health and happiness] can be nurtured.

It is high time for a more scientific, rigorous, systematic approach to this issue.

Q: One of the center's initial efforts is the creation of a "happiness index" which attempts to quantify happiness. But as you said earlier, happiness might mean different things to different people. How do you reconcile that?

VV: There are already a variety of happiness indices out there — anywhere from asking, "Are you happy on a scale of one to 10?" to a variety of other indices. Our goal is to take happiness, which is such a complex construct, and capture it in a meaningful way that we can use to intervene across social contexts. There are not only a variety of dimensions to happiness, but is a measure of happiness in the U.S. applicable and usable in India or Hong Kong? We want to be sensitive to the measure as well as the context in which it is being measured.

Q: As you mentioned, there are structural obstacles to happiness. Let's say your research leads you to find out having an optimistic outlook is the key to happiness, or maybe it's having a meaningful job. How do you hope to extend the benefits of that knowledge to disadvantaged populations?

VV: That this something that keeps me up at night. Just because you find that a personal sense of gratitude, or expression of gratitude, or optimism is strongly correlated with happiness, doesn't mean we can just tell people to be optimistic. That's as ridiculous as it gets, right? So the goal is to look through the external conditions that provide that sense of meaning or hope and work with practitioners, communities and policymakers to cultivate and nurture those conditions.

This means we cannot blindly ignore stressors. You cannot tell a migrant who is trying to get into a European country and is living in horrible conditions to be optimistic. We have to be realistic about it. This is where offering sound advice and policies and working with partners that can help us translate that knowledge.

Q: What kind of response have you gotten from people about this center? Any, specifically, from the healthcare industry?

VV: We are getting a variety of responses. It's quite interesting. My work is on communications, inequalities and poverty, but attaching the word happiness is really bringing people to respond to this. There are three types of responses we have gotten.

One is group of researchers already working in this area who want to collaborate with us, share their research and wonder how we can work with them.

The second group — especially from healthcare — is people who have programs that are sort of similar in this area, whether it is optimism, mindfulness or wellness programs. They are approaching us to ask more questions and to provide more information on their programs and products they are marketing.

The third group of people — we are getting interesting responses from people who just have particular views or opinions on what happiness is and how to promote it. They decided they should tell us what we should be doing. It's quite stunning.

Q: You are funded by a gift from Lee Kum Kee Family. How did this partnership come about and how did you settle on $21 million?

VV: This company, it's really a family business; they have always had this philosophy of thinking about others before themselves. They have a particular Chinese phrase for it [Si Li Ji Ren], and the point is to consider the wellness of others. They planned to advance this idea, so they have been looking at universities where it can be more systematically studied as well as translated. They heard about our school of public health and its reputation and came to us. We have been talking and negotiating with them for a few months on their expectations and what we can do.

The [$21 million] figure itself is less important. When we started talking with them, we determined what kind of questions we should be asking and how those questions should be translated. Over a period of time, the idea crystallized: The best way to pursue this would be to provide a platform in the form of a center on a sustainable funding basis that can allow us to pursue this in a very systematic and rigorous way. It was very insightful and visionary on their part.

There is a lot of ink and press on this, but this kind of research is not easily funded by NIH or other organizations. We as a society are focused on disease and absence of disease, rather than focusing on assets in life and how we cultivate those assets.


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