Oprah Winfrey on Finding the Secret to Happiness: 'I Have a Big Life, But the Simplest Things Bring Me the Greatest Joy' (Exclusive)

In her new book, 'Build the Life You Want,' Oprah and co-author Arthur C. Brooks explore how happiness works

<p>Huy Doan/Harpo, Inc</p>

Huy Doan/Harpo, Inc

Oprah Winfrey first encountered the work of Arthur C. Brooks, a Harvard professor whose work studies the science of happiness, during the early days of the pandemic, when she began reading his column, titled ‘How to Build a Life,’ in The Atlantic magazine. Intrigued, she read his book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.

Winfrey realized, she said, that if she were still hosting her television show, “Arthur would be one of those people we'd be calling on as an expert for almost every subject, everybody's life dilemmas and challenges and obstacles, and how to move forward and be a better person.” 

So Winfrey reached out and asked Brooks to appear on her podcast, and before long the pair began talking about collaborating on a book.

The result is their book, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, which will be published on Sept. 12.

<p>courtesy of PRH</p> 'Build the Life You Want' by Oprah Winfrey and Arthur C. Brooks

courtesy of PRH

'Build the Life You Want' by Oprah Winfrey and Arthur C. Brooks

Winfrey spoke exclusively to PEOPLE about what she learned in the process. 

What did Arthur’s work mean to you personally? 

For me, personally, it was reaffirmation, that how I was moving through my life with the basic pillars of family, friendship, work and faith. Having the scientist sign off on that, it was just reassuring to me. Because I am one of the happiest people I know, but not in the same way that most people would expect. By that, I mean I live a big life, but it's the simplest things that bring me the greatest joy. 

Have you always kept a gratitude journal?

Gratitude has always been my core. To have that backed up and reinforced by Arthur and his scientific research was really, really meaningful to me. I've been journaling since I was 15; I still have my journals from when I was 15. I always end with the five things that I'm grateful for.

What are you grateful for right now? 
I'm grateful that I could be of help in Lahaina, because I'd gone delivering some things, solar generators. Grateful for the two-hour, 22-minute hike to the fence line. Grateful to be reading with Sade, who's one of my daughter girls from South Africa, on the north porch. She was in a chair reading, I was in a chair reading. So the two of us reading on the sun porch. Hot bath, all suds. Because I filled the bath with lots of bubble bath yesterday. That was actually seven things yesterday. But it's the little things. It's the paying attention to the suds in the bath and, oh my God, the crisp clean sheets.

Related: Oprah Winfrey Makes Donations and Helps Residents amid 'Overwhelming' Hawaii Wildfires

<p>Courtesy of Oprah Daily - Photographer: Ruven Afanador</p> Oprah Winfrey

Courtesy of Oprah Daily - Photographer: Ruven Afanador

Oprah Winfrey

What do you think is the best way we can share happiness with others? 
I think because I spent so much time actually paying attention to other people's challenges, dysfunction and suffering, I learned during those years. I really came away with a sense of deep appreciation for what it means to live in the space of presence. And I really learned, from all those years of interviewing people one-on-one, that one of the greatest gifts you can give to anybody is your full attention. One of the threads for me for all those years of listening was that all humans are looking to be validated. No matter what the show was, whether it was Senator Obama, or Beyoncé, or somebody who had overcome cancer. At the end of every one of those interviews, in one form or another someone always said, "Was that okay? How was that? Was that good?" Beyoncé, at the end of teaching me how to twerk, went, "Is that okay?’ ‘Yeah, it's okay. You're Beyoncé, it's okay." I translate it to mean, did you hear me, and did what I say matter? Being able to understand that, that is what everybody is looking for.

You write in the book about having a calm, even-keeled personality. But you seemed so excited on your show, like when you gave away cars in that famous episode. 

On the night that I gave the cars away, I wasn't excited for myself; I get most excited making other people excited. I don't like surprises myself. Don't ever surprise me. And after the Mary Tyler Moore episode, where I was surprised and went into the ugly cry, I forbid anybody to ever surprise me again on that show. I don't like being surprised, but I love surprising other people. And I'm happiest when I can make other people happy. I did not sleep the night we gave away those cars, because I was so excited for other people's excitement.

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