Sociology professor finds the key to well-being

Professor of sociology Steve Derne has published his latest book, Sociology of Well-Being: Lessons from India. Based on 203 interviews he conducted in India, Derne explains to his reader “how to live the good life.” (Courtesy of Steve Derne)

Everyone wants to know the key to living a happy life. Is it eating the right foods? Exercising? Spending time with family and friends? Professor of sociology Steve Derné may have found the answer.

Derné’s latest book, Sociology of Well-Being: Lessons from India, takes an in-depth and personal look at how well-being is approached and achieved in India. By conducting a total of 203 interviews over 10 years, Derné has gained some critical insight into the keys of healthy and happy living.

Drawn to India by chance in 1986, but staying by choice, Derné is no stranger to conducting research there. In fact, he’s lived there on and off for the past 30 years, and has become a devotee of the Hindu god, Shiva. From his experiences, he has found that Indians have a useful way of looking at life: “[they] generally see that it’s all good.”

Derné began this newest study back in 2007, deciding to shift his sociological focus from suffering to well-being. Why? Because he, like everyone else, wants “to live the good life.” In the city of Dehradun and throughout the Himalayas, Derné asked these three basic questions: “What does well-being meant to you? Can you tell me about a time when you experienced well-being? Can you tell me about a time when you experience a lack of well-being?” 

Derné was particularly excited by the answers, explaining, “I knew immediately that these were the best interviews that I’d ever done because it turns out that there’s nothing that really guides people when they’re talking about well-being.” 

When asked about what leads to well-being, Derné’s interviewees told him that everything from “getting good sleep and giving up eating pawn” was the key. From this data, Derné finds that “living the good life” is dependent on two major things: our ability to find meaning during hard times and our ability to find simple pleasures. 

Derné also says that well-being is largely mixed. 

“You can have lack of satisfaction and satisfaction at the same time,” Derné said.

Well-being is constantly changing as your focus changes and, interestingly enough, is the result of contradictory actions. So how do we go about bringing well-being into our own lives? We find simple pleasures and partake in a large variety of activities, according to Derné. 

“One time I’m surfing, one time I’m horseback riding, one time I did kayaking,” Derné said. “But you’re not going to be able to surf all your life. It’s really the ability and the commitment to find pleasures so that you have little things that bring up your life.”

Included in the book is research from some of Derné’s senior sociology students, who conducted the same interviews in the United States. Their own research was analyzed and presented on Geneseo Recognizing Excellence, Achievement & Talent Day. 

Interestingly, Derné finds no great contrasts between the American and Indian interviews. Rather, Derné has found that well-being “is the same all around the world. Americans do see those things, too, but Indians see them more easily.”

The book itself is a rewarding read, with charming real life characters and Derné’s personal voice ringing loud and clear. If “living the good life” is one of your New Year’s resolutions, then perhaps this is the book for you.