As Greg Johnson was dealing with a serious illness in his family, the thought came to him, light as a feather, that along with his grief and worry, he was feeling bolstered by something powerful, but unexpected.
Gratitude for all that this family member had taught him. Gratitude for the love and support expressed by close friends and colleagues.
Then another realization dawned. That gratitude had grown up in an unlikely place. It had a lot to do with a class he had recently taken that allowed him to look at his life in a fresh way.
The class, called "Creativity and Personal Mastery," is taught by Srikumar Rao. It's been known to change lives, as Mr. Johnson and many others can attest.
Though dealing with the family illness has been tough, Johnson says, "The idea of being grateful for so much is just coming naturally." Speaking of Dr. Rao's class, which Johnson took last year, he adds: "It's changed my approach to my job and my life."
That Rao's course leaves a deep impression on students is fitting, since it was a student who changed Rao's own life. The college professor was trudging along in the early 1990s doing unsatisfying academic work at a not-famous university and was, as Rao concedes, "really feeling sorry for myself."
One day a student came up to ask him a question. With his usual candor, Rao says he thought at the time, "What a stupid student."
Subsequently, Rao learned that the student was holding down two jobs, as well as attending classes. His disdain turned to compassion.
"I thought, 'I should be grateful,' and realized it was my job to see if I could truly excite her and the other students," he recalls.
In the wink of an eye, a professor was reborn. Rao has gone on to have extraordinary success developing and teaching the class, which his students just call CPM.
Rao became something of a rock star in the world of MBA programs, taking his course to Columbia Business School in New York in 1999, and subsequently to the London Business School in England and the Haas Business School at the University of California, Berkeley. In each place, the course made waves and generated extraordinary testimonials.
Last year, Rao moved his class into the private sector, with no full-time affiliation with a university. His students today are often already established in corporate America, at a point in their careers when Rao figures his approach might have maximum impact.
The class is about forging new attitudes and ways of thinking, embracing new "mental models," he says, and ultimately reaping rewards of greater happiness in both work and personal lives.
In Johnson's case, one of those lessons began when Rao presented a segment on gratitude. Johnson recalls hearing that everybody has a choice of how they react to events. There are always things worthy of gratitude, no matter how seemingly dire the situation.
Discussion and small-group exercises followed – a standard method in the class, which usually numbers about 30 people. The students were asked to identify two or three things each night for which they were grateful.
"We were told to really think about it, let it really resonate, not just tick them off," Johnson says. Each student was to pay close attention the next day to "how this changes you, and how you experience other people, and how they experience you," he says.
Others have felt similar stirrings in their lives. "It definitely has changed my definition of success," says Randall Shuken, a top executive at MasterCard Worldwide. Mr. Shuken took the three-month course last spring and found it a welcome immersion in deeper ideas about career, service, personal goals, and even identity.
"It allows you a moment to stop and not let events and expectations control you," he says.
Rao himself has a corporate background. He worked in the executive ranks of Warner Communications and Data Resources before moving full time into teaching.
Over a dinner of Indian food one evening, he talked about his own motivations. "Most large companies are toxic places, and it's my vision to make them less so."
The course syllabus demonstrates the breadth and depth of the ideas Rao explores in his class. Readings range from Kahlil Gibran to George Bernard Shaw to the Bible to legendary college basketball coach John Wooden.
Patrick Barwise was instrumental in bringing Rao's class to the London Business School in 2005. At the time, Dr. Barwise chaired the school's marketing department. The assessments he received about Rao's class were "exceptionally high," he said in a recent e-mail exchange.
A self-proclaimed skeptic of self-help programs, Barwise became convinced that "this wasn't snake oil." After seeing the class in action for four years, he says, "the course met my high expectations."
Rao, author of "Happiness at Work," as well as an earlier book, "Are You Ready to Succeed?" wants students to become aware of the "mental models" that habitually frame the way they think about almost everything.
He explores the "if, then" model, as in, "If I had more money, then I would be happier"; or "If my boss were nicer, I would enjoy my work." That model is flawed, he says, because it always puts some external condition – the "if" – in control of the outcome.
Students praise the class for devoting ample time to exercises and tools they can use. Rao's course even has its own alumni association, so "graduates" can seek out others for support. "He actually gets students to challenge the status quo, to look differently at career, job decisions, and life in general," says Adam Berman, who heads the New Leadership Development Series at Berkeley's business school. Mr. Berman asks Rao to speak at Berkeley. Students leave with "a new way to define success and failure," he says.
If Rao's concepts sound simple, Johnson says, that is because basic truths often are. "My biggest takeaway from the class is that all the most important things in life are simple," he says. "But they are not necessarily easy."