Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar

I always feel a little bit sheepish reading self-help books, particularly ones with titles seemingly as grandiose as Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. It seemed silly that I could learn how to be happier just by reading a book.

I couldn't have been more wrong. This book was profoundly helpful--it may even be life-altering. It's part self-help book, part workbook, and part psychology textbook all rolled into one, and it's full of straightforward, cogent advice. And, interestingly enough, it's not a grandiose book at all. In fact it's a rather humble look at the activities, habits, and patterns of our daily lives and how they can be rethought and restructured to bring us more fulfillment.

Author Tal Ben-Shahar describes two typical personality archetypes: the hedonist, who seizes current pleasure with little concern for the future; and the rat-racer, who defers pleasure until some point in the future. He then shows how you can increase your happiness if you balance these extremes and include in your daily life a mix of activities that are intrinsically meaningful to you in both the short term and the long term.

Ben-Shahar (whose day job is teaching Positive Psychology, one of the most popular classes at Harvard) then goes still deeper, suggesting that even asking the question "am I happy?" is unhelpful. Happy compared to what? And compared with whom?

Instead, he suggests asking the question "How can I become happier?" and then systematically answers that very question by giving the reader a wide variety of habits and practices that you can incorporate into your life to make it more fulfilling and meaningful. Here are some sample practices that really stood out to me:

1) Set "self-concordant goals"--goals based on deep personal motivations that both interest you and inspire you and that do not necessarily carry extrinsic rewards (money, fame, etc which are fleeting and not true sources of happiness).
2) Create daily or weekly rituals of "happiness boosters"--things that bring happiness, even small ways.
3) Find more sources of "flow"--activities that help you enter a state of deep creativity and concentration--in daily life.
4) Reframe the concept of "reaching your potential" so that it refers to intrinsic manifestations of potential, rather than extrinsic manifestations of your potential (e.g., fame, wealth, the approbation of your colleagues, etc).
5) Focusing on journeys rather than destinations.

Before I fawn too much, let me at least point out one thing about this book that's not perfect--I can't say that Ben-Shahar writes with particularly graceful prose. I'd describe his writing as functional. But, unlike many writers (myself included), at least he doesn't let his writing get in the way of his thinking.

I highly, highly recommend this book.

Related Links:
Lecture notes for Positive Psychology (Psychology 1504), at Harvard University
Lecture Videos for Psychology 1504
The Positive Psychology Manifesto
The Official Website of Nathaniel Brandon, considered a pioneer of the psychology of self-esteem
Sentence Completion exercises on Nathaniel Brandon's website
Tal Ben-Shahar's website

Reading list for Happier:
This book yielded an enormous reading list, far too many books than I can list here. I've picked out the eight titles that, to me, look the most interesting. Also, I've already read both Flow and Stumbling on Happiness and found them both highly worth reading. This book is definitely going to redirect my current book queue! If you're interested in the full reading list (it contains more than 20 titles), just send me an email to dan1529[at]yahoo[dot]com and I'll be happy to forward it to you.

1) The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Brandon
2) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi
3) Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
4) Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
5) Psycho-Cybernetics, A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life by Maxwell Maltz
6) A Primer in Positive Psychology by Christopher Peterson
7) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman
8) Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin Seligman


dan pisacano said...

this is what it's all about! if you don't have happiness, what good is anything? i ordered this book a month ago but being a cheap bastard i had it shipped to my sister along with her birthday present to save shipping charges. now i'm looking forward to reading it even more.

btw - i disagree with your notion about feeling sheepish about self-help books. only a fool thinks he cannot be improved, and he is a fool again if he does not try to do so.

Daniel Koontz said...

Thanks for reading. And I really like your quote:

"Only a fool thinks he cannot be improved, and he is a fool again if he does not try to do so."

That's a keeper.