By all accounts, Tal Ben-Shahar is a success. He won the Israeli squash championship when he was sixteen and received his PhD at Harvard University in Organizational Behavior. In 2006, he taught PSY 1504 — Positive Psychology – Harvard’s most popular course. Despite accomplishing many of his goals, he was not happy and became committed to answering the question of how one can attain lasting happiness.
Happier is an easy book to read. It does a great job translating with rigor the science of positive psychology into bite-sized actionable ideas and exercises.
I heard about Happier from a psychologist friend, who works with students in areas of self-esteem and depression. The book’s title piqued my interest. Everyone – no matter how happy or unhappy – wants to be happier. Ben-Shahar’s book is packed with exercises in the form of soul-searching questions. Taking a page from positive psychology, he wants readers to focus on more of the good stuff (self-esteem, optimism, and joy – instead of anxiety, depression and neurosis).
Ben-Shahar says society has become unhappier in the past few decades. Mental health statistics he cites for children and youth are alarming. “In the United States, rates of depression are ten times higher today than they were in the 1960s, and the average age for the onset of depression is fourteen and a half compared to twenty-nine and a half in 1960. A study conducted in American colleges tells us that nearly forty-five percent of students were ‘so depressed that they had difficulty functioning.’”
How can I be happy now and in the future?
"The ultimate currency for a human being is happiness."
Ben-Shahar identifies four archetypes of happiness decision-making using a hamburger analogy.
1. The hedonist lives by the maxim, “seek pleasure and avoid pain”. This archetype chooses the tasty junk-food burger without regard to long-term consequences.
2. The rat racer lives for future gain by sacrificing the present. The rat race archetype selects a tasteless vegetarian burger made with the healthiest ingredients, with future benefit in mind.
3. The nihilist is someone who has lost his or her spark for life – both present and future. The nihilistic archetype chooses the tasteless, unhealthy burger because they simply do not care.
4. The ideal burger is the happiness archetype – a combination of a tasty and healthy burger. This group knows that activities they perform today at home, at work and in their communities will contribute to a fulfilling future.
Ben-Shahar says most people ask the wrong questions. For example, “At what point in life — at what age — can I stop thinking about the future and start being happy?”
As we have heard time and again, the journey is more important than the destination. But how many follow this? The author says, “Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.”
Express Gratitude Daily
"Fill your life with as many moments and experiences of joy and passion as you humanly can. Start with one experience and build on it."
Keep a gratitude journal. As simple as it sounds, how many people write a daily gratitude journal? The research from Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough is clear. Those who write down at least five things, for which they are grateful, enjoy higher levels of emotional and physical wellbeing. There is a cumulative effect in becoming mindful of our happiness by writing a short list of what we are thankful for daily.
Ben-Shahar believes the gratitude journal keeps emotions fresh in our memories as we experience the feelings associated with writing each item. The benefit in doing the exercise consistently helps a person appreciate the positive in their life instead of taking it for granted.
I try to journal every day either early in the morning or before bed. My overall outlook and day-to-day relationships are more positive when I journal and express gratitude. The experience of turning this activity into a habit instead of watching the news at the beginning or end of the day has been a pleasant surprise.
"The good news is that simplifying our lives, doing less rather than more, does not have to come at the expense of success."
More than a century ago, Henry David Thoreau said, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen.” Ben-Shahar says we place too many competing demands on our time, a limited resource.
Psychologist Tim Kisser’s research shows that having time affluence is a strong predictor of wellbeing, whereas material affluence is not. Time affluence allows people to personally pursue meaningful activities, to reflect more often and balance leisure with work. Conversely time poverty is associated with people who often use phrases like, “in a rush”, “jam-packed schedule”, “behind schedule”, “stressed and overworked”, “I have no time” and “I’m exhausted”. Sound familiar? Avoid time poverty by taking a moment to consider what you can cut out of your day to help free up extra time to just breathe.
After I finished reading Happier, I felt a sense of calm and excitement. The notion of “figuring out what happier” means for me, by working through Ben-Shahar’s coaching questions felt easier with a roadmap. A great coach gets out of the way and gives us the space to do the work. Ultimately, we discover the answers for ourselves, in our own time.
What, if any, internal and external factors are stopping you from becoming happier?