Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal development or personal productivity book.

happierAs a rule of thumb, I’m a melancholic person, even though I often put off a positive, outgoing vibe. I have to often work very hard to convince myself that things are in fact going well, even when things are great. I don’t view it as depression so much as a general tendency to not see the world as positively as I’d like.

As a result of this realization, I’ve read a lot of “positive thinking” and pop psychology books over the years, and most of them have simply annoyed me. They preach the same general, vague things: think “positively” about what you have and what you’ve accomplished and everything will be better. That’s a nice message, but for a lot of us (myself strongly included), it’s not tangible enough. I need things that I can take action on. As a result, I’ve found myself quickly getting rid of books by the likes of Norman Vincent Peale very quickly via PaperBackSwap.

A few years ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to the notes for Psychology 1504, an incredibly popular course at Harvard University in the spring of 2006. The course was entitled Positive Psychology, and the class mostly was an examination of the scientific literature on positive psychological issues, like the causes of happiness, rather than the negative issues like depression. I was intrigued, and I plowed through the lecture notes and lecture videos. I found a lot of interesting information there, but much of it was scattered around, not truly collected together into the key pieces that people like myself could actually apply to life.

I hadn’t even thought about Psychology 1504 in years, but a few weeks ago, while wandering around my local bookstore, I stumbled upon Happier. After reading the author’s name (Tal Ben-Shahar), remembering the course, and just browsing through about ten pages, I bought the book without skipping a beat.

I figured that the worst-case scenario is that it would be a rehash of Psychology 1504, which personally enlightened me quite a bit just from browsing the lecture notes and watching the videos. At best, I hoped it would provide what I was really looking for: a collection of the key points from the field of positive psychology, with references to the actual scientific literature if I wanted to dig further – in other words, an incredibly powerful book. Is Happier a great one, a rehash, or something in between? Let’s find out.

A Deeper Look At Happier

The book opens by addressing the meaning of positive psychology – the scientific study of optimal human functioning – and the difference between it and typical self-help and pop psychology books. Basically, Ben-Shahar sees the same things that I do: pop psychology and self-help books aren’t scientifically rigorous and are usually very short on actual content – there’s no real meat to apply to your life. As a result, most people are really wary of self-help books, something I definitely agree with.

Ben-Shahar takes a vastly different approach with Happier – there’s basically some sort of exercise, reflection, or application to real life on every page of the book. In fact, the book is a lot like Daniel Gilbert’s intriguing Stumbling on Happiness (which I reviewed a while back) except loaded with much more direct application.

1. The Question of Happiness
Happier opens with the idea that there is no one definition for happiness – it varies a lot from person to person. Your personal definition of happiness is different than everyone else’s, so a recipe for happiness is bound to fail. Try this: every night, before you go to sleep, write down five things that make you or made you happy. Be honest – what makes you happy, not necessarily what people expect to make you happy. That list is going to be pretty unique to you, but doing it over and over again is going to help you figure out the things that genuinely make you happy – and over time, you can use that to hone in on the things in your life that bring you happiness.

2. Reconciling Present and Future
Ben-Shahar suggests here that all experiences fall into one of four quadrants: nihilism (negative now, negative later), hedonism (positive now, negative later), “rat race” (negative now, positive later), and happiness (positive now, positive later). To illustrate it, he describes four hamburgers. One is burnt and doesn’t taste good – it’s not enjoyable, nor is it healthy (the nihilist hamburger). One is a greasy, delicious fast food burger – tasty, but far from healthy (the hedonist hamburger). One is a tasteless vegetarian hamburger – perfectly healthy, but not very enjoyable (the “rat race” hamburger). The last one is the perfect balance – healthy and delicious, made to tickle our taste buds now but stay off of our love handles later (the happiness hamburger). It’s easy to filter most of our life experiences into these four quadrants – and it’s also pretty easy to see why the happiness quadrant contains the best experiences of all.

3. Happiness Explained
Most activities we participate in bring a mixture of pleasure (meaning we enjoy it right now) and meaning (we derive value from it later on). Take, for example, reading. I might get a lot of pleasure out of reading the latest Stephen King novel (yes, I’m on the waiting list for Duma Key at the library) but not an incredible amount of meaning. On the other hand, reading To the Lighthouse won’t bring me as much immediate pleasure, but deep literature like that provides more meaning – it sticks in my mind for a long time, with the central ideas growing and shaping my thoughts.

The best experiences are ones that provide both pleasure and meaning. Try this: list everything you do for a week and how long you do it, then assign each thing two scores from one to ten based on the level of pleasure and the level of meaning brought to your life by that activity. Again, be as brutally honest as you can with it. Then, look at the time you spent doing it and make a concerted effort to lower the time spent doing the unenjoyable stuff and raising the time spent doing the more enjoyable stuff. It was by almost this exact logic that we made a huge decision to drastically reduce our television intake.

4. The Ultimate Currency
Ben-Shahar must have read Your Money or Your Life at some point, because this chapter basically comes to almost identical conclusions. Ben-Shahar argues here that the chase of wealth is really just a chase of happiness – and quite often we’re chasing the wrong thing, believing an illusion of happiness presented by marketing.

Instead, much like Your Money or Your Life, Ben-Shahar argues that happiness is the real currency in life, and that your work should merely seek to raise the maximum amount you can per hour spent working in your life not so you can buy stuff, but so you can buy time to do the things that make you happy. In other words, seek that high-paying job, but don’t buy the “trappings” that come with it – just focus on the core items and situations that bring you happiness (like you figured out in chapter three). The end result is that you’ll build wealth – but that wealth just exists to buy you time, allowing you to leave the rat race much earlier and do things with your time that make you much happier.

5. Setting Goals
Many people set a lot of goals – I know I do. My short term goals number well over one hundred, and we won’t even get into my long term goals. Ben-Shahar basically says that it’s powerful to have goals, but when you have too many goals, they basically end up being a weight on your shoulders rather than a drive towards success. In other words, you’re better off taking all of those goals you have, identifying a few short term, medium term, and long term ones that matter the most to you, and toss the rest. Then, just focus in on those goals and actually achieve them instead of being weighted down by too many goals.

I tried one of the exercises in this chapter myself, taking my 101 goals list and paring it down to five, then really fleshing those out. I did it, and realized when I did it that by reducing that list so much, I made those remaining goals really tangible. They came to life for me and I immediately saw that I could do them, what the next step was, and where I could go with them. I think the my 101 goals list was really valuable to begin with – I view it as being like a mighty river that I had to channel into something more productive.

6. Happiness in Education
As a parent, I took this chapter to heart because it hammered home one fundamental point – “helping” your children around challenging obstacles by allowing them to avoid hard work brings them net unhappiness. In other words, if your child is failing a class, the correct solution is to sit them down at the table and help them work through their problems instead of calling the teacher and browbeating a passing grade out of the situation. Not only will they learn more, in the long run they’ll be happier. Teach your kids to be self-reliant and to believe that they can do it themselves and they’ll be far happier in life. This exactly nails my feelings on the education of my children.

7. Happiness in the Workplace
Here, the book takes a quick detour through What Color Is Your Parachute?, basically using the principles from the earlier chapters to help find the career that would bring you the most happiness. Unfortunately for many people, the career that would bring the most happiness would also meet with a severe reduction in income – but if that high-paying job is making you unhappy and it’s not being helped by the stuff you buy, why not look at a life change?

8. Happiness in Relationships
Ben-Shahar states here that relationships can essentially be scored with the same pleasure and meaning aspects that you can describe any activity with. In fact, he goes so far as to state that you should do a similar exercise with the significant relationships in your life: score them in terms of pleasure (present happiness) and meaning (future happiness) and then use that (along with knowing the time you currently spend on that relationship) to determine if you should spend more time or less time on your relationship with that person.

I actually did this, and it encouraged me strongly to sit down and spend some time writing some long-needed letters to some people – two friends who I haven’t kept in good contact with lately and my two sisters-in-law. I haven’t spent adequate time with any of them as of late, and it felt very good to sit down and write to them.

The remainder of the book offers some simpler solutions that you can basically apply in your day to day life.

9. First Medidation: Self-Interest and Benevolence
In a nutshell, this section encourages people to “pay it forward” – in other words, do good things for others not because they’ll reciprocate, but because the act makes you feel good – and don’t think of that sense of feeling good as being selfish. Helping others when you can just increases your own happiness, so there’s no reason not to be helpful and courteous when the opportunity arises.

10. Second Meditation: Happiness Boosters
Find some small things that bring you authentic happiness – both current pleasure and future meaning – and do them whenever you need a pick-me-up. I identified several for myself: grapes, bananas, playing with my son, coaxing a smile out of my infant daughter, solving a simple logic puzzle, and so on. These things bring benefit with immediate pleasure and with long-term meaning (health, better brain function, better relationships, and so on).

11. Third Meditation: Beyond the Temporary High
When you look back at the past, you’re far better off reflecting on the good things that have happened than the bad, as good memories alter your mood in a positive fashion and bad memories induce negativity. You can enlist help in this: just talk to someone close to you and ask them what the best thing that happened to them today was, or what their favorite memory from high school was – then relate your own. The past can provide a lot of residual happiness if you allow it, and it can build your current level of happiness.

12. Fourth Meditation: Letting Our Light Shine
Most people with a low self-worth are led to that feeling by external sources: parents, spouses, schoolmates, coworkers, and so on. Identify people in your life that you interact with that make you feel worse about yourself and don’t interact with them. That list of relationships from chapter eight works in two ways – you can increase the time spent on valuable relationships as well as decrease time spent on relationships that bring you down.

13. Fifth Meditation: Imagine
Have you ever had a desire to give your earlier self advice? “Don’t date Nikki!” “Don’t try to go out during that snowstorm!” “Just major in mathematics right off the bat!” That advice isn’t just wishful thinking – it’s valuable to you now. It’s direct evidence that you’re constantly learning and growing as a person. So why not extend that? Imagine yourself in the future giving advice to you now. What would you change? It’s usually a clue as to what you genuinely need to change in your life right now, using the insight you already have. Incidentally, I thought this was the weakest meditation by far.

14. Sixth Meditation: Take Your Time
Most people feel that they don’t have time for everything they want to do in their life. Ben-Shahar strongly encourages cutting back on whatever you can, starting with the things you self-identified as not bringing significant pleasure or meaning to your life. Cut back on the television time, intentionally lessen your workload, or drop out of a club. If the time pressure is bringing you unhappiness, cut back on something, even if it brings you some value – you’ll be left with just things that bring you more value.

15. Seventh Meditation: The Happiness Revolution
The last idea? Forgive. People make mistakes. They mess up in life. Some people simply have a chip on their shoulder. Why should this bother you? Just let it go – forgive others for being imperfect and just try to see the positive things they have to offer you. I used to work with a woman who continually frustrated me by completing her parts of group tasks in such a subpar fashion that they were basically unusable. How did I get past it? I spent a lot of time trying to help her identify what her actual skills were – and eventually I realized she wasn’t happy, either. She felt very out of place in the workplace, a right-brain person surrounded by left-brain people. I couldn’t help but forgive her – and it made me feel a lot better. Even better, we wound up finding several things she was very good at, and now she’s working at another job making substantially more money than I am – and is incredibly happy, too.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

Happier takes what I found valuable about self-help books – the idea that you can improve your feelings about life – and throws out the rubbish – the stuff that you really can’t just take action on. It’s not just somebody shouting platitudes, either – Happier has a nine page bibliography at the end, much of which dips deep into psychology research.

In short, Happier was a home run for me – the only time I’ve ever felt that way about a “positive thinking” type of book. After most of them, I felt empty – I felt like the author had just shouted platitudes and didn’t give me a single tangible thing to work on (other than buying a ticket to their seminar). Happier gave me a ton of very specific things I should be doing and a lot of specific things to think about, too. The material from this book will be on my mind for a long time, instead of slipping away from me a few days from now.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book – and that’s the first time I can ever say that about a book of this kind. Even better, if you’re not sure whether it’s really for you, you can go over a lot of the same materials for free by going over Ben-Shahar’s course notes for Psychology 1504 at Harvard. This book condenses that material down into some very worthwhile pieces. In my view, Happier is well worth a read, particularly one where you’re willing to jot down your thoughts and take some direct actions after reading it.

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