Happy: Simple Steps to Get the Most Out of Life

Happy: Simple Steps to Get the Most Out of Life

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by Ian K. Smith

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Happiness isn’t the too-brief rush that comes from getting something you’ve wanted—it’s the lasting great feeling that comes from becoming someone you want to be…..

And someone others want to be with, too.  No matter where you start, Happy can help you improve your life and permanently alter your happiness


Happiness isn’t the too-brief rush that comes from getting something you’ve wanted—it’s the lasting great feeling that comes from becoming someone you want to be…..

And someone others want to be with, too.  No matter where you start, Happy can help you improve your life and permanently alter your happiness set point.

Dr. Ian has inspired millions to lose weight. In counseling dieters, Smith learned that while achieving hard-fought and worthy goals can help make a person happy, even these real accomplishments aren’t what make happiness stick.

In Happy, Ian Smith presents a program that motivates readers to understand the behaviors and mind-sets that work and last, including:

—How to be optimistic

—Why optimism and realism are not opposites

—How to get outside yourself

—The importance of family and community

—Why involvement leads to contentment

—Shedding the treadmill mentality of getting and spending

—Tapping the power of simple pleasures

—Mastering modern life to live in the moment

—What we can learn from the Danish people

—How to be, not just to do

Happy is a life-changing book from one of America’s most trusted voices.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An excellent motivational and insightful self-help guide, Happy lives up to its title." - Midwest Book Review

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Macmillan Audio
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5.20(w) x 5.80(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt


Simple Steps to Get the Most Out of Life

By Ian K. Smith

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Ian K. Smith, M.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2328-6


What Is Happiness?

We tend to forget that happiness doesn't come as a result of getting something we don't have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.


What is the definition of happiness? In my search for this slippery answer, I decided to start the old-fashioned way — with the dictionary.

Sounds reasonable. But if you line up one hundred psychologists and social scientists and ask them to give their definition, you're likely to get one hundred different answers. And while we tend to like for things to fall into neat little boxes, the definition of happiness certainly doesn't accommodate our desire for neatness. Despite all the research, especially that of the last ten years, and all the advances of those acclaimed positive psychologists who are churning out groundbreaking research, there is no unanimous or correct definition of happiness.

What about my own definition of happiness? I know what it feels like, but it takes more effort than I expected to be able to put it into words. I think of different moments of happiness in my life, starting in my early childhood. The first experience that comes to mind is the annual pilgrimage my family made to the Danbury State Fair, an event that always brought great anticipation and joy. Located on more than 130 acres in the southwestern part of Danbury, Connecticut, the fair came to life for seven days every October, and for that one magical week every kid thought our small town was the center of the universe. The fair attracted hundreds of thousands of people from all over Connecticut, New York, and even Massachusetts. Whether it was a chance to ride the giant Ferris wheel, to ogle a 320-pound squash, to watch the sweaty and snorting ox pull, or to fill up on sweet potato pie and cotton candy, the fair was a dream come true for the entire town. In fact, the fair was so important that school was officially closed for one day during that week, and every student was given a free pass to walk through those big gates and explore the rambling grounds. The Danbury State Fair made me not just happy but extremely happy.

Things You'd Assume Would Bring Happiness

Financial security
New car
Big house
Winning the lottery
Nice clothes
Good sex
Success at work
Time away from work
Reading a good book
Acknowledgment from others of your success

As I tried to understand the source of my happiness, I couldn't help but think about the simple and nonmaterialistic events that made my life growing up feel meaningful and engaged. Performing the lead in my Sunday school Christmas and Easter plays, having a perfect attendance record in elementary school, bringing in cans of soup to donate to the holiday food drives, graduating at the top of my class from high school, spending long holidays with my extended family crammed into one house — these were the things that made me happy. Sure, I always wanted to own a fancy house and a luxury car and be able to purchase expensive designer clothes, but as my family's financial position improved through the years and I was able to realize some of these materialistic dreams, one thing became surprisingly clear: The happiness I derived from a coveted sports car and designer clothes was explosive, but the fire burned out relatively quickly. In contrast, nonmaterialistic sources of happiness, such as the plays, family holidays, and soup-can donations, stayed with me for many years. To this day when I think of those times, a warmth overtakes me.

Why did holidays with my family in a cramped house with little in the way of material gifts but lots in the way of love and fun have a more lasting impact on my happiness than the gorgeous and expensive M3 BMW my brother and I were given in our late teens when our family's financial condition improved dramatically? I wanted that car so badly, and when I got to drive it off the lot, I could barely feel my feet on the pedals because I was so full of adrenaline. Not only did I love the muscular look of the car, but I yearned for the groan of the engine and the stares it brought from drivers and pedestrians alike. But something strange happened about seven months later. It was still a lot of fun to open up the engine on the highway at speeds that were decidedly illegal and unsafe, but I wouldn't say the car was adding to my happiness. Surprisingly, the love affair had cooled.

I wouldn't have been so surprised had I seen the research, which has consistently shown that material-based happiness is transient at best. One famous study looked at lottery jackpot winners and found that their level of happiness five years after receiving their windfall had returned to the same level it had been prior to their winning. If on a scale zero to ten someone's happiness level before the big lottery win was a six, the study showed that for a few years that number jumped, but at the fifth year, regardless of how great the increase, the happiness level returned to a six. An even more revealing study of lottery winners was conducted by Dr. Richard Tunney of the University of Nottingham's School of Psychology in England. Lottery winners were asked how satisfied they were in relation to different parts of their life, how often they treated themselves, and what types of treats they enjoyed. Much to everyone's surprise, it turned out that flashy cars and diamond jewelry weren't responsible for the increased happiness of the jackpot winners, but listening to music, reading a book, or enjoying a good bottle of wine really made a difference. These winners liked rather inexpensive treats: long baths, going swimming, enjoying their hobbies, and having fun playing games.

So what does this say about happiness? The experts suggest that happiness becomes more sustained and impactful because of the characteristics surrounding the experience — meaning, pleasure, and engagement. Martin Seligman, one of the father of positive psychology, defines happiness this way:

I believe happiness dissolves into three different ideas, each of which is separately buildable and measurable. The first is the (i) pleasant life (having as much positive emotion and as little negative emotion as possible), (ii) the engaged life (being completely absorbed by the challenges you face at work, love, play, etc.), (iii) the meaningful life (knowing what your highest strengths are and using them to belong to and serve something that is bigger than you are).

Seligman's definition — in whole or at least in part — appears to be widely accepted by many leading researchers and thinkers in the field. Former Harvard lecturer, Tal Ben-Shahar, a noted positive psychologist, had this to say on the highly sought-after definition:

I define happiness as "the overall experience of pleasure and meaning." A happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving her life as purposeful. This definition does not pertain to a single moment, but to a generalized aggregate of one's experiences: a person can endure emotional pain at times and still be happy overall.

Ben-Shahar's definition, taken along with Seligman's, appears to imply a type of philosophical sophistication. Does it mean that if your life isn't Zen-like and purposeful, you can't be happy? Do you have to embark on a mission to do good for mankind or the environment in order to qualify as a happy person? Is there some ranking of what endeavors have the most meaning, thus giving us a guide to the missions that will make us happiest?

Happiness Is a Crowded Dinner Table

Socializing with friends and family is one of the most effective ways to boost happiness. Gathering over a meal is one of the most popular group activities. It makes sense that a good time can be had at a table crowded with loved ones who are sharing stories, laughs, opinions, and even disagreements. In my family it has always been Sunday dinner; regardless of how busy we are, we return home to enjoy not only great food but equally compelling company. Sunday dinners are so important that everyone is careful to schedule activities around them and avoid any conflicts. An empty chair — even in a house full of people — doesn't go unnoticed.

In many ways a crowded dinner table is one big support group with the bonus of good food. In my family there were times when someone was having a tough week. What helped get the person through it was knowing that at the end of the week we'd all be together again, surrounded by love and those who would support us rather than judge us. Equally exciting was sharing good news — a job promotion, academic accomplishment, pregnancy — with those who knew us best and took pride in our successes.

Our Sunday family dinners were so popular that friends would stop by the house unannounced, knowing that there was always an extra seat available at the table and plenty of laughs and warm smiles to make them forget about their troubles or the tough week ahead. Happiness studies have universally shown the power of a strong social network and the positive impact of making our time together meaningful and engaging. Fill up your table and have fun.

In seeking a working definition of happiness, I reexamined the various stages of my life when sadness was rare and happiness and a strong positive attitude really defined who I was. As much as my mother struggled to pay for athletic uniforms, new basketball sneakers, and one book a week from the Weekly Reader, I was every bit as happy as my classmate David Rubin. His father was a doctor, and the Rubin family lived in one of the biggest houses I had ever seen. David had so many toys he could've opened his own store. As I grew older, I met others who had struggled with adversities as children, but these adversities impacted them differently. Some had developed low self-esteem, were constantly depressed, and walked around with a chip on their shoulder. Why did some who were raised in similar circumstances turn out happy while others labored through gloom and pessimism? It wasn't until I started digging into the research on the origins of happiness that I stumbled on part of the answer.

The Happiness Thermostat

Why do some people grow to be only five feet while others grow to be seven feet? Why does one brother have blond hair while the other has red? Why are some children born with type 1 (juvenile) diabetes while others are not? Genes! The DNA in our cells is unique and makes us different from everyone else. What we're going to look like and much of who we have the capacity to become in life has already been scripted in those microscopic genes that we inherit from our parents. And researchers found something similar when they searched for the origins of happiness. A large part of how happy we are or will be is determined by our genetic makeup — something we have no control over.

This is called the "happiness set point." The idea is that we all have a baseline of happiness that represents our resting position when nothing unusually wonderful or unusual is going on in our lives. There are pleasure-inducing situations — buying a new car, celebrating a birthday, receiving a compliment about your appearance — that can make you happier, but this burst in happiness is only temporary. Eventually the "high" you felt will fade away, and you'll return to your normal level of happiness, your happiness set point.

Researchers have tried to figure out how much of the happiness we experience in life is determined before we are born and how much is actually in our control after birth. One of the most famous experts in the study of positive psychology, the late University of Minnesota professor David Lykken, spent years conducting his famous study of fifteen hundred pairs of twins. He concluded that as much as 50 percent of our happiness is determined by our genes (the happiness set point), and the other 50 percent is determined by the circumstances of life. Other prominent researchers such as Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade built on Lykken's work and found that the 50 percent of happiness attributed to the circumstances of life could be broken down even further. Intentional activity (under our control) is the biggest chunk and comprises 40 percent. Life's circumstances (not under our control) comprise the final 10 percent.

For those who have believed that they were born unhappy, there is encouraging news: Forty percent of your happiness can be controlled by your actions. Even better, if you get lucky in life, the good things that happen can provide an even greater opportunity for you to achieve some level of lasting happiness. Martin Seligman put it neatly into a formula:

H = S + C + V
Enduring Happiness (H) = Set point (S) +
Circumstances (C) + Factors Under Voluntary Control (V)

This equation gives us hope that some higher level of happiness is attainable, regardless of where our genes may have predisposed us to be.

Now that we know we have a chance at some higher level of happiness, the $64,000 question then becomes: What do we need to do to make ourselves happier in the long term? We'll discuss some strategies and "happy boosters" in a later chapter, but first it's important to understand what role your genes play in the theater of happiness.

The happiness set point theory is similar to what experts have discovered about weight control. The weight set point theory says that people have a certain weight which is determined by genes, metabolism, and other factors, and it is difficult to change. You might lose weight or gain weight, but the body's natural tendency is to revert to your weight set point. For a long time, I believed that with the proper lifestyle changes people could actually alter their weight set point. Let's say you are a five-foot-five woman, and your weight set point is 150 pounds. It has been argued that with the right exercise and dietary changes sustained over a period of twelve to twenty-four months, you can actually move that set point. It is difficult to predict how far. Can you move it all the way down to 110 pounds? Doubtful. But can you get it down to 135? Absolutely.

Your happiness set point has similar characteristics. Some people are born with a predisposition to grumpiness or sadness. Something in their genes says that more often than not they will see clouds where others will see blue sky. The good news, however, is that this does not mean they are automatically confined to a sentence of gloom and despair. Just because you have genes that say you have the potential to be grumpy and sad doesn't mean that storm clouds are forever in your life's forecast. There still exists the chance that you can learn to see fewer clouds and more blue sky. For some it's a big chance, for others a small chance, but it's a chance nonetheless. While you may not be able to alter your happiness set point as you can your weight set point, you can still have a tremendous impact on your happiness destiny. But there are limits. Someone whose genetics predispose him to being a real grouch is unlikely to be able to alter his happiness set point so far to the positive that he'll be singing and skipping like Mary Poppins. But at least he will be able to feel happier more of the time and not wake up every morning feeling that life is a constant drag.

Lessons from the Happiest People in the World

I was searching for something on the Internet recently when I stumbled across this headline: "And the Happiest Place on Earth Is ..." I clicked on a video link and watched in sheer amazement when Morley Safer from 60 Minutes revealed the results of an international study that had been conducted at Leicester University in England. Much to my amazement, the happiest place on Earth was Denmark. Denmark! How was that possible? Here was a country of five and a half million people located in northern Europe where the climate isn't the greatest, the people aren't the richest, and the lack of a real military makes it consistently vulnerable to hostile aggression. Then there was an even bigger surprise: The United States was ranked twenty-third, not even in the top ten. Shockingly, it was beaten by such countries as Finland, Costa Rica, and Norway. How could this be?


Excerpted from Happy by Ian K. Smith. Copyright © 2010 Ian K. Smith, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"An excellent motivational and insightful self-help guide, Happy lives up to its title." - Midwest Book Review

Meet the Author

Ian K. Smith, M.D., is the number one bestselling author of The Fat Smash Diet, Extreme Fat Smash Diet, The 4 Day Diet, The 4 Day Detox, and EAT.  He is a medical contributor on The View and The Rachael Ray Show, the diet expert on VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club, and host of the nationally syndicated radio show Healthwise on American Urban Radio Networks.  He writes a medical column for Men’s Health magazine. He has written for various publications including Time and Newsweek, and been featured in People, Essence, Ebony and Cosmopolitan, among others. He is a former medical correspondent for NBC and for NewsChannel 4 in New York, where he filed reports for NBC’s Nightly News and The Today Show.  In 2007, he created the 50 Million Pound Challenge, a free national weight loss initiative with a growing list of more than 1.9 million people registered. Dr. Smith graduated from Harvard College with an AB and received a master’s in science education from Columbia University. He attended Dartmouth Medical School and completed the last two years of his medical education and graduated from the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. A native of Danbury, Connecticut, Dr. Smith currently resides in Manhattan.

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Happy: Simple Steps to Get the Most Out of Life 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
avidreader234 More than 1 year ago
I got this book from a friend in the publishing industry before it was released. I read the entire book in one sitting. I couldn't stop reading and realizing how much all of the information applied to my life. Just reading the book was making me happier as I realized all of the things I've been doing wrong and how easy it was to do things right to make me feel better. This is a MUST have book. It's easily written. Well-researched and gives you great advice on how to boost your happiness. I plan on buying several copies and giving them to my friends who need a boost in these tough times. Dr. Smith, thanks so much for this book and changing my life.
bridget3420 More than 1 year ago
All of us go through a time in our lives when being happy just doesn't seem realistic. When I was going through my divorce, I wasn't even able to remember what that five letter word meant. I wish that I would have had a copy of this book back then. Ian breaks the emotions down for you in an easy to understand manner that has such a positive feel to it that you can't help but feel better. Here is what you will learn from reading this book: --How to be optimistic --Why optimism and realism are not opposites --How to get outside yourself --The importance of family and community --Why involvement leads to contentment --Shedding the treadmill mentality of getting and spending --Tapping the power of simple pleasures --Mastering modern life to live in the moment --What we can learn from the Danish people --How to be, not just to do Ian is a natural writer who motivates and reassures readers that they are capable of happiness by setting their mentality and not giving up. This book would make a great graduation gift. I really enjoyed this book and all the lessons it taught me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It makes you realize that simple everyday things can change your life!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm a HUGE FAN of Dr. Ian Smith and I have to say that this one is the icing on the cake. This book teaches you to take a good look at your life and the things that are important to you. These important things that we take for granted, are probably the simple things that make us really.....Happy. For anyone who feels bound by their anger, guilt, hurt or pain, I also recommend "When God Stopped Keeping Score." I thought that "When God Stopped Keeping Score" was just about overcoming forgiveness, I soon learned, it was about so much more than that. The author actually pulls back the curtain to his own life, to offer an intimate look at the true power of forgiveness and reveals the emotional price that you must be willing to pay to live without it. All of this, while still offering up interesting and often tear worthy stories that showed you just how you should deal with friends, family and more importantly, yourself when things do go wrong. The author more importantly reveals the key to keeping these relationships strong even in the face of adversity. Having read it, I feel like a better person. Maybe that's because this book spoke to me and not down to me. I have read a lot of books that was written like I didn't know anything. What the author of "When God Stopped Keeping Score" does is talk to you like a friend. I needed that. You will understand why when you read it for yourself. It is on sale here on BN.com.