- Pub. Date:
- McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
- Pub. Date:
- McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
YES . . . according to the teacher of Harvard University’s most popular and life-changing course. One out of every five Harvard students has lined up to hear Tal Ben-Shahar’s insightful and inspiring lectures on that ever-elusive state: HAPPINESS.
Grounded in the revolutionary “positive psychology” movement, Ben-Shahar ingeniously combines scientific studies, scholarly research, self-help advice, and spiritual enlightenment. He weaves them together into a set of principles that you can apply to your daily life. Once you open your heart and mind to Happier ’s thoughts, you will feel more fulfilled, more connected . . . and, yes, HAPPIER.
“Dr. Ben-Shahar, one of the most popular teachers in Harvard’s recent history, has written a personal, informed, and highly enjoyable primer on how to become happier. It would be wise to take his advice.”
Ellen J. Langer, author of Mindfulness and On Becoming an Artist
“This fine book shimmers with a rare brand of good sense that is imbedded in scientific knowledge about how to increase happiness. It is easy to see how this is the backbone of the most popular course at Harvard today."
Martin E. P. Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
HappierLearn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment
By TAL BEN-SHAHAR
McGraw-HillCopyright © 2007 Tal Ben-Shahar
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Question of Happiness
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
— Albert Einstein
I was sixteen years old when I won the Israeli national squash championship. It was an event that brought the subject of happiness into sharp focus in my life.
I had always believed that winning the title would make me happy, would alleviate the emptiness I felt so much of the time. For the five years I had trained for the event I felt that something important was missing from my life—something that all of the miles run, the weights lifted, the self-motivating speeches playing and replaying in my mind were not providing. But I believed that it was only a matter of time before that "missing something" would find its way into my life. After all, it seemed clear to me that the mental and physical exertion were necessary to win the championship. Winning the championship was necessary for fulfillment. Fulfillment was necessary for happiness. That was the logic I operated under.
And, in fact, when I won the Israeli Nationals, I was ecstatic, happier than I had ever imagined myself being. Following the final match I went out with my family and friends, and we celebrated together. I was certain then that the belief that had carried me through the five years of preparation—that winning the title would make me happy—was justified; the hard work, the physical and emotional pain, had paid off.
After the night of celebration, I retired to my room. I sat on my bed and wanted to savor, for the last time before going to sleep, that feeling of supreme happiness. Suddenly, without warning, the bliss that came from having attained in real life what had for so long been my most cherished and exalted fantasy disappeared, and my feeling of emptiness returned. I was befuddled and afraid. The tears of joy shed only hours earlier turned to tears of pain and helplessness. For if I was not happy now, when everything seemed to have worked out perfectly, what prospects did I have of attaining lasting happiness?
I tried to convince myself that I was feeling the temporary low following an overwhelming high. But as the days and months unfolded, I did not feel happier; in fact, I was growing even more desolate as I began to see that simply substituting a new goal— winning the world championship, say—would not in itself lead me to happiness. There no longer seemed to be a series of logical steps for me to follow.
Reflect on a couple of personal experiences where reaching a certain milestone did not bring you the emotional payoff you expected.
I realized that I needed to think about happiness in different ways, to deepen or change my understanding of the nature of happiness. I became obsessed with the answer to a single question: how can I find lasting happiness? I pursued it fervently—I observed people who seemed happy and asked what it was that made them happy; I read everything I could find on the topic of happiness, from Aristotle to Confucius, from ancient philosophy to modern psychology, from academic research to self-help books.
To continue my exploration of the question of happiness in a more formal way, I decided to study philosophy and psychology in college. I met brilliant people who had dedicated themselves as writers, thinkers, artists, or teachers to understanding the "big questions." Learning to read a text closely and analytically, attending lectures on intrinsic motivation and on creativity, reading Plato on "the good" and Emerson on "the integrity of your own mind"—all of these provided me with new lenses through which my life and the lives of those around me came into clearer focus.
I was not alone in my unhappiness; many of my classmates seemed to be dispirited and stressed. And yet I was struck by how little time they dedicated to what I believed to be the question of questions. They spent their time pursuing high grades, athletic achievements, and prestigious jobs, but the pursuit—and attainment—of these goals failed to provide them with an experience of sustained well-being.
Although their specific goals changed when they left college (promotion at work replacing academic success, for instance), the essential pattern of their lives remained the same. So many people seemed to accept their poor emotional predicament as the inevitable price of success. Could it be, then, that Thoreau's observation that most people lead lives of "quiet desperation" was true? Even if it was, I refused to accept his dire assessment as a necessary fact of life and sought answers to the following questions: How can a person be both successful and happy? How can ambition and happiness be reconciled? Is it possible to defy the maxim of "no pain, no gain"?
In trying to answer these questions, I realized that I would first have to figure out what happiness is. Is it an emotion? Is it the same as pleasure? Is it the absence of pain? The experience of bliss? Words like pleasure, bliss, ecstasy, and contentment are often used interchangeably with the word happiness, but none of them describes precisely what I mean when I think about happiness. These emotions are fleeting, and while they are enjoyable and significant, they are not the measure—or the pillars—of happiness. We can experience sadness at times and still enjoy overall happiness.
While it was clear to me which words and definitions were inadequate, finding those that could capture the nature of happiness proved more difficult. We all talk about happiness and mostly know it when we experience it, but we lack a coherent definition that can help us identify its antecedents. The source of the word happiness is the Icelandic word happ, which means "luck" or "chance," the same source of the words haphazard and happenstance. I did not want to leave the experience of happiness to chance and therefore sought to define and understand it.
How would you define happiness? What does happiness mean to you?
I do not have the complete answer to the single question I posed at age sixteen—I suspect that I will never have it. Through my reading, research, observation, and reflection, I have discovered no secret formula, no "five easy steps to happiness." My objective in writing this book is to raise awareness of the general principles underlying a happy and fulfilling life.
These general principles are certainly not a panacea and, moreover, are not relevant for all people in all situations. I have mostly limited my focus to positive psychology and do not address many internal obstacles that prevent people from pursuing happiness, such as major depression or acute anxiety disorder. Nor are the ideas applicable for many of the external obstacles that come in the way of a flourishing life.
It is sometimes impossible for those living in a conflict area, under political oppression, or in extreme poverty to begin to apply the theory presented in the following pages. Following the loss of someone dear, it is exceedingly hard to concern oneself with the question of questions. Even in less severe situations—a disappointment, a difficult spell at work or within a relationship—it may be unhelpful to ask a person to focus on the pursuit of happiness. The best we may be able to do under some circumstances is to experience the negative emotions and allow them to take their natural course.
Some suffering is unavoidable in every life, and there are many external and internal barriers to the good life that cannot be overcome by reading a book. However, a better understanding of the nature of happiness—and, more important, applying certain ideas—can help most people in most situations become happier.
From Happy to Happier
While writing this book or reading others' notions of happiness, when thinking about the good life and observing the behavior of those around me, I have often asked myself, "Am I happy?" Others have asked me a similar question. It took me a while to recognize that, while well meaning, this question is not helpful.
How do I determine whether I am happy or not? At what point do I become happy? Is there some universal standard of happiness, and, if there is, how do I identify it? Does it depend on my happiness relative to others, and, if it does, how do I gauge how happy other people are? There is no reliable way to answer these questions, and even if there were, I would not be happier for it.
"Am I happy?" is a closed question that suggests a binary approach to the pursuit of the good life: we are either happy or we are not. Happiness, according to this approach, is an end of a process, a finite and definable point that, when reached, signifies the termination of our pursuit. This point, however, does not exist, and clinging to the belief that it does will lead to dissatisfaction and frustration.
We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which he can aspire. Therefore, rather than asking myself whether I am happy or not, a more helpful question is, "How can I become happier?" This question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point. I am happier today than I was five years ago, and I hope to be happier five years from now than I am today.
Rather than feeling despondent because we have not yet reached the point of perfect happiness, rather than squandering our energies trying to gauge how happy we are, we need to recognize that happiness is an unlimited resource and then focus on ways in which we can attain more of it. Becoming happier is a lifelong pursuit.
We all know that change is hard. Much research suggests that learning new tricks, adopting new behaviors, or breaking old habits may be harder than we even realize and that most attempts at change, whether by individuals or organizations, fail. It turns out that self discipline is usually insufficient when it comes to fulfilling our commitments, even those we know are good for us—which is why most New Year's resolutions fail.
In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz provide a different way of thinking about change: they suggest that instead of focusing on cultivating self-discipline as a means toward change, we need to introduce rituals. According to Loehr and Schwartz, "Building rituals requires defining very precise behaviors and performing them at very specific times—motivated by deeply held values."
Initiating a ritual is often difficult, but maintaining it is relatively easy. Top athletes have rituals: they know that at specific hours during each day they are on the field, after which they are in the gym, and then they stretch. For most of us, brushing our teeth at least twice a day is a ritual and therefore does not require special powers of discipline. We need to take the same approach toward any change we want to introduce.
For athletes, being a top performer is a deeply held value, and therefore they create rituals around training; for most people, hygiene is a deeply held value, and therefore they create the ritual of brushing their teeth. If we hold our personal happiness as a value and want to become happier, then we need to form rituals around that, too.
What rituals would make you happier? What would you like to introduce to your life? It could be working out three times a week, meditating for fifteen minutes every morning, watching two movies a month, going on a date with your spouse on Tuesdays, pleasure reading for an hour every other day, and so on. Introduce no more than one or two rituals at a time, and make sure they become habits before you introduce new ones. As Tony Schwartz says, "Incremental change is better than ambitious failure.... Success feeds on itself."
Once you identify the rituals you want to adopt, enter them in your planner and begin to do them. New rituals may be difficult to initiate; but over time, usually within as little as thirty days, performing these rituals will become as natural as brushing your teeth. Habits in general are difficult to get rid of—and that's a good thing when good habits are concerned. In Aristotle's words, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
People are sometimes resistant to the idea of introducing rituals because they believe that ritualistic behavior may detract from spontaneity or creativity—especially when it comes to interpersonal rituals such as a regular date with one's spouse, or artistic rituals such as painting. However, if we do not ritualize activities— whether working out in the gym, spending time with our family, or reading for pleasure—we often don't get to them, and rather than being spontaneous, we become reactive (to others' demands on our time and energy). In an overall structured, ritualized life, we certainly don't need to have each hour of the day accounted for and can thus leave time for spontaneous behavior; more importantly, we can integrate spontaneity into a ritual, as, for example, deciding spontaneously where we go on the ritualized date. The most creative individuals—whether artists, businesspeople, or parents— have rituals that they follow. Paradoxically, the routine frees them up to be creative and spontaneous.
Throughout the book, I will refer back to this exercise, as you introduce different practices, different rituals, that can help you become happier.
In research done by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, those who kept a daily gratitude journal—writing down at least five things for which they were grateful—enjoyed higher levels of emotional and physical well-being.
Each night before going to sleep, write down at least five things that made or make you happy—things for which you are grateful. These can be little or big: from a meal that you enjoyed to a meaningful conversation you had with a friend, from a project at work to God.
If you do this exercise regularly, you will naturally repeat yourself, which is perfectly fine. The key is, despite the repetition, to keep the emotions fresh; imagine what each item means to you as you write it down, and experience the feeling associated with it. Doing this exercise regularly can help you to appreciate the positive in your life rather than take it for granted.
You can do this exercise on your own or with a loved one: a partner, child, parent, sibling, or close friend. Expressing gratitude together can contribute in a meaningful way to the relationship.
Chapter TwoReconciling Present and Future
Nature has given the opportunity of happiness to all, knew they but how to use it.
One of the most important squash tournaments of the year was approaching. I had been training extremely hard and decided to supplement my training with a special diet. While my eating habits had always been quite healthful—a necessary part of my training regimen—I had occasionally allowed myself the "luxury" of junk food.
However, in the four weeks leading up to the tournament, I ate only the leanest fish and chicken, whole-grain carbohydrates, and fresh fruit and vegetables. The reward for my abstinence, I resolved, would be a two-day junk-food binge.
As soon as the tournament was over, I went straight to my favorite hamburger joint. I ordered four hamburgers, and as I walked away from the counter with my prize, I understood how Pavlov's dogs felt at the sound of the bell. I sat myself down and hurriedly unwrapped the first portion of my reward. But as I brought the burger closer to my mouth, I stopped.
For a whole month I had looked forward to this meal, and now, when it was right in front of me, presented to me on a plastic platter, I did not want it. I tried to figure out why, and it was then that I came up with the happiness model, otherwise known as the hamburger model.
I realized that in the month I had been eating well, my body felt cleansed and I was surging with energy. I knew that I would enjoy eating the four burgers but that afterward I would feel unpleasant and fatigued.
Staring at my untouched meal, I thought of four kinds of hamburgers, each representing a distinct archetype, with each archetype describing a distinct pattern of attitudes and behaviors.
The Hamburger Model
The first archetypal hamburger is the one I had just turned down, the tasty junk-food burger. Eating this hamburger would yield present benefit, in that I would enjoy it, and future detriment, in that I would subsequently not feel well.
The experience of present benefit and future detriment defines the hedonism archetype. Hedonists live by the maxim "Seek pleasure and avoid pain" they focus on enjoying the present while ignoring the potential negative consequences of their actions.
The second hamburger type that came to mind was a tasteless vegetarian burger made with only the most healthful ingredients, which would afford me future benefit, in that I would subsequently feel good and healthy, and present detriment, in that I would not enjoy eating it.
The corresponding archetype is that of the rat race. The rat racer, subordinating the present to the future, suffers now for the purpose of some anticipated gain.
Excerpted from Happier by TAL BEN-SHAHAR Copyright © 2007 by Tal Ben-Shahar. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsPart 1: Happiness
Foreword: Positive Psychology
Chapter 1: The Question of Happiness
Part 2: What Is Happiness?
Chapter 2: Reconciling Past and Future
Chapter 3: Happiness Explained
Chapter 4: The Ultimate Currency
Chapter 5: Setting Goals
Part 3: Happiness Applied
Chapter 6: In Education
Chapter 7: In the Workplace
Chapter 9: In Relationships
Part 4: Meditations on Happiness
First Mediation: Self-Interest and Benevolence
Second Mediation: Beyond the Temporary High
Third Meditation: Letting Our Light Shine
Fourth Mediation: Imagine!
Fifth Meditation: Take Your Time
Sixth Mediation: The Happiness Revolution
Conclusion: Here and Now
What People are Saying About This
"It is easy to see how this is the backbone of the most popular course at Harvard today."
—Martin E. P. Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness