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Happier

Written By Tal Ben-Shahar, Reviewed By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

A short article appeared in my local paper entitled ‘Happiness key to well-being’. It described how lower levels of stress-indicating proteins and hormones are found in people who report more positive emotions. The doctor who carried out the study of 3000 healthy Britons had a straightforward recommendation for more happiness and – by implication – better health. He recommended that people figure out what makes them feel good, and truly satisfied, and then spend more time doing those things.

Simple words. In essence, they sum up what Ben-Shahar has to say in his book Happier. However, it is certainly still worth your while to read this cheerfully yellow-bound book.

Its chief appeal is that it systematically explores the concept of happiness and living a happy life, demystifying it in an easy-to-read style. In parallel, the author offers a series of exercises to put the fundamental concepts into practice in work, education and relationships. What you get out of these will of course depend on the effort you invest in them…

Well Grounded

Don’t be put off by the book’s subtitle, by the way, even if you’re a natural-born sceptic! It’s Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfilment. Before you run from what sounds like pop psychology mixed with eastern mysticism, take comfort from the fact that the book is based on the precepts of positive psychology and as such is grounded in robust science. Moreover, this book reflects the course that Ben-Shahar teaches at Harvard, a course apparently taken by a fifth of students there. The book asks the important question “How can I be happier?” rather than “Am I happy?”, thus signalling an ongoing process of enquiry and progress rather than any quick fix.

Origins

Ben-Shahar began contemplating happiness and what could help bring it into his life after he became the national Israeli squash champion at the age of sixteen. The sense of triumph after his years of dedication and gruelling preparation was overwhelmingly sweet – and lasted just a few hours. He realised that relief formed a large part of his short-lived happiness and that the question of “what next” (perhaps more huge efforts to become an international champion) was draining his enjoyment of having met his goal.

Goals

Unsurprisingly, given his disillusionment on winning his championship, Ben-Shahar explores this issue at some length in the first section of the book. His first thought was that a goalless state would be desirable. Research led him to a clearer and more positive answer.

Goals that we choose freely rather than have imposed on us are energising both in terms of long term meaning and, in the shorter term, on the journey towards them. Any goal is likely to demand tasks that we have to do as well as those that we want to do; the trick is to find a goal where the former is more than compensated for by the latter. Ben-Shahar points out that goal setting and success are clearly linked, reflecting the focus that articulating a goal can bring. Goal setting and happiness, however, are much less clearly linked, unless people choose goals that inspire them and that can be broken down into pleasurable shorter term objectives.

Three Good Things

There were three things I particularly enjoyed about the book.

  1. The author’s simple method for assessing how much happiness an activity will bring, based on the happiness from reaching the goal (the longer term meaning of the activity) and from the journey itself (the shorter term pleasure). He presents this as a 2 x 2 matrix, suggesting he could have had an equally successful career as a consultant!
  2. His ‘MPS’ exercise as a way of working towards the kinds of employment which are likely to make us happier. The answer is likely to lie where Meaning, Pleasure and our Strengths overlap.
  3. His reiteration of evidence that there is almost no correlation between material wealth and level of happiness (always worth being reminded of). He reprises this theme in the last part of the book, a series of ‘Meditations’ on happiness. The seventh meditation concerns how the compulsion to amass material wealth undermines the ability to gather happiness, the ‘ultimate currency’.

New Year Resolutions

A new year is rife with good intentions and thoughts of new beginnings. Ben-Shahar knows how hard change can be even if we want to make it stick. One of his useful ideas is to think of creating rituals rather than cultivating self discipline. Initiating a ritual is admittedly hard but maintaining it is easy. A ritual is about performing specific tasks at defined times in line with deeply held values (think teeth-brushing in line with a personal hygiene value).

The author suggests diarising the change that you think will increase your happiness and looking for it to become more habit than chore within as little as a month. Habits are hard to shed – which is a good thing with good habits!

Happy Habits

As Aristotle put it,

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.

And if we can make happiness a habit, we’re likely to live longer and enjoy the journey through it a lot more!

Three [Other] Good Things

Try an exercise that the author recommends and on which Dr Martin Seligman, the ‘father’ of positive psychology, has run controlled experiments. In the tests on this exercise, not only did his subjects report being happier and more optimistic, but they liked participating so much that they continued writing down three good things each day after the experiment was over!

At the end of each day, or first thing in the morning if you prefer, take a few minutes to write down:

  1. three good things that happened in the last 24 hours;
  2. why each one happened;
  3. what you had to do with it.

The things can be big or small, experiential, relational, or professional. Carrying out this exercise on a regular basis will help you focus on the good in your life as well as begin to clarify what you hold as important.

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