Book review: Happier

By Philip Brewer on 22 June 2008 6 comments

Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben-Shahar.

Here are two ideas you already know: You won't achieve maximum happiness by always doing the most pleasurable thing you can think of at each moment, but neither will you find it by always deferring present happiness in favor of greater future happiness. The key is balancing these two things. And the genius in this book is that it gives you tools for finding that balance.

Ben-Shahar begins with these two (poor) strategies for finding happiness.

He calls one the "rat-race" strategy, where you're always deferring present happiness in favor of greater future happiness. Of course, that's the right thing to do in many circumstances. (Tedious studies can lead to mastery of a difficult topic; hard work can lead to promotion and greater opportunity; saving can lead to wealth.) But if you're always deferring to the future, when do you get to be happy?

He calls the other the "hedonist" strategy, where you're always doing whatever seems most pleasurable at the moment. This obviously has those pleasures, but you lose out on the advantages of deferral. (The skills that can be developed by practicing the bits that aren't so interesting yet; the social and business advantages that can come from being known as someone who can get the job done; the resources that can come from saving and and investing.)

(As an aside, let me mention that this use of the word "hedonist" is the one big complaint I have about this book. He uses "hedonist" to mean "short-sighted, stupid hedonist," which is not the way I use the word.)

The other great thing about this book is that it's based on scientific research. The book is extensively referenced, and when Ben-Shahar makes a claim, he has data to back it up. For example, a big part of the way to find the balance between present and future pleasure is to have goals: Goals are what sometimes make it worth deferring present happiness in favor of future happiness. That's not going to be big news to most readers. But he doesn't stop there. He references a study by Kennon Sheldon, who (based on research) writes:

People seeking greater well-being would be well advised to focus on the pursuit of (a) goals involving growth, connection, and contribution rather than goals involving money, beauty, and popularity and (b) goals that are interesting and personally important to them rather than goals they feel forced or pressured to pursue.

Ben-Shahar goes on from there to talk about "self-concordant goals," saying:

Research in this area indicates that there is a qualitative difference between the meaning that we derive from extrinsic goods, such as social status and the state of our bank account, and the meaning that we derive from intrinsic goods, such as personal growth and a sense of connection to others.

Ben-Shahar provides a bunch of exercises for raising your level of happiness. Some are tools for finding the balance between present and future happiness. Others are ways to raise your level of happiness directly--with research that proves that they work. (As an example, one of these is writing what he calls gratitude letters--a "thoughtful examination of the meaning and pleasure that you derive" from a relationship.)

One of the most important aspects of being happy is finding satisfaction in your work. I've talked about this quite a bit here on Wise Bread, emphasizing the importance of choosing work that you find worth doing. Ben-Shahar offers practical tactics for this, as well as for changing the job you've got to be more satisfying, and (perhaps most useful) choosing to perceive the work you're doing as valuable.

Let me finish this review with one bit that I marked when I read it, because I thought it captured the essential difference between the short-sighted, stupid hedonism that Ben-Shahar is talking about, and what I mean when I talk about hedonism:

Ideally, we want our entire day to be filled with happy experiences. . . . One of the common mistakes people make is that in their free time they choose passive hedonism over an active pursuit of happiness.

Despite that one flaw--using the word hedonism to mean "passive hedonism" and not to mean "an active pursuit of happiness"--this is a wonderful book. If you'd like to live a happier life, Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment is the best tool I've found so far to put yourself on the right path.

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6 discussions

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Guest's picture

I'm a huge fan of Tal's and he, along with the idea of scientifically researched personal growth, are some of the driving forces behind my own blogging.

In addition to being a writer Tal is also a professor of positive psychology at Harvard. I was lucky enough to get my hands on the videos of his class lectures and they are amazing. Tal may be a great writer but he is a superb speaker, and he communicates his ideas on happiness beautifully.

To anyone thinking of buying this book, I cant recommend it enough!

Guest's picture

This sounds like a book everyone should read. I think I'll have to pick up a copy at the library. Thanks Philip!

Guest's picture

I have read several books on a similar subject recently and they really have helped me happier by just reading them. What i have realised though is we all already know this stuff we just seem to convenietly forget it in our day to day lives.

I haven't read this particular book but from the sounds of it it would be well worth reading.

Guest's picture

You can only defer happiness so long. I try to do what is best at the time AND for later. It's the best of both worlds, the same is true of my investing, I want good short and long term rewards.

Philip Brewer's picture

Ben-Shahar talks a good bit about finding and emphasizing the things that make you happy in the present while also making progress toward your longer-term goals. 

I do that too, actually, especially in my posts about work, such as Find work worth doing.

The main difference is that I lean toward the pie-in-the-sky strategy of doing whatever it takes--changing your life as much as necessary--to get to where your whole life is arranged that way.  Ben-Shahar takes a more pragmatic line, offering practial strategies for dealing with those periods in your life where a lot of what you need to do only makes progress toward longer-term goals.

Guest's picture

Thanks for this recommendation. I thought when I retired 6 months ago that I would want to ditch goals once and for all. Now that I realize reaching for a goal is part of the fun, I need to think about some goals that are JUST FOR ME, not for career, not to escape my career, but simply for my own personal growth and happiness.