Happiness, in a nutshell. Or at least in hardcover.
"Happier," the new nonfiction book by Lecturer on Psychology Tal D. Ben-Shahar ’96—teacher of Harvard’s most popular course in the spring semester of 2006—claims to possess the knowledge necessary to live a happier, more fulfilling life. But unlike many other self-help books, "Happier" does not claim to have a quick fix, instead making a more realistic promise: by using the hardback as a workbook, one may develop the habits and attitudes that lead to happiness.
While these insights might not seem very profound, numerous self-evaluation exercises force the reader to realize that most people do not seem to apply seemingly obvious behaviors to their own lives. Ben-Shahar’s theories about becoming happier may seem like nothing new, but the exercises he includes to apply these ideas are what make "Happier"—much like Psychology 1504, "Positive Psychology"—worthwhile.
For example, time-ins—thought-provoking questions meant to challenge a person’s attitudes and behaviors toward happiness—are interspersed with explanations of positive psychology. These mini-exercises force the reader to internalize Ben-Shahar’s ideas and evaluate his own approach to happiness. Additional exercises are listed at the end of each chapter, further reinforcing the lessons. At the end of a chapter entitled "The Ultimate Currency," the reader is asked to complete a series of sentences that begin with phrases such as "To bring five percent more happiness into my life…" This exercise and others foster awareness about what actions and attitudes will make the reader happier.
Instead of unearthing a single unknown secret to happiness or listing off five steps that will magically yield happier life, Ben-Shahar describes common-knowledge truths about how each person can define and create happiness in his own life. Citing multiple psychologists, philosophers, historians—and even a few students—Ben-Shahar concludes that happiness must combine both pleasure and meaning, providing both present and future gain. While this claim is hardly arguable, Ben-Shahar examines the research on which he bases this definition and provides real-life examples of how to put his theory to use.
In the introduction to "Happier," Ben-Shahar says that his book will translate the often confusing and inaccessible academic studies on positive psychology into simple, practical applications that can be found in self-help books—but without the nonsense.
By using a variety of simple metaphors, Ben-Shahar does just that, clearly illustrating the theories of happiness in understandable and memorable terms. For example, he compares the four archetypal attitudes toward happiness—hedonism, rat racing, nihilism and the ideal pursuit of happiness—to different types of hamburgers, demonstrating the pros and cons of each method.
After defining happiness, Ben-Shahar offers suggestions on how to apply these theories to education, work and relationships. Regarding education, Ben-Shahar advocates instilling a new approach to learning in children, shifting away from the rat-racer mentality of seeking good grades alone toward appreciating the process of learning as well. In the workplace, he emphasizes the importance of choosing work that is sufficiently challenging and also enjoyable, as the combination of effort and pleasure will lead to greater success on the job. As for relationships, Ben-Shahar describes the necessity of loving relationships to one’s happiness, explaining that when a person feels truly loved by another, the resulting self-assurance he feels allows him to actively pursue that which provides meaning and pleasure with much less fear of failure.
By combining both practical applications and easy-to-understand theories about positive psychology, "Happier" lives up to its claims of providing a roadmap for instilling happiness-increasing habits in one’s life. Although simply reading the book won’t give you an instant glow, putting the behaviors Ben-Shahar suggests into practice may very well make you—well, happier.
—Reviewer Courtney D. Skinner can be reached email@example.com.
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