Wednesday, May 14, 2008

**** Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar

This book is based upon the most popular course at Harvard, and is designed to actually make you happier. Who could possibly be against that? Happiness is not free and comes at a cost though. You must do the exercises to really benefit from this course. I've added the exercises at the very end of the notes on the book - on purpose. Read the notes to get the background, and then spend the time working on the exercises. You'll be happy that you did :)

In the US, rates of depression are 10 times higher today than in the 1960s, and the avg age for the onset is now 14.5 compared to 29.5 in 1960. A study in American colleges tells us that nearly 45% of students were so depressed that they had difficulty functioning… In 1957, 52% of Britons said that they were very happy, compared to 36% in 2005 – despite the fact the British have tripled their wealth over that time. With the rapid growth in the Chinese economy comes rapid growth in the number of adults and children who experience anxiety and depression. pIX

The source for the word happiness is the Icelandic word happ, which means ‘luck’ or ‘chance’, the same source for haphazard and happenstance. P6

The Archetypes:

Hedonism: Present benefit that causes future detriment

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.

Rat Racer: Present sacrifice for future benefit

Rat racers subordinate the present to the future, and suffer now for the purpose of some anticipated gain.

Nihilist: Present sacrifice that causes future detriment

Nihilists have lost the lust for life; someone who neither enjoys the moment nor has a sense of future purpose.

Happiness: Present benefit that causes future benefit

Happy people are secure in the knowledge that the activities that bring them enjoyment in the present will also lead to a fulfilling future.

We are not rewarded by society for enjoying the journey, but for your successful completion. Society rewards results, not processes; arrivals not journeys. P19 Ours is a rat race culture.

Once we attain our goal, we mistake relief for happiness… When we do this often, we reinforce the illusion that reaching goals will make us happy… Relief is negative happiness as it stems from the negation of stress and anxiety. By its very nature, relief presupposes an unpleasant experience and can’t therefore yield lasting happiness… The experience of relief is also temporary… We derive a certain pleasure from the absence of pain, but then very quickly adapt and take its absence for granted. The rat racer confuses relief for happiness, and continues to chase goals. P20

Psychologists paid college students to do nothing: while their physical needs were met, they were forbidden to work. Within 4 to 8 hours students became unhappy, even though earned significantly more than they could have in other jobs. They needed stimulation and challenge, and chose to leave their cushy jobs for work that was more demanding and less lucrative. P22

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body and mind are stretched to its limits in voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. A struggle free hedonistic existence is not a prescription for happiness. P22

Learned Helplessness

3 groups of dogs were given electric shocks. The first group of dogs could turn off the shocks by pressing a panel. In the 2nd group could not stop the shocks regardless of their actions. A 3rd group, the control, received no shocks. All dogs from all groups were later put into boxes where they were given shocks but from which they could easily escape by jumping a over a low barrier. The dogs in the 1st and 3rd groups all quickly jumped over the barrier. The dogs in the 2nd group made no effort to escape. They simply laid down and whimpered. They had learned to become helpless. P24

All else being equal, happy people have better relationships, are more likely to thrive at work, and also live better and longer. Happiness is a worthwhile pursuit, whether as an end to itself or as a means toward other ends. P33

Emotions cause motion; they provide motive that drives our action… Emotions move us away from a desireless state, providing us motivation to act. P35

A patient with a brain tumor had part of his frontal lobe removed along with the tumor. Post surgery, he had all the physical and cognitive characteristics of a normal person, but the system involved with feeling and emotion was damaged… His life changed dramatically… His wife left him, he lost his attorney job, and he was unable to hold down a job. The most striking thing about his predicament was apathetic reaction; he no longer cared. P35

Is living an emotionally gratifying life really enough? Is experiencing positive emotions a sufficient condition for happiness? What about a psychotic who experiences euphoric delusions? What about those who consume ecstasy inducing drugs, or spend days sprawled on the beach? Are these people truly happy? No. Experiencing positive emotions is necessary, but not sufficient for happiness. P37

Imagine a machine that could provide us with brain experience of anything we desire. Our brain wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between actually being in love and the machine induced emotion… If given the opportunity, would you choose to plug into the machine? If so, why not plug in for the rest of your life?... The answer for most of us would clearly be “NO!”… There’s clearly more to happiness then just positive emotions, and circumventing this process with a machine or drugs, would be tantamount to living a lie. Our life would have no meaning nor purpose… Having goals doesn’t guarantee that we are leading a purposeful existence. To experience a sense of purpose, the goals we set for ourselves need to be intrinsically meaningful. P38

We should remember that going through difficult times augments our capacity for pleasure: it keeps us from taking pleasure for granted… Being grateful in this way can itself be a source of real meaning and pleasure. P44

Identifying the right activity, and then the right quantity for each activity, leads to the highest quality of life. The best method for maximizing our levels of happiness is trial and error, paying attention to the quality of our inner experiences. Yet most of us don’t take the time to ask ourselves the question of questions – because we’re too busy. P45

Are the things that I’m doing meaningful to me? Are they pleasurable? Is my mind telling me that I should be doing different things with my time? Is my heart telling me that I must change my life? We have to listen to our hearts and minds – our emotions and our reason. P46

The rat racer is sustained by the hope that his actions will yield some future benefit, which makes negative emotions more bearable. However, once he reaches his destination and realizes that material prosperity doesn’t make him happy, there’s nothing to sustain him. He’s filled with a sense of despair, because there’s nothing to look forward to, nothing that will allow him to envision a future in which he would be happy… Realizing that all his efforts and sacrifices have not earned him happiness, they sink into learned helplessness. They experience nihilism and resign themselves to the fact that nothing could possibly make them happy, often turning to alternative means that are destructive in an attempt to escape their unhappy state. P57

Why the obsession with wealth and material possessions? Taking an evolutionary approach, it could be that our distant past determines our current behavior. When we were still hunter gatherers, the accumulation of wealth – of food primarily – would often determine whether we would survive the next drought or the next cold winter. Hoarding became part of our constitution. Today we have the tendency to hoard far beyond our needs… We no longer accumulate to live; we live to accumulate. P58

In 1968, college freshman were asked what their personal goals were: 41% wanted to make a lot of money, and 83% wanted to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. In 1997, 75% opted for money, and only 41% wanted meaning. P60

Having goals is necessary for sustained happiness, but they are not sufficient. The goals need to be meaningful and the journey they us on needs to be pleasurable for them to bring about a significant increase in our happiness. P71

People seeking greater well being would be well advised to focus on the pursuit of goals involving growth, connection, and contribution rather than goals involving money, beauty and prestige, and these goals should be interesting and personally important to them rather that goals that feel forced upon them. P71

Those for whom making money is the primary objective are less likely to actualize themselves and reach their full potential. They generally experience more distress and are more likely to be depressed and anxious. Moreover, given the mind/body connection, they are less healthy, less vital. P73

Having sufficient money to provide for food, shelter, education, and other basic needs is essential to our well being. However, providing beyond these needs, money or prestige need not and should not be our central pursuits. P73

Money can free up our time to do things that are personally significant to us, or it can enable us to support a cause we believe in. p73

Emotions are necessary not only for the pursuit of happiness but for the attainment of material success well. Psychologist agree that IQ contributes only 20% of the factors that determine success. A full 80% comes from other factors, including emotional intelligence. P85

No pain, no gain. No Thank You.

Research on ‘flow’ shows that pain is not the optimal condition for peak performance. Rather there is a zone between overexertion and underexertion, where we not only perform at our best but also enjoy what we are doing. We reach this zone when our activities provide the appropriate level of challenge, when the task at hand is neither too difficult nor too easy. P87

There 2 distinct ways of hurting students’ prospects of experiencing flow. First by creating a stressful environment, leading to anxiety, second, by creating an environment that is devoid of stuggle and challenge, leading to boredom… Teachers should, whenver possible, structure lessons and activities to meet the skill level of each student. P88

Schools generally fail to teach how exciting, how mesmerizingly beautiful science or mathematics can be; they teach the routine of literature or history rather than the adventure. P94

Without having an emotional investment in our work, we ultimately lose interest. Emotions lead to motion – they are our fuel. P101

People experience their work in 1 of 3 ways: as a job, as a career, or as a calling. A job is perceived as a chore with the focus on financial rewards rather than fulfillment. A career is motivated by extrinsic factors such as power and prestige. A calling is something that you do because you want to, regardless of the pay or advancement. It is a privilege not a chore. P102

We are taught that falling in love with someone is about following our heart, not our mind. However, if it is really is love that we feel, we do feel it for a reason. These reasons might not be conscious and accessible, but they nevertheless exist. If then, there are actual reasons for loving someone, if there are certain conditions under which we fall in love, can there be such a thing as unconditional love? Or is the idea of unconditional love fundamentally unreasonable? It depends on whether we or not we love someone for their core self or not… To be loved for our wealth, power, beauty, fame is to be loved conditionally since these are not part of our core self. To be loved for our steadfastness, intensity, warmth is to be loved unconditionally. P113

Children are highly creative as long as they are within a certain radius of their mothers, inside a circle of creativity of sorts. It is a space in which they can take risks, try things out, and fail because they feel secure and safe in the presence of a person who loves them unconditionally. Because adults are capable of higher levels of abstraction that children, we don’t always need to be physically near our loved ones to be within their circle of creativity. The knowledge that we are loved unconditionally creates a psychological space of safety and security… Unconditional love of each other’s core selves is the foundation of a happy relationship. P115

If someone truly loves me more than anything else, he/she would want me to express my core self and would draw out those qualities that make me who I really am [because those are the qualities that they love in me]. P115

Studies show that people don’t like to be overpaid or underpaid in a relationship. People feel more content and relationships prosper when both partners see the relationship as equitable. This doesn’t mean that both must earn the same salary; the relationship equity is measured in terms of happiness. While compromise is a natural and healthy part of any relationship, each partner at different times will forgo some meaning and pleasure for the sake of the other, the overall relationship must profit both partners – both must be happier together. P118

To cultivate intimacy the focus must shift from the desire to be validated – seeking approval and praise – to the desire to be known… This means gradually disclosing our innermost selves – our desires, fears, fantasies, dreams – even those that don’t show us in the most favorable light… The process of knowing and being known is never ending as there is always more that can be revealed. The relationship is far more likely to remain interesting, exciting, and stimulating. Being together – whether talking over coffee, caring for children, or making love – becomes so much more meaningful and pleasurable when our focus shifts from validation to knowing. P120

When making choices, we first need to ask ourselves what would make us happy independent of how much it might contribute to the happiness of others. We must then ask whether what we want to do might deprive others of their ability to pursue their own happiness – because if it would, we would be undermining our happiness. P127

We have an internal thermostat mechanism that controls and checks our happiness level. For most people the level doesn’t change throughout our life – deviations, highs and lows, are quickly corrected and we return to our base level of happiness… Some psychologist argue that it may be as futile trying to be happier as trying to be taller, and is therefore counterproductive. Such claims , which suggest that our portion of happiness is predetermined, are misleading. The ignore much evidence that supports that a person’s base level can change… While some people may be born with a happier disposition than others…we can all become significantly happier, and most of us fall far short of our happiness potential. P136

A person who fears loss may protect himself by ensuring that he has nothing to lose. When we’re happy, we have a lot to lose. To avoid the devastation of a loss, we exclude the possibility of any gain. We fear the worst and thus from the outset deprive ourselves of the best. Even if we do find happiness we might feel guilty because there are others less fortunate. P143

Women were asked to list and describe the activities in which they engaged the previous day and then report on how they felt during each activity… The most unexpected finding was that, on aggregate, mothers didn’t particularly enjoy the time they spent taking care of their children… People don’t take into account the times that they are trying to do something else and find the kids distracting. There’s little doubt that most parents find child rearing meaningful – perhaps most the meaningful experience in their lives – and yet as a result of having too much to do, the pleasure component of happiness is significantly reduced… When there are too many competing demands on our time and attention, our ability to be present is diminished – and with it, our ability to appreciate and enjoy the experience. P152

Research has shown that time affluence is a consistent predictor of well being, where as material affluence is not. Time affluence is the feeling that one has sufficient time to pursue activities that are potentially meaningful, to reflect, to engage in leisure. Time poverty is the feeling that one is constantly stressed, rushed, overworked, behind… If we can help people simplify their lives, thus reducing their stress levels, it is very likely that people’s relationships (including love and sex) would be enriched greatly. P154

Although time pressure may drive people to work more and get more done, and may even make them FEEL more creative, it actually causes them to think less creatively… Time pressure leads to frustration and other negative emotions, our thinking becomes more constricted, narrower, and less broad and creative. People are unaware of this phenomenon and live under the illusion that when they are experiencing time pressure that they are also more creative. This explains why it is so difficult to get out of the pressure cooker, the rat race: the perception of creativity leads to the perpetuation of the stress. P155

There is one exception to this: When a person works on a single project, felt a sense of urgency and a sense of mission, and was able to devote undivided attention to that project. This explains the success of things like Apollo 13 (lunar landing). Unfortunately today’s workplace and lifestyle go hand in hand with time pressure and the feeling that we have too much on our plate. This lack of focus leads to poor performance. P175

To realize life’s potential for happiness, we must first accept that ‘this is it’ – that all there is to life is the day to day, the ordinary. We are living a happy life when we derive our pleasure and meaning while spending time with our loved ones, or learning something new, or engaging in an activity that is challenging. The more our days are filled with these experiences, the happier we become. This is all there is to it. P168


It takes 21 days to form a new habit. Most activities become a habit in less than a month. P170

We are generally good at identifying discrepancies between what others say is important to them and what they actually do, but not so effective identifying similar discrepancies in our lives. Therefore to learn about yourself you should ask someone who knows you well and cares about you enough to be willing to help you evaluate your life. P171

Research shows that workers distracted by emails, phone calls, and text messages suffer a greater loss of IQ (10 pts) than a person smoking marijuana (4pts) or a person who missed a night’s sleep. P171

When we endorse a certain position, our commitment to the position is strengthened. So if we tell others how important happiness is and remind them to pursue meaningful and pleasurable activities, we are making it more likely that we ourselves will do that. P172

Questions and Exercises from Happier

Chapter 1: Question of Happiness

TimeIn1: How would you define happiness? What does happiness mean to you?

Exercise1: Creating Rituals

What rituals would make you happy? What would you like to introduce to your life? It could be working out 3 times/week, meditating 15min/day, watching 2 movies/month… Instead of focusing on self-discipline as a means toward change, we need to introduce rituals. Building rituals requires defining very precise behaviors and performing them at very specific times – motivated by deeply held values… Introduce no more than 1 to 2 rituals at a time before you introduce new ones…Within as little as 30 days, performing these rituals will become as natural as brushing your teeth. They become good habits… People are sometimes resistant to rituals because they believe when it comes to interpersonal rituals such as a regular date, that it will detract from spontaneity and creativity. However, if we don’t ritualize, we often do get to them, and rather than being spontaneous, we become reactive. In an overall structured, ritualized life, we can leave time to integrate spontaneity, such as, deciding spontaneously where to go and what to do on the ritualized date.

Exercise2: Expressing Gratitude

Research has shown that writing down 5 things daily for which you’re grateful, raises your emotional and physical well being. Each night, do that before going to bed. These can be little or big. If you do this daily, you’ll repeat yourself, which is fine. The key is to keep the emotions fresh even if repeating. You can do this with a loved one as well.

Chapter2: Reconciling Present and Future

TimeIn1: Which quadrant (RatRacer, Hedonist, Nihist, Happiness) do you spend most of your time in?

TimeIn2: Do you feel part of the rat race? Looking at your life from the outside, what advice would you give yourself?

TimeIn3: Think of a time or experience where you lived as a hedonist. What were the costs and benefits of living this way?

TimeIn4: Think back to a time when you felt nihilistic, unable to see beyond your current unhappiness. Had you been looking at the situation from the outside, what advice would you give yourself?

TimeIn5: Think back to a period when you enjoyed both present and future benefit.

Exercise1: 4 Quadrants

On 4 consecutive days, spend 15min writing about your experiences of the 4 quadrants. Do the happiness quadrant last… It is important that you describe the emotions you experienced or experience now, the behaviors you engaged in, and the thoughts you had then or are having as you write… Repeat the exercise two more times for the nihilist and happiness quadrants (you can write about the same experiences if need be). Revisit the entire exercise periodically (3 months, 1 year, 2 years).

Chapter 3: Happiness Explained

TimeIn1: Ask yourself ‘why’ over and over again for a couple things you want. Notice how many ‘whys’ it takes you to reach happiness as the root reason for the want.

TimeIn2: Make a list of things – from little to big – that provide you with pleasure.

TimeIn3: What can or already does provide you with a sense of meaning? What daily or weekly activities provide meaning?

TimeIn4: What pursuits would challenge you and fulfill your potential?

TimeIn5: Think back to a difficult or painful experience. What did you learn from it, and in what ways did you grow?

Exercise 1: Mapping your Life

Devote a few minutes at the end of each day to write down and reflect how you spent your time… At the end of the week, create a table listing each of your activities. For each activity, have two columns, for meaning and pleasure, ranking each on a 1 to 5 scale (1 no meaning, 5 most meaningful – same for pleasure). Next to the amount of time indicate a + or – if you wish spend more or less time with this activity. Here’s an example:
Activity Meaning Pleasure Time

Watching TV 2 3 10hrs –

Ben’s extension: For work, break down the tasks that you perform, because you might discover that enjoy certain aspects of your work, while not enjoying others. You can do this for any activity. Perhaps you really enjoy nature shows on TV, and want to track that separately. Get the idea?

Exercise 2: Integrity Mirror

Make a list of the things that are the most meaningful and pleasurable to you. For each item write down how much time per week you devote to it…Repeat this regularly.

Chapter 4: The Ultimate Currency

TimeIn1: What for you is worth all of the gold in Ft Knox?

TimeIn2: Does concern over wealth and prestige detract from your overall experience of happiness? In what ways?

Exercise 1: Sentence Completion (from Nathaniel Branden)

If I bring 5% more awareness to my life…

The things that make me happy are…

To bring 5% more happiness to my life…

If it take more responsibility for fulfilling my wants…

If I bring 5% more integrity to my life…

If I were willing to say yes or no when I really want to…

I am becoming aware…

Chapter 5: Setting Goals

TimeIn1: Think of an experience where you committed to something. What were the consequences of your commitment? What are you committed to now?

TimeIn2: What goals have provided you with the most happiness in the past? What goals do you believe will do the same in the future?

TimeIn3: What are some of your self concordant goals? Are there internal or external barriers that prevent you from pursuing them?

TimeIn4: Do you have more have-tos than want-tos? Do you look forward to the start of the day or week? What are the things you really, really want to do?

Exercise 1: Setting Self Concordant Goals

Set long term goals that stretch you and help you enjoy the journey.

Set short term goals that help you achieve your long term goal by focusing on what you need to do this week, month or year.

Action plan it. Put down on your calendar that actual activities that you must carry out for these goals.

Exercise 2: Happiness Board

Create a board from a group of people who care about your well being. Ask board members to keep track of your commitments and ensure that you follow through on them. Meet regularly to discuss your progress… Become a member of other people’s boards as well.

Chapter 5: Happiness In Education

TimeIn1: Think back to the best teacher you had in school. What did he/she do to draw the love of learning out of you?

TimeIn2: When do you experience flow?

TimeIn3: Do you accept negative emotions as natural or do you reject them? Do you give yourself permission to be human?

TimeIn4: Can you learn to see your education or work as a privilege? What can you enjoy in this experience?

Exercise 1: LifeLong Learning

Create a lifelong learning program with 2 categories: personal and professional. Under each category commit to learning material that will yield present as well as future benefit. Ritualize your program by putting aside regular times each week for your education.

Exercise 2:Privilege of Hardship

Write about a difficult experience that you went through. After describing it in as much detail as possible, write down some of the lessons and benefits that came about as a result of the experience. Did it make your more resilient? Are you more appreciative of certain things now? Never let a good crisis go to waste.

Chapter 6: Happiness in the Workplace

TimeIn1: Think back to some of your favorite work experiences. What was it about the specific projects or the work place that made it a positive one?

TimeIn2: Do you see your work as a job, career, or calling?

TimeIn3: How can you craft your work to have more meaning? What changes can you introduce?

Exercise 1: 3 Question Process

Question 1: What gives you meaning and a sense of purpose?

Question 2: What gives you pleasure and that you enjoy doing?

Question 3: What your strengths, or what are you good at?
See if there are any items in common amongst the answers for each area.

Exercise 2: Crafting your work

Based upon your answers to the previous exercise, rewrite your job description into a calling description. Write a description that would entice others, but not by misrepresenting it, but by highlighting the potential pleasure and meaning that can be derived from it. How we perceive work, how we describe it to ourselves and to others, can make a significant difference in terms of how we experience it.

Chapter 7: Happiness in Relationships

TimeIn1: Are you spending as much time as you would like with the people who are closet to you? If not, can you do something about it?

TimeIn2: What characteristics make your core self?

TimeIn3: What quadrant did your past relationships fall under? Did the nature of these change over time?

TimeIn4: What are some ways in which you and your partner help one another become happier? What other things can the 2 of you do to help the relationship become richer in happiness?

TimeIn5: Think of ways in which you can help your partner get to know you better. Think of ways in which you can get to know your partner better.

Exercise 1: Letter of Gratitude

Make it a ritual to write at least 1 or 2 gratitude letters a month to people you care about. A gratitude letter highlights the positive elements of the relationship – past, present, future – and thereby accentuates them.

Exercise 2: Sentence Completion

Being in love means…

To be a better friend…

To be a better lover…

To bring 5% more happiness to my relationships…

To bring love to my life…

If I let go and allow myself to experience what love feels like…

Chapter 9: Self Interest and Benevolence

TimeIn: Try to experience the emotions you felt when you recently helped someone.

Chapter 10: Happiness Boosters

TimeIn1: What brief activities can rejuvenate you by providing you with both meaning and pleasure?

Exercise 1: Boosting Happiness

Generate a list of known boosters (see above time in), and a list of exploratory boosters to help you find out whether they can bring significant happiness to your life. Enter these boosters into your daily plan and if possible create rituals around them.

Chapter 11: Beyond the Temporary High

TimeIn1: What experiences or people in your life have contributed to your happiness?

Exercise 1: Take turns telling each other what has made you happier in the past – 10 years ago, last month, or earlier today. It could be a meal, and evening with family, a project at work. What was it specifically that made you happy? Was it a sense of awe, or a challenge or the people? Ask yourself how you can take what you have learned from your best past and apply it to creating a better future.

Chapter 12: Letting our light Shine

TimeIn1: What internal and external factors are stopping you from becoming happier?

Exercise: Sentence Completion

The things that stand in the way of my happiness…

If I refuse to live by other people’s values…

If I succeed…

When I appreciate myself…

Chapter 13: Imagine

TimeIn: Have you had experiences that made you reevaluate your priorities? Did you follow up on your new insights?

Exercise: Image you’re 100 years old and are able to talk to your present self for 15min. What advice would you pass on?

Chapter 14: Take your Time

TimeIn: In what areas do you feel that you are compromising on your happiness because of time pressure?

Exercise: Simplify!

Review the Mapping your Life exercise, ask yourself what you can give up or reduce significantly? Commit to reducing the busyness in your life, and ritualize times when you can dedicate yourself fully with undivided attention to the things you find both meaningful and pleasurable.

Chapter 15: Happiness Revolution
Exercise: Conflict Resolution

Experiencing negative emotions towards others may be justified and having them is often natural, even healthy. A state of conflict is at times unavoidable, and trying to wage peace at all costs could lead to more unhappiness in the long run. Nevertheless, many people hold on to anger or resentment towards family members, former friends, or entire groups – when instead they could forgive, let go, and move on. Whether we decide to forgive and reconcile or to condemn and disengage, the key is to use happiness as the standard for evaluation. To do so we need to ask which path will lead to the highest profits in happiness? With this in mind, think of a conflict, major or minor, and elaborate on the price you and other party are paying in happiness. Is the price worth it? If not, elaborate on possible solutions that could maximize happiness for you as well as the other party.

More on sentence completion:

Some good follow on books:

Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness: A guide to developing life’s most important skill 2006

M Cszikszentmihalyi Finding Flow 1998


Anonymous said...

Grow Taller

Growth-FlexV System, Guarantee you Faster Growth, Real Results and Better Shape.

Generic Viagra said...

Dou you know it could make us happy? I think it's not true because we get happiness with other methods.

hcg said...

Oh wow, this got every one going - fascinating input mixed with a good read.

Jia said...

Great synopsis. Well summarized.