‘Happier’ by Tal Ben-Shahar (book review)

HappierI have recently finished reading the book Happier by Harvard lecturer and psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar.  The book was of interest to me as it discusses the nature of happiness, and how we can achieve greater levels of happiness in our lives.  This is a subject to which I have dedicated a great deal of thought in recent weeks, as I have attempted to adjust the happiness balance in my own life.

One might well approach the reading of such a book with a sceptical attitude.  The self help market is flooded with titles that propose to offer solutions to the problems in life that cause us to be unhappy.  Many of these books (and I’m thinking of Paul McKenna, but there are many others) can be rather shallow, offering no real solutions to the problem of unhappiness.

I was grateful, then, that Happier is well written and presents some intelligent ideas about how we can experience more of what the author calls ‘the ultimate currency’.  There is an emphasis on creating more time in our lives for meaningful activity, and we are encouraged, through various exercises, to explore what gives meaning to our lives and how we can live in a more meaningful way.  One of the ways in which we can do this is by managing our time well and focusing on activities that offer both present and future benefit.  We should be setting goals that inspire us and that are valuable, and then taking steps towards those goals in our daily lives that are satisfying.  The emphasis, time and time again, is on doing things that are meaningful; this really is the heart of what Tal Ben-Shahar has to say.

We are also offered the rather obvious advice that pursuing wealth and status does not lead to a happy life.  I say ‘obvious’, but if the author is right then people who pursue these things are abundant in society.  I can believe it as well – one of the pitfalls of capitalism is that it tends to nurture such an attitude.  The author tells a familiar story about how so many of us become ‘rat racers’, always pursuing future goals that we think will make us happy, but leave us feeling empty as it happens.  This attitude is ingrained in us from our school days, when we stress ourselves out over deadlines and exams, being more intently focused on achieving top grades than enjoying the journey of learning.  We carry forward this attitude into the workplace in adult life, when we stress instead about promotions and pay rises.  We are all the time struggling to achieve things, but never finding happiness in the process.

As well as ‘rat racers’, the author describes other character types, including nihilists and hedonists, for whom true happiness is elusive.  The nihilist is someone who has become resigned to unhappiness, and the hedonist seeks fulfillment in fleeting pleasures, which can never be sustained.  We are all said to have elements of all these character types in us, but the key question is:  How do we allign our lives so that they are conducive to the optimum level of happiness?

In solving this problem, the key word for me (and it is a word that the author perhaps uses too little) is balance.  If I had written Happier I would be stressing how the happy life has to have many ingredients that must come into harmony, including friendships, diet, work life, hobbies, intimacy, exercise, and more.  I would perhaps take a more ‘holistic’ approach to happiness than the author has done.  Don’t get me wrong, the author discusses an array of factors that contribute to happiness, but for me the balancing of all factors – essential to a happy life – is not focused on enough.

Happier, then, is a book that is easy and satisfying to read, and that offers some useful discussion regarding how to increase our happiness levels.  It doesn’t go into great depth about psychology, but is intentionally simple and accessible to a popular audience.  At the very least, this is an enjoyable read.  At most, it could change your life in a significant way, and help you to achieve greater levels of ‘the ultimate currency’ as you strive for a happier and more fulfilling life.

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