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

A portrait photo of Tal Ben-Shahar

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.

For a full list of my book reviews, covering topics including philosophy, religion, spirituality, and mental health, click here.

Reflections on Friendship

Two friends sitting down together

After a very productive ‘deep and meaningful’ conversation with one of my best friends recently, I started to reflect on the nature of friendship, and a few thoughts emerged regarding what constitutes a healthy friendship. These are my reflections.

There is a place of true connectedness where both friends can be free to be their childlike selves — there is a zone where nothing is being suppressed and where all emotions can be expressed without reservation or tension; happiness, sadness, anger, joy, frustration, anxiety, etc. In the zone of pure friendship, much laughter is to be found. Laughter arises quite spontaneously when both friends feel at ease, which is the result of sharing openly. There are no awkward silences in the zone – silences, maybe, but they are comfortable and natural.

The zone can be reached by talking in depth about our experience of being in the present moment. We can ask our friend the question, ‘What are you feeling right now?’. It is helpful to explore what is going on in the body. Do I feel nervous? Tense? Fragile? Exploring these things in the context of a friendship helps us to open up, and to feel at ease.

There are normally stories attached to our present moment feelings, which can be expressions of a more complex past. These stories might be of hurt, frustration, or loneliness, and might be the result of years of negative feeling being somehow stored up in the body. To share these stories can be liberating, can help heal broken hearts, and can help friends feel closer together.

In a true friendship there is no need or possessiveness, but instead there is an unconditional love. When you love a person for who they are, you don’t need them, you simply want them to be happy.

There never needs to be a reason for a friendship, and it can be damaging to say that your friend is your friend for a specific reason; because they make you laugh, or because you have the same taste in music, for instance. A deep and true friendship will be about so much more that what you have in common with someone — it will be about love.

Friendships are a gift from God and a true blessing. They are to be valued, nurtured, and worked upon, so that hurdles are overcome and a depth of connection is sustained.

This blog is mainly a philosophical theology blog, although I have on occasion shared some personal reflections such as those expressed in this post. To get more of an idea of whether or not you’d like to follow this blog, please visit the About page or check out my Books. Thank you for reading!

Free Will

A man on a hilltop reaching out his arms with an open expanse before him

Have you ever wondered about the distinction between the things that you are doing, and the things that are simply ‘happening’?

Let us look at this distinction in terms of our common experience.

As I write this sentence, I would say certain things are ‘just happening’. My heart is beating, blood is flowing through my veins (I presume) and my nails and hair are growing (albeit rather slowly). These are all things that I say are happening to me. On the other hand, I might say that I am typing, I am drinking this cup of tea, I am looking at the clock. Those are things that I am doing.

So what makes us draw this distinction? I believe it amounts to an association of ‘I’ with the body that I witness, for instance, when I look down. When this body is interacting with something, like picking up a pen, or kicking a football, we class this as an activity that I am doing. Conversely, the things that are ‘happening’ relate either to the inner workings of the body or to things ‘out there’ in the world at large.

But need we draw this distinction? If we take away for a moment the idea that I am the body, aren’t both processes that I am doing, and those that are happening, similar in their activeness and in the sheer fact that they are going on?

Consider the following questions:

What is causing me to grow?  (internal)
What is causing the tree to grow?  (external)
What is causing the football to be kicked?  (action)

The scientist might answer the above questions in terms of distinct cause and effect processes. But there are always an infinite number of causes contributing to the action of what we perceive to be one event. What really caused the football to be kicked? Was it the movement of my leg? Was it an impulse in the brain telling my leg to move? Was it my arrival at the football pitch? One could go on to describe an infinite number of causes, but the truth is that it happened quite spontaneously!

The answer to our questions, it would seem clear, is that the same being, the same force, is animating all things simultaneously in this moment. After all, the tree and the football and I exist within the same consciousness. The changing agent, the animating force, is God. Because God is capable of doing an infinite number of things simultaneously, we see that all of the above actions can happen at the same time.

As an interesting aside, our use of language often contains clues to help us understand what is really going on. We say “I acted wrongly”, or “you’re acting strange”, so even in our everyday language we are aware that we are like characters acting in a play. This is the way it really is! Whatever you ‘do’ is what God is doing through you. He is the cosmic director, intimately involved with your every ‘act’ of free will.

In saying all of this, I am not denying that a sense of free agency does indeed present itself in our human experience. There is a sense in which I do operate as though I am a free agent, making decisions and going about my business. An attribute of God’s power is that He can cause us to believe not only that we are individuals in a separate world, but also that we are the ones doing everything! This is bizarre when you think about it – I can raise my arm or nod my head, but I have absolutely no idea how I do it. God only knows how – because God is doing it.

The above article is a modified extract from my book entitled The Philosophy of a Mad Man. For more information or to buy the book, click here.

Shaking with Ratu

A tattooed man with his hands to his face

On my hands and knees, leaning over a small plastic bucket, I am vomiting violently. The blare of fast-paced music and the wailing and yelping of those shaking their bodies behind me provide the soundtrack to my convulsions. I am desperate that the double dose of liquid tobacco solution that I have just squirted up my nostrils will provide a sufficient dose of ‘light energy’ to allow me to access a place of mental oblivion, and that finally this agonising mess of furious and desperate thoughts will dissolve into an eruption of tears and give way to the peace of mind I so desperately crave.

Just two days ago in this large, carpeted tent in the Devonshire countryside, I had experienced something incredible. As I stood shaking with perhaps 40 other people, music booming at full blast towards us, a sudden wave of blackness passed through my body/mind in a way that was unlike anything I had ever experienced. As this happened, I found myself letting out a primal scream, before bursting into tears and falling to the floor, and crying my eyes out uninhibitedly for around five minutes. As soon as the crying subsided, I found myself laughing hysterically for a further ten minutes. It all happened quite spontaneously. When the laughing subsided, the room and everyone’s faces were brighter and clearer. It was an amazing, joyous feeling, and an experience like no other I had ever had.

Presently, things are not going so well. I vomit several more times, and then stand up and resume shaking my arms and legs and whole body violently. My eyes are closed and my head faces upwards. A feeling of sickness still pervades my being, and I feel that I may need to vomit again shortly. I am whispering the chant over and over again at high speed, “Om Swastiastu Ratu Bagus, Om Swastiastu Ratu Bagus…” and my body is desperately weak and aching. I collapse onto the floor at frequent intervals, but am ushered to my feet by Ratu and his wife who smile and gesture for me to carry on shaking.

I am engaged in the final stages of an intensive five-day ‘Shaking Meditation’ retreat with Indian guru and powerhouse Ratu Bagus, and the very foundations of my humanity are being, quite literally, shaken. The routine for the last five days has been thus: wake up at 5am, shake for two hours, breakfast, shake for two hours, lunch, shake for two hours, dinner, shake for two hours, group meditation, sleep (or not, in my case). It has been possibly the most gruelling five days of my life, and on this last day, in this penultimate shaking session, I am really struggling.

The shaking continues. I feel like I can’t go on, but force myself to stand up one last time. I begin shaking, and decide to really push myself to ‘let go’ and force a way through this mental frenzy, somehow. I am now making a wailing sound as saliva dribbles from my mouth, and am screaming more and more loudly in a desperate attempt to trigger some kind of healing process in my body/mind. Something really has to happen soon, I think to myself; I can’t take much more than this.

As I find myself collapsing over the vomit bucket once again, trembling with weakness, I am praying desperately for a similar emotional release to the one that had lifted my spirits several days ago. I simply cannot leave this retreat with my mind in this state. My thoughts are in a total frenzy and my brain aches, such is the mental effort for something to give, for some kind of experience that will bring my mind into peace.

My T-shirt is heavy with sweat as I clamber to my feet one last time and begin shaking, although now it is barely a shake, more of a dazed wobble. I have all but given up.

The above article is a modified extract from the opening of my book entitled The Philosophy of a Mad Man. For more info or to buy the book, click here.