Note: Each week PickTheBrain reviews a book or product related to self improvement. This review represents the honest opinion of the author, but we’d like to disclose that we receive a small commission on orders.
Some of you might recall when PickTheBrain first mentioned Happier, after Tal-Ben Shahar’s appearance on The Daily Show a few months back. It was exciting to see that self improvement is spreading to Harvard classrooms and being legitimized by academia and the mainstream media.
After finally finishing the book, my overall impression is a good one. Although I wouldn’t put it in the same league as The Magic of Thinking Big, it is definitely a worthwhile book that introduced me to some new ideas and gave me a lot to think about.
Structure and Content
Happier is divided into 3 main parts. The first asks the question, ‘what is happiness?’ and goes about trying to answer it. Shahar groups most people into 3 mindsets:
- The Rat Racer: This group works constantly for the future, but in pursuit of wealth and success fails to enjoy the present.
- The Hedonist: This group lives in pursuit of physical pleasure and in avoidance of pain. By living only for the superficial, they aren’t able to find any meaning in life.
- The Nihilist: This group holds the opinion that sustainable happiness isn’t possible. If you’ll never be happy, there’s no point in trying.
Personally I’ve grappled which of these mindsets at different times, so it was helpful to have each of them explained. Shahar contends that each of these mindsets is fundamentally flawed, and that there is a happy balance where meaning and pleasure can both be combined.
The second part of the book deals with happiness applied to education, the workplace, and relationships. The book provides numerous helpful suggestions for balancing challenge and anxiety so you can find meaning without inflicting unnecessary pain on yourself. Each chapter also contains questions that prompt the reader to evaluate their personal situation as they go along.
The third part of the book is called meditations on happiness. Each chapter is a reflection on a particular aspect of happiness that aims to encourage the reader to embrace it. There are 7 meditations in all:
- Self-Interest and Benevolence
- Happiness Boosters
- Beyond the Temporary High
- Letting Our Light Shine
- Take Your Time
- The Happiness Revolution
I found this section to be the most substantial and interesting of the entire book. This is where Shahar opens up and provides his most inspiring reflections on the nature of happiness and how we can bring more of it to our lives.
Overall, Happier is an enjoyable and well written book. It contains a diverse range of information from academic and non-academic sources and the exercises that conclude each chapter make it easy to involve yourself with the content.
The book feels like a college course and this has it’s pros and cons. The benefit is that it’s interesting to imagine yourself as a student at Harvard moving through the course as the semester progresses. The downside is that the book lacks a conversational feel. Instead an intimate conversation with Shahar, it feels distant, like you’re hearing him lecture from a podium. There is also a slight over-reliance on quotations that occassionally interrupts the flow of the book. Although the chosen quotes are interesting, sometimes I felt myself wishing Shahar would use his own words.
Despite these minor flaws, Happier is still a must read for anyone interested in becoming a little bit, well, happier. It’s extremely interesting to see pyschology and self improvement merge into a new genre that captures the best parts of both. If anyone else has read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts.