The sub-title of this book is “Can you learn to be happy?” and this question is explored through a series of short chapters summarising the most popular course at Harvard today.
This might seem a strange topic for this blog, but my coaching work with customer insight leaders has taught me the power of Positive Psychology. It is also a short (168 pages) book, fun and very accessible; so a good compliment to some of the weightier tomes that I’ve reviewed here.
For those not familiar with the Positive Psychology movement, it was properly launched by Martin Seligman when after a distinguished career as a psychologist, he used his opening address when becoming president of the American Psychological Association to propose that instead of just focussing on mental illness or helping clients address weaknesses, it could focus on ways of fostering joy/happiness/flow/strengths etc in individuals. In other words to help clients focus on their positive strengths and how to be happier rather than seeking to use models etc to address weaknesses or unhelpful thinking patterns. Prof Seligman has dedicated his subsequent career to this goal. This topic has also of course become popular with politicians on both sides of the “pond” and I’m sure you’ve heard of their work on measuring wellbeing in society.
Anyway, this book by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, who teaches a course at Harvard University on Happiness, is more of an accessible self-help book. It’s packed with personal anecdotes, simply communicated psychology and practical exercises for you to put into practice. Divided into three parts, these cover: What is Happiness? Happiness Applied and Meditations on Happiness. These are further broken down into 15 chapters, so many are less than 10 pages and an ideal short-read. Within each chapter you’ll find at least one “time-in”, a moment for you to stop and reflect on how you’d answer a personal question. At the end of every chapter is an exercise for you to try. A number of these are suggestions of new rituals to put into place over weeks or months, not just quick fixes.
Personal favourites for me, from the exercises have been:
1) A gratitude journal: noting down, before you go to sleep, at least 5 things that made you happy that day and for which you are grateful.
2) Reflecting on your four quadrants of Rat Racer, Hedonist, Nihilist & Happy – to learn from past experiences about what really makes you happy.
3) Mapping your life: measuring how you spend your time & how this matches those things which give you most meaning & pleasure.
4) Goal setting: to set long & short term goals to move toward what you really want to do with your life.
I’m conscious that without reading the book, a lot of this could sound like just American positivity, with fake smiles & over enthusiastic language. However, there really is so much more to it than that. Tal does a great job in helping the reader understand the combination of meaning and pleasure that can help you be happier & the joy to be found in the journey rather than assuming happiness is a fixed state at which you arrive. As well as this, his personal anecdotes and the amount of time given to personal reflection and practical exercises continue to keep the theory grounded in the practical day to day reality of your life. It would probably also help if I declared that I was initially very skeptical of this movement and a book with such a title. Overly positive people who appear to be in denial about their circumstances and full range of emotions don’t do it for a natural sceptic like me. However, as I’ve had my eyes opened to the academically grounded theory here, I have found it very useful in my own life and with clients. My time mentoring future leaders over years had already taught me that you make more progress helping people play to their strengths rather than improve their weaknesses.
In the second part of the book, Tal addresses how to apply the theories of part one to education, the workplace and personal relationships. The workplace chapter focuses a number of pages on how individuals can find their “calling”, as Marshall Goldsmith would say their “flow”, that conjunction of meaning, pleasure & strength/capability that make for the most fulfilling work. It is also pragmatic about crafting your existing role and work rather than assuming everyone takes this discover as a Damascene conversion experience and rushes off to a new career. The personal relationships chapter is also a good reminder about expressing love, knowing the other person and expressing gratitude.
The final part of this short book contains a series of seven shorter chapters or meditations on different aspects of happiness, from self interest to beyond the “happiness revolution”. The conclusion to this work ends on a usefully practical note, focussing us back on the here & now, thus what we are going to put into practice today. Overall the book does well at avoiding false expectations but also helping readers try different ways of thinking and new practices in their life which could make them intentionally happier.
During much of my coaching work with customer insight leaders, we come back to the source of motivation for that individual and the meaning + pleasure which keep them motivated to lead effectively and consistently over the long term. So, I would encourage any leaders to not be put off by what sounds like a fluffy title and try engaging with this short book. It may just reignite your passion & motivation to make a real difference through work that makes you happy.