We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.
-- Ann Frank
"If we are so rich, why aren't we happy?"
Why Positive Psychology?
the rigor of academe and the fun of the self-help movement.
Many self-help books overpromise and underdeliver.
"simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
Using This Book
it is intended to help you become happier.
I do not believe that there are shortcuts to meaningful change, and if this book is to have a real impact on your life, you have to treat it as a workbook. The work has to comprise both reflection and action.
Effortlessly glossing over the text is not enough; deep reflection is necessary.
"Time in": an opportunity, a reminder, to stop for a few minutes, to reflect on what you have just read, to look inside yourself.
Without the breaks, without taking a time-in, most of the material in this book will likely remain abstract for you—and thus be soon forgotten.
The final meditation is dedicated to the happiness revolution. I believe that if enough people recognize the true nature of happiness as the ultimate currency, we will witness society-wide abundance not only of happiness but also of goodness.
Part 1: What is happiness?
1. The question of happiness
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
-- Albert Einstein
I was sixteen years old when I won the Israeli national squash championship. It was an event that brought the subject of happiness into sharp focus in my life.
I had always believed that winning the title would make me happy, would alleviate the emptiness I felt so much of the time. For the five years I had trained for the event I felt that something important was missing from my life—something that all of the miles run, the weights lifted, the self-motivating speeches playing and replaying in my mind were not providing. But I believed that it was only a matter of time before that "missing something" would find its way into my life.
And, in fact, when I won the Israeli Nationals, I was ecstatic, happier than I had ever imagined myself being. Following the final match I went out with my family and friends, and we celebrated together. I was certain then that the belief that had carried me through the five years of preparation—that winning the title would make me happy—was justified; the hard work, the physical and emotional pain, had paid off.
After the night of celebration, I retired to my room. I sat on my bed and wanted to savor, for the last time before going to sleep, that feeling of supreme happiness. Suddenly, without warning, the bliss that came from having attained in real life what had for so long been my most cherished and exalted fantasy disappeared, and my feeling of emptiness returned.
The tears of joy shed only hours earlier turned to tears of pain and helplessness. For if I was not happy now, when everything seemed to have worked out perfectly, what prospects did I have of attaining lasting happiness?
as the days and months unfolded, I did not feel happier; in fact, I was growing even more desolate as I began to see that simply substituting a new goal— winning the world championship, say—would not in itself lead me to happiness.
Reflect on a couple of personal experiences where reaching a certain milestone did not bring you the emotional payoff you expected.
I realized that I needed to think about happiness in different ways, to deepen or change my understanding of the nature of happiness. I became obsessed with the answer to a single question: how can I find lasting happiness? I pursued it fervently—I observed people who seemed happy and asked what it was that made them happy; I read everything I could find on the topic of happiness, from Aristotle to Confucius, from ancient philosophy to modern psychology, from academic research to self-help books.
reading Plato on "the good" and Emerson on "the integrity of your own mind"—all of these provided me with new lenses through which my life and the lives of those around me came into clearer focus.
I was not alone in my unhappiness; many of my classmates seemed to be dispirited and stressed. And yet I was struck by how little time they dedicated to what I believed to be the question of questions. They spent their time pursuing high grades, athletic achievements, and prestigious jobs, but the pursuit—and attainment—of these goals failed to provide them with an experience of sustained well-being.
Thoreau's observation that most people lead lives of "quiet desperation".
How can a person be both successful and happy? How can ambition and happiness be reconciled? Is it possible to defy the maxim of "no pain, no gain"?
In trying to answer these questions, I realized that I would first have to figure out what happiness is. Is it an emotion? Is it the same as pleasure? Is it the absence of pain? The experience of bliss? Words like pleasure, bliss, ecstasy, and contentment are often used interchangeably with the word happiness, but none of them describes precisely what I mean when I think about happiness. These emotions are fleeting, and while they are enjoyable and significant, they are not the measure—or the pillars—of happiness. We can experience sadness at times and still enjoy overall happiness.
How would you define happiness? What does happiness mean to you?
I do not have the complete answer to the single question I posed at age sixteen—I suspect that I will never have it. Through my reading, research, observation, and reflection, I have discovered no secret formula, no "five easy steps to happiness." My objective in writing this book is to raise awareness of the general principles underlying a happy and fulfilling life.
Some suffering is unavoidable in every life, and there are many external and internal barriers to the good life that cannot be overcome by reading a book. However, a better understanding of the nature of happiness—and, more important, applying certain ideas—can help most people in most situations become happier.
From Happy to Happier
How do I determine whether I am happy or not? At what point do I become happy? Is there some universal standard of happiness, and, if there is, how do I identify it? Does it depend on my happiness relative to others, and, if it does, how do I gauge how happy other people are? There is no reliable way to answer these questions, and even if there were, I would not be happier for it.
rather than asking myself whether I am happy or not, a more helpful question is, "How can I become happier?"
In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz provide a different way of thinking about change: they suggest that instead of focusing on cultivating self-discipline as a means toward change, we need to introduce rituals. According to Loehr and Schwartz, "Building rituals requires defining very precise behaviors and performing them at very specific times—motivated by deeply held values."
Initiating a ritual is often difficult, but maintaining it is relatively easy. Top athletes have rituals: they know that at specific hours during each day they are on the field, after which they are in the gym and so on.
If we hold our personal happiness as a value and want to become happier, then we need to form rituals around that, too.
It could be working out three times a week, meditating for fifteen minutes every morning, watching two movies a month, going on a date with your spouse on Tuesdays, pleasure reading for an hour every other day, and so on. Introduce no more than one or two rituals at a time, and make sure they become habits before you introduce new ones. As Tony Schwartz says, "Incremental change is better than ambitious failure. . . .Success feeds on itself."
In Aristotle's words, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
believe that ritualistic behavior may detract from spontaneity or creativity—especially when it comes to interpersonal rituals such as a regular date with one's spouse, or artistic rituals such as painting. However, if we do not ritualize activities— whether working out in the gym, spending time with our family, or reading for pleasure—we often don't get to them, and rather than being spontaneous, we become reactive (to others' demands on our time and energy).
The most creative individuals—whether artists, businesspeople, or parents— have rituals that they follow. Paradoxically, the routine frees them up to be creative and spontaneous.
In research done by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, those who kept a daily gratitude journal—writing down at least five things for which they were grateful—enjoyed higher levels of emotional and physical well-being.
Each night before going to sleep, write down at least five things that made or make you happy—things for which you are grateful. These can be little or big: from a meal that you enjoyed to a meaningful conversation you had with a friend, from a project at work to God.
If you do this exercise regularly, you will naturally repeat yourself, which is perfectly fine. The key is, despite the repetition, to keep the emotions fresh; imagine what each item means to you as you write it down, and experience the feeling associated with it. Doing this exercise regularly can help you to appreciate the positive in your life rather than take it for granted.
2. Reconciling Present and Future
Nature has given the opportunity of happiness to all, knew they but how to use it.
in the four weeks leading up to the tournament, I ate only the leanest fish and chicken, whole-grain carbohydrates, and fresh fruit and vegetables. The reward for my abstinence, I resolved, would be a two-day junk-food binge.
I sat myself down and hurriedly unwrapped the first portion of my reward. But as I brought the burger closer to my mouth, I stopped.
For a whole month I had looked forward to this meal, and now, when it was right in front of me, presented to me on a plastic platter, I did not want it.
I realized that in the month I had been eating well, my body felt cleansed and I was surging with energy. I knew that I would enjoy eating the four burgers but that afterward I would feel unpleasant and fatigued.
The Hamburger Model
The first archetypal hamburger is the one I had just turned down, the tasty junk-food burger. Eating this hamburger would yield present benefit, in that I would enjoy it, and future detriment, in that I would subsequently not feel well.
The experience of present benefit and future detriment defines the hedonism archetype. 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.
The second hamburger type that came to mind was a tasteless vegetarian burger made with only the most healthful ingredients, which would afford me future benefit, in that I would subsequently feel good and healthy, and present detriment, in that I would not enjoy eating it.
The corresponding archetype is that of the rat race. The rat racer, subordinating the present to the future, suffers now for the purpose of some anticipated gain.
The third hamburger type, the worst of all possible burgers, is both tasteless and unhealthful: eating it, I would experience present detriment, in that it tastes bad, and suffer future detriment, in that it is unhealthful.
The parallel to this burger is the nihilism archetype. This archetype describes the person who has lost the lust for life; someone who neither enjoys the moment nor has a sense of future purpose.
What about a hamburger that would be as tasty as the one I had turned down and as healthy as the vegetarian burger?
This hamburger exemplifies the happiness archetype. Happy people live secure in the knowledge that the activities that bring them enjoyment in the present will also lead to a fulfilling future.
In which quadrant or two do you spend most of your time?
The Rat-Race Archetype
As a young child, Timon is unconcerned with the future, experiencing the wonder and excitement of his day-to-day activities. When he turns six and goes to school, his career as a rat racer begins.
He is constantly reminded by his parents and teachers that the purpose of going to school is to get good grades so that he can secure his future. He is not told that he should be happy in school or that learning can be—and ought to be—fun.
Afraid of performing poorly on tests, fearful of missing a word of the teacher's gospel, Timon feels anxious and stressed. He looks forward to the end of each period and each day and is only sustained by the thought of the upcoming holiday, when he will no longer have to think about work and grades.
Timon accepts the values of the adults—that grades are the measure of success—and despite the fact that he dislikes school, he continues to work hard. When he does well, his parents and teachers compliment him, and his classmates—who also have been indoctrinated—envy him. By the time he enters high school, Timon has fully internalized the formula for success: sacrifice present enjoyment in order to be happy in the future. No pain, no gain. Although he does not enjoy his schoolwork or the extracurricular activities, he devotes himself fully to them. He is driven by the need to amass titles and honors, and when the pressure becomes overwhelming he tells himself that he will begin to have fun once he gets into college.
Timon applies to college and gets into the school of his choice. Joyful and relieved, he cries as he reads the acceptance letter. Now, he tells himself, he can finally be happy.
The relief, however, is short-lived. A couple of months go by, and Timon is again gripped by the same sense of anxiety he had been feeling for years. He fears that he will not be able to compete with the best students in the college. And if he can't compete with them, how will he get the job he wants?
His rat race continues. Through his four years of college, he works at building an impressive résumé: forming a student organization, becoming president of another, volunteering in a homeless shelter, and participating in varsity athletics. He chooses courses carefully—enrolling in them not because they excite him but because they will look good on his transcript.
In the spring of his senior year, Timon receives a job offer from a prestigious firm. He happily accepts it. Now, he thinks, he will finally be able to enjoy his life. Soon, however, he realizes that he does not enjoy his eighty-hour workweek. He tells himself that, once more, he must sacrifice for the time being, just until he is established and secure in his career. Once in a while, he feels good—when he receives a raise, a large bonus, or a promotion, or when people are impressed by his job title. The sense of fulfillment disappears, though, as drudgery returns.
Timon was a top student in college; he is a partner in a prestigious firm; he and his wonderful family live in a large house in an upscale neighborhood; he drives a luxury car; he has more money than he can spend. Timon is unhappy.
Yet others regard him as the archetype of success. Parents see him as a role model, telling their children that if they work hard, they can be like Timon. He pities those children but cannot imagine what alternatives there are to the rat race. He does not even know what to tell his children: Not to work hard in school? Not to get into a good college? Not to get a good job? Is being successful synonymous with being miserable?
What differentiates rat racers is their inability to enjoy what they are doing—and their persistent belief that once they reach a certain destination, they will be happy.
The reason why we see so many rat racers around is that our culture reinforces this belief. If we get an A at the end of the semester, we get a gift from our parents; if we meet certain quotas on the job, we get a bonus at the end of the year. We learn to focus on the next goal rather than on our present experience and chase the ever-elusive future our entire lives. We are not rewarded for enjoying the journey itself but for the successful completion of a journey. Society rewards results, not processes; arrivals, not journeys.
Once we arrive at our destination, once we attain our goal, we mistake the relief that we feel for happiness. The weightier the burden we carried on our journey, the more powerful and pleasant is our experience of relief. When we mistake these moments of relief for happiness, we reinforce the illusion that simply reaching goals will make us happy.
A person who is relieved of a splitting headache will feel happy that she is free of pain—but because that "happiness" had to be preceded by suffering, the absence of pain is but a momentary relief from an essentially negative experience.
The rat racer, confusing relief with happiness, continues to chase after his goals, as though simply attaining them will be enough to make him happy.
Do you, at times, feel part of the rat race? Looking at your life from the outside, what advice would you give yourself?
The Hedonism Archetype
A hedonist seeks pleasure and avoids pain. She goes about satisfying her desires, giving little or no thought to future consequences. A fulfilling life, she believes, is reducible to a succession of pleasurable experiences. That something feels good in the moment is sufficient justification for doing it until the next desire replaces it. She initiates friendships and romances with enthusiasm, but when their novelty wears off, she quickly moves on to the next relationship. Because the hedonist focuses only on the present, she will do things that are potentially detrimental if they afford her immediate gratification. If drugs produce a pleasant experience, she takes them; if she finds work difficult, she avoids it.
The hedonist errs in equating effort with pain and pleasure with happiness. The gravity of this error is revealed in an old episode of "The Twilight Zone" in which a ruthless criminal, killed while running from the police, is greeted by an angel sent to grant his every wish. The man, fully aware of his life of crime, cannot believe that he is in heaven. He is initially baffled but then accepts his good fortune and begins to list his desires: he asks for an obscene sum of money and receives it; he asks for his favorite food and it is served to him; he asks for beautiful women and they appear. Life (after death), it seems, could not be better.
However, as time goes by, the pleasure he derives from continuous indulgence begins to diminish; the effortlessness of his existence becomes tiresome. He asks the angel for some work that will challenge him and is told that in this place he can get whatever he wants—except the chance to work for the things he receives.
Without any challenges, the criminal becomes increasingly frustrated. Finally, in utter desperation, he says to the angel that he wants to get out, to go to "the other place." The criminal, assuming that he is in heaven, wants to go to hell. The camera zooms in on the angel as his delicate face turns devious and threatening. With the ominous laughter of the devil, he says, "This is the other place".
This is the hell that the hedonist mistakes for heaven. Without a long-term purpose, devoid of challenge, life ceases to feel meaningful to us; we cannot find happiness if we exclusively seek pleasure and avoid pain. Yet the ever-present hedonist within each of us—longing for a Garden of Eden of sorts—equates effort with pain and doing nothing with pleasure.
For an experiment, psychologists paid college students to do nothing: while their physical needs were met, they were forbidden to work. Within four to eight hours, students became unhappy, even though they earned significantly more money than they could have in other jobs. They needed stimulation and challenge and chose to leave their well-paying "cushy" job for work that was not only more demanding but also less financially rewarding.
In 1996 I conducted a leadership seminar for a group of South African executives who had been involved in the struggle against apartheid. They told me that, while fighting against apartheid, they had a clear sense of purpose, a clear future goal—life, though difficult and dangerous at times, was also challenging and exciting.
When apartheid was abolished, celebrations went on for months. As the euphoria waned, though, many people who had been involved in the struggle began to experience boredom, emptiness, even depression. Of course, they did not wish to return to apartheid—to the days when they were an oppressed majority—but in the absence of the cause to which they had dedicated themselves so fully, they felt a void. Some managed to find a sense of purpose in their family lives, in helping their community, in their work, or in their hobbies; others, years later, were still struggling to find a sense of direction.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose work focuses on the state of peak performance and peak experience, claims that "the best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." A struggle-free, hedonistic existence is not a prescription for happiness. As John Gardner, former U.S. secretary of health, education, and welfare, points out, "We are designed for the climb, not for taking our ease, either in the valley or at the summit."
Think back to a time—a single experience or a longer period—when you lived as a hedonist. What were the costs and benefits of living this way?
The Nihilism Archetype
In the context of this book, a nihilist is a person who has given up on happiness, who has become resigned to the belief that life has no meaning. If the rat-race archetype describes the state of living for the future and the hedonism archetype the state of living for the present, then the nihilism archetype captures the state of being chained to the past. People who have resigned themselves to their present unhappiness and expect the same sort of life in the future are fettered to their past failures to attain happiness.
Such attachment to past failures has been described by Martin Seligman as "learned helplessness." To study this phenomenon, Seligman placed dogs in three experimental groups. The dogs in the first group were given electric shocks, which they could turn off by pressing a panel. Dogs in the second group were given shocks that persisted regardless of their actions. The third group of dogs, the control group, received no shocks.
All the dogs were later put in boxes where they were given electric shocks but from which they could easily escape by jumping over a low barrier. The dogs in the first group (who had been able to stop the shocks earlier) and the dogs from the third group (who had not previously received any shocks) quickly jumped over the barrier and escaped. The dogs in the second group, who could not prevent the electric shocks earlier, made no effort to escape. They simply lay down in the box and whimpered while receiving shocks. These dogs had learned to be helpless.
In a similar experiment, Seligman subjected people to a loud and unpleasant noise. In one group, people were able to control the noise, to stop it, whereas people in the second group could not. Later, when both groups were subjected to loud noise that they could have turned off if they had tried, those in the second group did not try—they had resigned themselves to their predicament.
Seligman's work reveals how easily we can learn to be helpless. When we fail to attain a desired outcome, we often extrapolate from that experience the belief that we have no control over our lives or over certain parts of it. Such thinking leads to despair.
Timon, unhappy as a rat racer, equally unhappy as a hedonist, and aware of no other options, resigns himself to unhappiness and becomes a nihilist. What of his children, though? He does not want them to lead lives of "quiet desperation," but he has no idea how to guide them. Should he teach them to bear suffering in the present to attain their goals? How can he, when he knows the misery of the rat racer? Should he teach them to live simply for today? He cannot, because he knows too well the hollowness of the hedonistic life.
Think back to a time—a single experience or a longer period—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 have given yourself?
The rat racer, the hedonist, and the nihilist are all, in their own ways, guilty of a fallacy—an inaccurate reading of reality, of the true nature of happiness and what it takes to lead a fulfilling life. The rat racer suffers from the "arrival fallacy"—the false belief that reaching a valued destination can sustain happiness. The hedonist suffers from the "floating moment fallacy"—the false belief that happiness can be sustained by an ongoing experience of momentary pleasures that are detached from a future purpose. Nihilism is also a fallacy, a misreading of reality—the false belief that no matter what one does, one cannot attain happiness. This last fallacy stems from the inability to see a synthesis between arrivals and floating moments, some third option that may provide a way out of one's unhappy predicament.
The Happiness Archetype
One of my students at Harvard came to talk to me after receiving a job offer from a prestigious consulting firm. She told me that she was uninterested in the work she would be doing but felt she could not turn down this opportunity. She had had offers from many other companies, some for jobs that she would enjoy much more, but none that would "set her up" as well as this one. She asked me at what point in life—at what age—she could stop thinking about the future and start being happy.
instead of asking "Should I be happy now or in the future?" she should ask, "How can I be happy now and in the future?"
While present and future benefit may sometimes conflict— because some situations demand that we forgo one for the other— it is possible to enjoy both for much of the time. Students who truly love learning, for instance, derive present benefit from the pleasure they take in discovering new ideas and future benefit from the ways in which those ideas will prepare them for their careers.
To expect constant happiness, though, is to set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Not everything that we do can provide us both present and future benefit. It is sometimes worth-while to forgo present benefit for greater future gain, and in every life some mundane work is unavoidable. Studying for exams, saving for the future, or being an intern and working long hours is often unpleasant but can help us to attain long-term happiness. The key is to keep in mind, even as one forgoes some present gain for the sake of a larger future gain, that the objective is to spend as much time as possible engaged in activities that provide both present and future benefit.
Living as a hedonist every now and then has its benefits as well. As long as there are no long-term negative consequences (such as from the use of drugs), focusing solely on the present can rejuvenate us. In moderation, the relaxation, the mindlessness, and the fun that come from lying on the beach, eating a fast-food hamburger followed by a hot-fudge sundae, or watching television can make us happier.
Think back to a period or two in your life when you enjoyed both present and future benefit.
The rat racer's illusion is that reaching some future destination will bring him lasting happiness; he does not recognize the significance of the journey. The hedonist's illusion is that only the journey is important. The nihilist, having given up on both the destination and the journey, is disillusioned with life. The rat racer becomes a slave to the future; the hedonist, a slave to the moment; the nihilist, a slave to the past.
Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.
The Four Quadrants
Studies on journaling show that writing about negative as well as positive experiences enhances our levels of mental and physical health.
On four consecutive days, spend at least fifteen minutes writing about your own experiences of the four quadrants. Write about a period of time in which you were a rat racer, a hedonist, and a nihilist. On the fourth day write about a happy period in your life. If you are moved to write more about a particular quadrant, do so, but do not write about more than one quadrant a day. Do not worry about grammar or spelling—just write. It is important that in your writing you describe the emotions you experienced then or are experiencing at the moment, the particular behaviors you engaged in (that is, what you did then), and the thoughts you had during the time or are currently having as you write.
Here are some instructions for each of the quadrants:
Write about a period in your life when you felt as if you were running on a treadmill, living as a rat racer, for the future. Why were you doing what you were doing? What, if any, were some of the benefits to living that way? What, if any, price did you pay?
Describe a period in your life when you lived as a hedonist or engaged in hedonistic experiences. What, if any, were some of the benefits of living that way? What, if any, price did you pay?
Write about a particularly difficult experience during which you felt nihilistic, resigned, or about a longer period of time during which you felt helpless. Describe your deepest feelings and your deepest thoughts, ones you experienced then as well as ones that come up as you are writing.
Describe an extremely happy period in your life or a particularly happy experience. In your imagination, transport yourself to that time, try to reexperience the emotions, and then write about them.
Whatever you write, as you are writing, is for your eyes only. If, after writing, you decide to share what you wrote with someone who is close to you, you can, of course, do so, but it is important that you not feel inhibited while doing the exercise. The more you open up, the more benefit you will derive.
Repeat the exercise at least two more times for the nihilism quadrant and for the happiness quadrant. When repeating the exercise, you can write about the same or different experiences. Revisit the entire exercise periodically—it could be once in three months, once a year, or once every two years.
Meditating on Happiness
Research by the likes of Herbert Benson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Richard Davidson reveals the profound effects of regular meditation
Meditate! Find a quiet spot. Sit down on a chair or the floor with your legs crossed. Make sure you are comfortable, with your back and neck straight. You can close your eyes or keep them open.
Enter a state of calm by breathing deeply through your nose or mouth, filling up the space of your stomach with each breath, and slowly releasing the air through your nose or mouth.
Mentally scan your body. If any particular part feels tense, direct your breath into that area to relax it. Then, for at least five minutes— or for as long as twenty—focus on your deep, slow breathing. If you lose your concentration and your mind wanders, simply and gently bring it back to your breathing.
Continuing with the deep breathing, focus on a positive emotion. You may imagine yourself when you were particularly happy, be it when you spent time with someone dear or when you thrived at work. For anywhere between thirty seconds and five minutes, reexperience the positive emotions and allow them to rise inside you. Especially after doing this exercise regularly, you may not need to imagine a particular event; you will have the capacity simply to bring up positive emotions by thinking of the words happiness, calm, or joy.
Make meditation a ritual. Set aside between ten minutes and an hour each day for meditation—in the morning when you wake up, during your lunch hour, or sometime in the afternoon. After meditating regularly, you may be able to enjoy some of the benefits of meditation in a minute or two. Whenever you feel stressed or upset or when you simply want to enjoy a moment of calm or joy, you can take a few deep breaths and experience a surge of positive emotions. Ideally, you should do this in a quiet spot, but you can also do it while riding the train, sitting in the backseat of a taxi, or at your desk.