May 8, 2008


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Happier, by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D. (abridged, read by Jeff Woodman, HighBridge Audio, 2008, 4½ hours on 4 CDs)
By Lisa Parsons

“Following are some sentence stems…”

Let that warn you. Any man who writes a book on happiness and includes sentence stems is just not coming from the right place.

Here’s the complete excerpt, from Happier, by Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar:

“Following are some sentence stems that can help you find greater love within a relationship, romantic or otherwise.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m done right there.

It might even be true that these sentence-completion exercises can help you find greater love (because basically they are asking you to look for it). I don’t care. What is this, happiness for tax accountants and actuaries?

I expected more from the teacher of “Harvard University’s most popular course, How to Be Happy.”

This is happiness we’re talking about; I want to feel it.

The book’s nice simple, punchy title is nothing like what’s inside, where Ben-Shahar repeatedly urges us to “maximize the yield in the ultimate currency” (happiness being the ultimate currency). His hyper-rational approach consists mostly of knowing, or figuring out, what makes you happy and then doing it. And how will you figure out what makes you happy?

By taking a positive psychology course or by making a list of what makes you happy and then reading it.

Also by analyzing your past.

“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?”

When you can answer such questions, you can “begin to apply the theory presented in what is to follow.”

Or, you know, you could go have a sandwich and a lemonade out on the back porch.

I go too far, perhaps. Ben-Shahar cites some worthwhile research (like the famous self-perception studies showing that smiling for no reason can boost your mood) and brings in some meatier points, mostly near the end. He mentions Victor Frankl’s ideas about finding meaning in the smallest things in the meanest places. He has some interesting things to say about happiness in relationships. He urges us to accept the good things that happen to us, and to find the self-esteem required to do just that (he’s big on Nathaniel Branden). And he helpfully divides human approaches to happiness into three types: the rat racer, the hedonist and the nihilist. The trick, of course, is to find the appropriate balance.

Allowing that we might each have a “set range” of possible happiness, Ben-Shahar disputes the idea of an unchangeable set point and asserts that “we all can become significantly happier, and most people fall far short of their happiness potential.” (How this assertion would affect a depressed person who’s tried every known treatment for years with no success, I have to wonder. A brief disclaimer at the front of the book is meant to stop me wondering.) OK, so far, so happy.

But when he asks “What brief activities can rejuvenate you by providing you with both meaning and pleasure?” and tells you to put them “in your daily planner” … I feel bad for all the daily-plannerless people of the world. Can they never be happy?

And when he refers to his “Meaning-Pleasure-Strengths — M.P.S. — process,” well, I feel like acronyms are antithetical to true happiness. Ever see anyone sitting under a shady tree in a park talking joyfully about their M.P.S. process? Anyone besides, say, Tom Cruise?

Style issues aside, the real problem with Happier is that it mostly argues in circles. If you want to be happier, Ben-Shahar says, do what makes you happier. Something tells me that’s not the part of the process most people need help with.

Another Harvard psychology professor, Daniel Gilbert, has a much better approach — and a far more engaging book — in Stumbling on Happiness (Knopf, 2006) (I wonder if fistfights ever break out at the department picnic). Gilbert acknowledges right out of the gate — in fact he makes it his whole point — that we are lousy at predicting what will make us happy, thus our best hope is to recognize happiness in the moments when we stumble upon it. He describes study after study on perception, memory, reasoning and decision-making, yet his book has a sense of immediacy: “You’ve had an awful day — the cat peed on the rug, the dog peed on the cat, the washing machine is busted, World Wrestling has been preempted by Masterpiece Theatre…”.

A side note: the Stumbling on Happiness audiobook is read, in a lively and personable fashion, by Gilbert himself. The Happier audiobook is read by Jeff Woodman, who did such a stupendous job with Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that I figured I would follow Jeff Woodman into any audiobook, anytime, but even he can’t save Happier from its cold, calculating self.

To clinch my frustration with Happier, near its end Ben-Shahar mentions a study in which women kept track of how they felt during daily activities and he describes as “most unexpected” the finding that “mothers did not particularly enjoy the time they spent taking care of their children.” Then he says this must be because they have too much else to do and are swamped by the “rising complexity of modern life.” Well, knock me over with a poopy diaper. All these years and I never knew that I would have loved disciplining a howling child and playing sit-in-the-Little-Tikes-house if only I had cleared my schedule for it!

Though Ben-Shahar does get to a very intriguing, high-potential idea in Chapter 13, showcasing a study indicating that we do already know how to be happy if we just think/feel about it, it’s relatively too little too late, as is his concluding disclaimer that of course his “neat and structured theory of happiness” does not perfectly mirror the messy real world. In fact I’m not really sure what his theory is, what with the surrounding smog of acronyms and sentence-completion exercises.

Happier mainly served to remind me how much I liked Stumbling on Happiness, which is pretty much the only other one of the slew of recent happiness books I’ve read all of. The notions of meaning, pleasure and strengths and what they contribute to happiness, I like. “The M.P.S. Process,” not so much.

But, hey, whatever makes you happy. C+Lisa Parsons