Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar 

Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment

by Tal Ben-Shahar

Published by McGraw Hill

224 pages, 2007

Buy it online



Happiness 101

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

Tal Ben-Shahar is one of the most popular teachers at Harvard. He also teaches the most popular course there. It must make him feel, well -- happy. “Grounded in the revolutionary ‘positive psychology’ movement,” boasts the promo on the attractively simple book cover, “Ben-Shahar ingeniously combines scientific studies, scholarly research, self-help advice, and spiritual enlightenment.” Happier is a very pick-up-able book. Featured on The Daily Show, CNN and CBS as well as interviewed for the New York Times and the Boston Globe, Ben-Shahar must have wanted to write this book for a long time. Textbooks are suddenly becoming fun.

Education should be fun, not work, Ben-Shahar points out. In school, children should be encouraged to pursue channels that give them pleasure and meaning. By emphasizing achievements, such as high grades and tidy homework, over the acquisition of a love of education, educators can stifle the joy of learning.

Most of what Ben-Shahar has to say is not really new. Haven’t we always known that the journey should be more fun than the arrival? One only has to take up sailing to get that lesson drummed home -- if the tides are wrong and the wind slack, often the journey is all there is.

But the whole idea of the pursuit of happiness being packaged up as a university credit course, now that’s new. What student wouldn’t take it? And how does the professor grade a class of 400 students?

According to Ben-Shahar, positive psychology is “the scientific study of optimal human functioning” and was first introduced as a field of study by Martin Seligman in 1998. As a result, encountering “Happiness 101” (my label) in academe is really not all that new. Ben-Shahar points out that, prior to this time, self-help books and seminars offered lots of fun along with five easy steps to achieve this and that, but many didn’t offer much else. Nothing tangible. They gave self help a bad rap.

So does he offer more in this very readable little volume? As always, that is going to be dependent on each person. There never has been a quick fix for anything, and although the author has made the possibility of a “fix” much more accessible, ultimately there is effort involved. (I feel I am letting the author down by using that word. Effort sounds so painful. He would have come up with happier, more positive word, I’m sure.)

Happier is divided into three sections. The first deals with what makes for a happy life. The second looks at putting the ideas from the first section into practice in education, in work and in relationships. The final part lays out seven meditations on the nature of happiness. 

In order to be happy, Ben-Shahar explains, we need more than just instant gratification. We need a sense of purpose. Happiness needs to be the currency we deal in, he goes on to passionately expound, not riches, not the latest designer clothes, not the top job, not – that is – unless having those things gives you total and lasting pleasure. Didn’t we already know this?

Truths are rarely earthshaking and fresh. They’ve always been there waiting for us to acknowledge them. Once acknowledged, it’s how this writer arranges them, helps us understand and gives us steps to achieve a higher state of joy that really make the text readable. So, if you pause at each “time in” section when you are asked to reflect on some aspect of your life, if you take the exercises seriously and keep a notebook to really write down your memories and thoughts, you may well pass the happiness course.

Even if you ultimately don’t feel more joyous, you probably won’t begrudge having read Happier. It’s enjoyable. Nothing would be worse, after all, than a ponderous, pedantic book that stresses learning should be fun. So many academics pepper their writing with esoteric and verbose passages. This professor doesn’t do that. Of course there are frequent references and sources cited, but these are really interesting, the kind of quotations that you actually read.

At the very least you are going to find out whether you are a rat-racer, a hedonist, a nihilist or a happiness archetype. | August 2007

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.