Micael Widell

Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar

/ books

I recently read the book Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. The book was a bit of a disappointment for me. It has good reviews on Amazon, but as a fellow reviewer put it:

This does descend into mimicking the self-help genre pretty quickly.

I think my issue with this book is that the author underpins his reflections and conclusions too often with, with, well, not with much other than his opinion supported by Samuel Smiles type aphorisms.

I read about half of the book thoroughly before starting to scan through the rest pretty quickly. Most of the book is either things I've already read somewhere else, or common sense, or the author's own opinion lacking a thorough supporting logical explanation. However there are a few highlights I will take with me.


I will keep this excellent mind-experiment by Robirt Nozick, which illustrates that meaning is important to us.

The philosopher Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, describes a thought experiment that can help us differentiate between the experience of a person on ecstasy-inducing drugs and an experience of true happiness. Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that could provide us with "the experience of writing a great poem or bringing about world peace or loving someone and being loved in return" or any other experience we might desire. The machine could afford us the emotional experience of being in love, which would feel the same as actually being in love. We would be unaware that we were plugged into the machine (that is, we would believe that we were actually spending time with our beloved). Nozick asks whether, given the opportunity, we would choose to plug into the machine for the rest of our lives. Another way of asking this question is, would we be happy if we were plugged into the machine for the rest of our lives?


It is as if we have an internal mechanism that demands more than the present sensation that we feel—we need the cause of our emotions to be meaningful. We want to know that our actions have an actual effect in the world, not just that we feel that they do.

Self-concordant goals and finding work you love

I will also keep this passage on self-concordant goals – something that I really agree is important to becoming fulfilled on to find work you love. Below my favorite excerpts related to this topic.

Kennon Sheldon and his colleagues write, "People seeking greater well-being would be well advised to focus on the pursuit of (a) goals involving growth, connection, and contribution rather than goals involving money, beauty, and popularity and (b) goals that are interesting and personally important to them rather than goals they feel forced or pressured to pursue."


Self-concordant goals are those we pursue out of deep personal conviction and/or a strong interest. These goals, according to Kennon Sheldon and Andrew Elliot, are "integrated with the self" emanating "directly from self-choice." Generally, for goals to be self-concordant, the person has to feel that she chose them rather than that they were imposed on her, that they stem from a desire to express part of herself rather than from the need to impress others. We pursue these goals not because others think we should or because we feel obligated to, but because we really want to—because we find them significant and enjoyable.


Abraham Maslow once wrote that "the most beautiful fate, the most wonderful good fortune that can happen to any human being, is to be paid for doing that which he passionately loves to do."


Finding the right work—work that corresponds to both our passions and our strengths—can be challenging. We can begin the process by asking these three crucial questions—"What gives me meaning?" "What gives me pleasure?" "What are my strengths?" — and noting the trends that emerge. Looking at the answers and identifying areas of overlap can help us determine what kind of work would make us happiest.

Interesting studies

Also, I highlighted the two studies below, which tie to what the Harvard Study of Adult Development has to say about happiness and health.

Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, two of the leading positive psychologists, studied "very happy people" and compared them to those who were less happy. The only external factor that distinguished the two groups was the presence of "rich and satisfying social relationships." Spending meaningful time with friends, family, or romantic partners was necessary (though not by itself sufficient) for happiness.

I found the study here, and the abstract elaborates on the above excerpt:

A sample of 222 undergraduates was screened for high happiness using multiple confirming assessment filters. We compared the upper 10% of consistently very happy people with average and very unhappy people. The very happy people were highly social, and had stronger romantic and other social relationships than less happy groups. They were more extraverted, more agreeable, and less neurotic, and scored lower on several psychopathology scales of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.

Compared with the less happy groups, the happiest respondents did not exercise significantly more, participate in religious activities significantly more, or experience more objectively defined good events. No variable was sufficient for happiness, but good social relations were necessary. Members of the happiest group experienced positive, but not ecstatic, feelings most of the time, and they reported occasional negative moods. This suggests that very happy people do have a functioning emotion system that can react appropriately to life events.

It is interesting to me that neither exercies nor religion seemed to be correlated to being "very happy" in this study.

And below is a quote by David Myers, a person who is cited a few times throughout the book, but without any references. His bibliography can be found on Wikipedia, and I will consider reading The Pursuit of Happiness from which I presume that the quote below has been collected.

While relationships in general are important for the ultimate currency, romantic relationships reign supreme. Summarizing the research on well-being, David Myers acknowledges that "there are few stronger predictions of happiness than a close, nurturing, equitable, intimate, lifelong companionship with one's best friend."


So in summary, I cannot really recommend Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. It is not one of the best introduction books to happiness. If you want a solid introduction to the topic of happiness and fulfillment, I recommend you instead to read The How of Happiness or The Happiness Hypothesis.

back to the list of all my texts