Books: Time to get serious about our happiness

This book is not airport flotsam, says Anthony Seldon, but a serious, practical attempt to address the ennui of affluence.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Happier: Finding pleasure, meaning and life's ultimate currency; Tal Ben-Shahar; McGraw-Hill; £12.99

Suddenly, everyone is talking about happiness. Schools (including my own, Wellington College) are beginning to teach it, universities are finding courses on it are vastly over-subscribed, and businesses are offering happiness seminars to employees. What is going on? When we are more wealthy now than ever before in the West, why on earth can't we be happy and stop moaning about it?

Two strands meshing together have made happiness the new zeitgeist. Professor Lord Richard Layard, a New Labour guru, has written extensively about the lack of correlation between increasing prosperity and increased well-being. Indeed, he has found that mental distress and illness have increased rather than diminished as people have become better off.

This poses the question: should the objective of government policy, and indeed private lives, be the maximisation of wealth or the maximisation of wellbeing? Layard believes governments should concern themselves more with maximising general wellbeing than gross domestic product.

The other strand comes from the US, and emanates from Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. A decade ago, he asked whether it was right that the academic discipline of psychology should be so overwhelmingly concerned with abnormality - with neurosis and psychosis - rather than looking at the ingredients that made for a happy and successful life. Out of this came the surge in interest in 'positive psychology', and courses for students on how to reduce their unhappiness and increase their contentedness in life. At no university has this subject been more popular than at Harvard, where the author of this book, Tal Ben-Shahar, lectures.

His book has ambitious aims, attempting not only to explain to readers what the nature of happiness is but also to help them become happier people. Happier is punctuated by 'Time-Ins' (as apposed to 'Time-Outs'), which are opportunities for the reader to reflect on what he or she has just read. Chapters end with exercises, again to encourage the reader to interact with the material, rather than merely absorb the information.

In the early chapters, Ben-Shahar considers the nature of happiness. He argues that it neither arises from the satisfying of immediate desires in a hedonistic sense, nor does it involve the mere absence of pain. Subsequent chapters explore why meaning and pleasure are both integral to a sense of purpose in life and to experiencing positive emotions. He argues that happiness - not money or prestige - should be the ultimate aim of life, and that to achieve this, positive goals need to be set.

The second half of the book is more radical and profound. Ben-Shahar examines what can be done to make students at school and university enjoy their learning experience more, how the workplace can become more fulfilling, and, finally, why relationships are fundamental to a happy life - and how to make the most of them.

On one level, the book could be dismissed as the superficial flotsam of the airport bookshelf. Indeed, many of its ideas could have been found in the countless self-help books that we've all bought at the terminal and then discarded in the seat pocket in front of us before the plane has even left the runway.

But to dismiss Ben-Shahar's book in this way would be an error. A quiet revolution is taking place in the early 21st century. With greater affluence and the satisfaction of humanity's primary needs for food and shelter has come a widespread sense of alienation and puzzlement. It matters not whether one is a chief executive or working on the shop floor - or, indeed, whether one has no job at all. Surely life is more than this?

Everyone knows people who are affluent and unhappy, and equally they see people who have little or nothing, yet radiate inner calm and contentment.

I would recommend this book most strongly to all who are serious about asking the question, 'what constitutes a worthwhile and happy life?' But do not expect to read the book and find the answers. Only by reflecting on Ben-Shahar's Time-Ins and exercises will one make progress. It is only by changing one's self-will that one becomes happier. Alas, even for the price at which this book is on offer, the answers to finding a happy life could cost, as TS Eliot said, 'not less than everything'.

The great merit of Ben-Shakar's book is that it is grounded in deep research. He is not a glib or superficial writer: he has a deep understanding of the issues involved and how they can be communicated and absorbed. If his book succeeds in improving the inner life of its readers, it is not just they who benefit but the people who work with and for them.

Far too many leaders use fear to exert their influence; this book will show them how to lead with authority rather than power.

Dr Anthony Seldon is a biographer of Tony Blair and John Major, and master of Wellington College.

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