I’ve spent half the day researching new investing strategies and half the day reading Happier by Tal Ben Shahar.
Tal Ben Shahar is a teacher, writer, TED speaker and Harvard lecturer.
According to the sleeve of the book, Ben-Shahar is an incredibly popular teacher at Harvard and his course on happiness is the most popular in the university’s history.
And from reading the book, it’s not hard to see why. A graduate in psychology and philosophy, Ben-Shahar is well equipped to tackle what is possibly the world’s most intriguing problem – how to find happiness.
Ben-Shahar draws on centuries of wisdom and references numerous historical figures in a bid to present his own down-to-earth take on what happiness is and how to get a piece of it. From Aristotle, to Carl Jung, to Bertrand Russell, Ben-Shahar presents a number of convincing arguments on the subject while ultimately summarising happiness as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning”.
Following are some of the key insights that I gleaned from the book:
The Ultimate Currency
The way society is constructed at the moment, individuals go in search of money, career, or some other success-based concept as though this is the most direct route to happiness.
However, Ben-Shahar has spent much of his life in search of the key ingredients to happiness and he suggests that this way of idolising the material is at odds with the best way to get happy.
Sure, money and material objects do little to harm the obtaining of happiness, and some money may be essential in order to acquire certain freedoms and pleasures. But chasing money over happiness leads to a never-ending pursuit, also refereed to as the ‘Rat Race’.
Ben-Shahar suggests we need a new form of measurement, something that measures happiness, called the ‘Ultimate Currency’. Under this arrangement, Ben-Shahar suggests you should only really do something if it improves your overall happiness, therefore giving you a profit in the ultimate currency.
So, instead of taking a job that pays well but you have no interest in, you should take a job that pays a little bit less but that which you have much more enthusiasm.
According to Ben-Shahar, if society was organised in this way there would be fewer tensions between individuals, groups and even countries. Because, instead of comparing ourselves based on material or financial matters, we would only compare ourselves based on how happy we all are. And since happiness is better gleaned from helping one another, there would be hardly any reason to revert to darker methods.
The Four Quadrants
You might think that only doing things that give a profit in the Ultimate Currency could lead to an element of short-termism. But Ben-Shahar gets around this by noting that happiness does not always stem from short-term pleasure – just as it does not only stem from long-term gain. And he reveals the four quadrants that all of us cling to; the nihilist quadrant, the hedonist quadrant, the rat-racer quadrant, and the happiness quadrant.
In the bottom left quadrant, nihilists are those individuals who are not only unable to enjoy present happiness but they also have no hope for the future. Nihilists have given up, they no longer have any hope for finding meaning in life and they are therefore “resigned to their fate”. Naturally, nihilists are unable to find and achieve lasting happiness.
In the bottom right quadrant, hedonists are those that focus on present happiness and pleasure only, with little thought to future consequences. They perceive this as the best route to happiness but they end up mistaken since hedonists end up feeling unfulfilled and unchallenged by life.
In the upper left quadrant is the rat racer, the individual who is practically the opposite of the hedonist. This individual is the type to put off present happiness in the hope for future benefit.
For example, a rat racer is a person who turns down a job that would give them pleasure for a job based on it’s career prospects and financial award. The rat racer often experiences brief moments of satisfaction, upon the completion of goals, but this emotion is more relief that true happiness, and that feeling is quickly cast aside when the next impending goal comes into view.
Finally, in the top right quadrant is the true happiness archetype. This archetype reflects the perfect balance between present, in-the-moment happiness and future benefits. It’s the type of life where actions are guided by the seeking of the ultimate currency.
As an individual, it seems important to reflect on why you do what you do and whether you are acting in your own best interests. Having a strong grasp of what brings you happiness, and a plan for seeking it out, is the best way to improve your own reserves in the ultimate currency.
That means pursuing the things that bring you both pleasure and meaning, whether that is stock investing, card counting, sheep rearing, or teaching.
I don’t think you would want to spend every day reading self-help books and building investing strategies, but for today, it was enjoyable, and I personally count it as time very well spent. The goal is to make every day like that.