This book is one of the first books I read when I started my “transition” from being a lawyer to being a coach. It had a big impact on my thinking about happiness and how one can truly become happy. Dr Tal Ben-Shahar has been one of Harvard University’s most popular lecturers.
In his book Ben-Shahar has divided people to 4 categories:
1. Rat-racer Archetype – Rat racer lives in the hope of being happy in the future, and yet is unable to enjoy the here-and-now. There is a belief that once we reach a certain destination then we will be happy. Rat racers learn to focus on the next goal rather than the present experience. “Being a hard worker, or a high achiever, is not synonymous with being a rat racer. What differentiates rat racers is their inability to enjoy what they are doing – and their persistent belief that once they reach a certain destination, they will be happy.”
When I read the book I recognized some of these features in my own thinking. Reading the book woke me up and I learnt to value the present moment more and more. The present moment is the only moment we have in our lives. Past is gone and the future doesn’t yet exist. And if there is nothing to value in the present moment, start changing it. We only have one life in here (at least according to my belief J), don’t waste it.
2. Hedonism Archetype – Hedonist seeks pleasure and avoids pain. “The hedonist errs in equating effort with pain and pleasure with happiness. Without a long-term purpose, devoid of challenge, life ceases to feel meaningful to us; we cannot find happiness if we exclusively seek pleasure and avoid pain. In order to be happy, we need a balance between purpose and pleasure”.
I full heartedly agree this as well. I have kind of been there when living as an expat wife in South Africa with swimming pools and maids and plenty of free time to do all nice things. And still, after a couple of months the empty feeling of not having a real purpose, not doing anything really meaningful or “proper” struck me. I felt that it was my duty to be super happy in such circumstances and still that was not the case (nonetheless I enjoyed my time in SA J). We humans are funny, too much of only pleasure is not good for us either!
3. The Nihilism Archetype – “Nihilist is a person who has given up on happiness, who has become resigned to the belief that life has no meaning. Nihilist has the false belief that no matter what one does, one cannot attain happiness. When we fail to attain a desired outcome, we often extrapolate from that experience the belief that we have no control over our lives or over certain parts of it. Such thinking leads to despair.”
Some people think that life is what it is, and there is nothing much they can do about it. And they are wrong! Some people choose to be victims who beg for sharing their misery and some just choose to contaminate their negativity to those close by.
4. The Happiness Archetype – The Rat racer has the illusion that only the destination will bring happiness and the Hedonist’s illusion is that only the journey is important. “Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor it is about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.”
Ben-Shahar speaks about the importance of having goals. The emphasis is on having goals not on attaining them. The process of striving after goals- rather than the goal attainment per se – is crucial for happiness and enjoyment of the present. Goals give us direction which allows us to enjoy each step.
Ben Shahar urges you to question yourself: “What gives me meaning?” “What gives me pleasure?” “What are my strengths?” The overlapping area of all three would help us determine what kind of work would make us happiest. He also says that we very often fail to recognize the rich sources of pleasure and meaning that are right in front of us in our work and life.
A quote by Howard Thurman from the book is a good ending to this book review: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive”.