(Published by McGraw Hill / Photo by Ciara Robertson)


Opinion: How a book on happiness from 2007 changed my approach to life

Tal Ben-Shahar’s “Happier” offers helpful tips to identify your life’s calling and improve your everyday mood
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/crobertson12/" target="_self">Ciara Robertson</a>

Ciara Robertson

March 27, 2023

Rate your level of happiness on a scale of 1-10. Does the number surprise you? 

If so, you’re not alone. The Center for Disease Control announced this April an increasing adolescent mental health crisis, with nearly half of surveyed teenagers nationwide reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless.” We can all agree something needs to change.

Enter “Happier” by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D. Though originally written in 2007, I picked up the book following a recommendation from a friend and immediately, I found the central message relevant to the present moment: there are key methods we can utilize to improve our happiness in this generation, and they are accessible to us right now. 

Ben-Shahar’s work originates from a course he taught at Harvard in 2006 on how to be happier, dubbed “Positive Psychology.” Not surprisingly, the class quickly became one of the university’s most popular courses, and the core of these lectures were then disseminated into book form.

Within these pages, Ben-Shahar teaches us that happiness is the “ultimate currency,” and how that should be pursued over money or fame (It might be time to re-consider becoming TikTok famous). This, he argues, is what truly makes us rich.

But how do we get there? Well, he writes, one must have both (1) purpose and (2) positive emotions in their life, such as pleasure, meaning, or joy. However, rather than simply telling you this (haven’t we heard this before?), Ben-Shahar encourages us to find and cultivate these areas for ourselves through a series of extensive post-chapter exercises.

These, I found, to be the main strength of the work for contemporary readers, for they force us to discover what we’re passionate about, and how to map our lives so as to increase the time spent on things that bring us the most value. 

For example, one exercise will help you discover how to reshape your time in order to maximize what brings you purpose, while another will help you reflect upon what types of experiences bring you the most joy.

In my own life, I realized I spent so much time doing homework, projects, and future assignments that I had little room left in the day for elements I truly enjoy, like something as simple as catching the new Moon Knight series on Disney+. I made the goal to watch the first couple episodes, even if it wasn’t “productive” in the strictest sense of the word, and I found myself feeling a little less stressed at that week’s end. 

These exercises weren’t always easy, and the changes often go beyond just scheduling down time. They took time, effort, and self-reflection. In fact, many moments I wanted to skip them altogether. However, I forced myself to complete each one, and I’m glad I did, for these exercises are the heart of the book. The chapters are interesting and educational, to be sure, but unless the information is applied to you, there isn’t as much likelihood of personal growth.

So now it’s your turn. Below, I’m going to share some exercises I found the most helpful. Try them out. You just might find yourself feeling a little happier in the process. 

  1. Make a list of the things that you do every day for a week or even two. At the end of the week create a table listing each of the activities, the amount of time you devoted to each one, and how much meaning and pleasure they provided you (using a scale of 1-5). Then, next to it put a + if you’d like to spend more time on it, a – if you’d like to spend less time on the activity and = if you are satisfied with the amount of time you are spending on that activity, or if it is not possible to change the time you devote to it right now.


For example:

 Activity   Meaning   Pleasure   Time 
 Watching TV   2  3  4.5 hours –
 Running   4  3  3 hours +
 Doing homework   3  2  9.5 hours =


2. Write down what you really, really want to do for each of the key areas of your life. For each, consider the following:

Long Term Goals: These are concrete objectives with clear lifelines (the opposite of a deadline). These goals should be challenging and stretch you. Remember, the primary objective of goals is to liberate you to enjoy the journey. 

Short-Term Goals: This stage is about dividing up your Long Term Goals. What do you need to do in the coming year, month or day to move closer to your Long Term Goals?

Action Plan: What do you need to do in the coming month, year, or day in order to reach both your Short-Term and your Long Term Goals? 

3. Write down your answers to the following questions, and then find the overlap among the responses. 

Question 1: What gives me meaning? In other words, what provides me with a sense or purpose?

Question 2: What gives me pleasure? In other words, what do I enjoy doing?

Question 3: What are my strengths? In other words, what am I good at?


Going through this process can help you identify your path on both the macro level (what your life calling is) as well as the micro level (your everyday activities). While the two are interconnected, it is more difficult to introduce macro level change. Micro-level changes, such as setting aside two weekly hours to practice one’s hobby are easier to introduce-and yet may yield high dividends in the ultimate currency.

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