Last week I sat in a sunny, leafy street in a suburb of Sofia, eating tapas with my friend, Uwe. We don’t know each other particularly well, but bonded over our recent experiences of moving to different countries, the nature of friendship, making decisions to prioritise happiness over wealth and accrual of material stuff, and the general science of happiness.
I actually felt like i was repeating myself a lot, because one of the most regular conversations I’ve had over recent years has been about happiness, the evidence and research behind it, and how we can use it to create more fruitful, fulfilling lives. I’ve been boring anyone who will listen about my reading on the subject. More than a few years ago I graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Psychology, but can’t say I’ve ever really used much of that learned knowledge or analytical skill in the intervening years. But now I’m starting to feel that the small amount that I still remember from those three years at Cardiff University are starting to come in handy.
As I’ve been through a huge amount of change over the last few years, I’ve reassessed almost every part of my life, and started to put into practice things that I’ve recently been learning and reading about. I’ve spent many, many hours reading, writing, and staring into space, trying to work out who I am, and what it is that I want. And although I’ll almost certainly never reach any Buddha-like clarity and enlightenment, every day I inch closer and closer to a certain level of self-knowledge and contentment. And there are a number of books, talks, podcasts, and conversations that have immeasurably helped me with this.
Anyway, with that in mind, and to save me from writing the same email to friends over and over again, here’s my list of vital reading and watching. Inspired by Uwe, and the recommendations I promised I’d send him. Please drop any recommendations into the comments.
This book is perhaps, more than any other, the one that started me on this process. A very easy read, driven by science (the author is a Harvard Professor of Psychology), and actually very funny, it basically hammers home why we’re mainly wrong when we think about what makes us happy.
It contains so many fascinating pieces of research, and also introduced me to the concept of “the elasticity of happiness”. In other words, all those things that the post-war generation handed down as the main things to achieve in order to be happy (marriage, kids, suburban house, good job etc) don’t necessarily improve our baseline happiness. They just give us a temporary bump, after which we return, elastically, to our baseline happiness level. The traditional “milestones” in our life that society often lobbies that we aim for aren’t a guarantee of happiness at all. For many they do provide happiness, but in fact, for many of us they can take our eye off the ball of the things that really help us achieve happiness. Read the book, or digest some of the key bits in Dan Gilbert’s rapid-fire TED talk….
Alain de Botton has written brilliantly, and accessibly, in many books about how philosophy can help us live better lives. This one addresses several human fears one by one, including “Not Having Enough Money”, “Unpopularity”, or a “Broken Heart”, and how particular philosophers address these particular, and almost universal, frailties. The Montaigne section on “Inadequacy” has a particularly great section on farting… 😉
It was through this book that I found out that I probably philosophically sit somewhere between the Epicureans and the Stoics.
I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Derren Brown over the years. His good nature, amazing skills, humour, and insistence that we can still find wonder and joy in the world even as rational, scientific sceptics, make him a big hero of mine. So when I found out he’d written a book on the subject, I jumped to it. His evisceration of the self help industry, particularly of books like The Secret, demonstrate just how much bad science and wrong-thinking about the attainment of happiness there is in the world, and how we are easily, and usually understandably, misled in our search for a happier life.
I’ve always been sceptical of the wider self-help movement, which often comes with ridiculous amounts of speculation, nonsense, and “woo”. There’s just no evidence that many of the processes and techniques that are espoused actually help us live better, happier lives. And while we’re still no closer to having a global, agreed definition of what happiness really is, I’m interested in those thing that we can prove have an impact on our well-being and sense of contentment.
Brown speaks of the Stoics, of whom I’m reading more and more (sidenote: Apparently Ryan Holiday is a good starting-point for Stocism, and I have several of his “in the queue” on my Kindle – see below), and he goes some way to defining happiness – in his words, more of a contentment than a continual jump-up-and-down joy.
Part of UC Berkeley’s “Greater Good” project, which aims to use “science based insights for a meaningful life”, this podcast is great. Every episode sees a guest try a research-based practice, such as “being thankful” or meditations on quieting your inner critic. It takes a very human approach to the process, with the anecdotal experiences of interesting people, but also talks about the research behind it.
I was a huge fan of the book, so subscribed as soon as soon as I heard about the podcast. Strictly speaking it’s a behavioural economics podcast, but it will constantly challenge you on what you believe, and why you believe it. Which I think is a key to introspection and self-understanding. And therefore happiness. Coincidentally, when linking to the archive above, i noticed that the latest episode is called “How To Be Happy“. It’s a sign!
This blogpost by David Cain was MASSIVELY helpful in showing me that I didn’t have to overthink ever big (and small) decision. I’ve often put off making big life decisions for fear of “getting it wrong”. But, the reality is that it never really works like that. Read the full post linked above, but here’s the final few paragraphs that really hammer it home for me.
I ummed and ahhed about whether to include this, but I just so happened to be listening to this again on the same day as writing this post. I’m a big fan of Kitson’s work, and I think this might be his finest moment. When I first saw it performed live it left me genuinely speechless, for many reasons. For those that don’t know him, he’s part comedian, part storyteller, which probably doesn’t do him any favours as a description. While it doesn’t speak directly about happiness, this particular work speaks about self-knowledge, and the stories we tell ourselves about what and who we are. I think that’s crucial to attaining some kind of happiness, and being better as human beings. I also find it comforting to know that people much more talented and successful than me experience almost exactly the same fears. Those fears are part and parcel of the human condition.
Plus, we’re both fans of The West Wing, obscure radio comedy The Department, and we were both utterly crap on the 90’s UK TV quizshow for schoolkids, Blockbusters.
Robert Waldinger – What Makes a Good Life?
This TEDx talk focuses on one aspect of the “happiness matrix”, and is a must-watch. And it makes me very thankful that I have so many great friendships, and a good handful of very special ones.
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
This poem reminds me that the grass is *always* greener on the other side, and that I should never bow down to the fear of missing out – something that I really struggled with for many years. Dan Gilbert’s experiments on choice and happiness are absolutely critical in my understanding of this – The more perceived choices available, the less happy we are with the thing we chose. And if we understand that we’d probably have been just as happy with most of the available options, it massively minimises FOMO or regret.
Also, it reminds me that doing the “obvious” thing, or maybe the thing that’s expected of us, isn’t always the best route to happiness.
So, that’s my list. I’m bound to edit it once I realise I’ve missed out a vital book or podcast. But it’s got the most important stuff in it, I think. Please feel recommend me something you think I will benefit from!
Finally, as a blogpost it was conceived at a moment of happiness – sat on a sun-dappled side street, eating good food with a new friend, discussing life, adventure and the promise of the future.
Also on the reading list:
These books are on my reading list, and I hear good things…