June marked the last official month of my year long Happiness Project! Time actually does fly and very sincerely, this has been one of the most impactful and biggest learning experiences of my life. I plan to do a full recap of some of the highlights and best outcomes in the near future, but as things are winding down I decided to read all the remaining books on my shelf about happiness in particular. And that included a pile of ones which I have been very excited about, but was saving for the grand finale!
Here’s what I read throughout the month of June ::
The Happiness Track
Emma Seppala, Ph.D.
A French native, Seppala, the current Science Director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education has a distinctively different perspective on happiness and positive psychology influenced by her heritage and observations across a variety of different cultures. In The Happiness Track, she investigates some of the commonly held beliefs about professional success, dispelling common myths that we might subscribe to, either consciously or otherwise, such as: never stop accomplishing/climbing, you can’t have success without stress, persevere at all costs, focus on your niche, play to your strengths, and look out for number one. Her aim is to examine alternative interpretations and ideas which allow one to achieve success in less costly way, with fewer negative consequences for our relationships, physical, mental, and spiritual health all based on evidence from the fields of both positive and organizational psychology. As I’ve said before, I read much fewer corporate business-y type books these days as a lot of my professional ambitions have shifted, but I found this to be a good application of many of the major themes in the realm of happiness research.
Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D.
“The promise of this book: You will never look at feeling good the same way again. You’ll understand and appreciate the potency of positive emotions in ways that will prove to be astonishingly useful…you’ll have a fuller understanding of yourself and your potential. With this more complete self-knowledge, you’ll function more fully and be empowered daily. Positivity presents an opportunity to step up to the next level of existence: to broaden your mind and build your best future.” Barbara Fredrickson is one of the most well-respected pioneers in her field who has repeatedly demonstrated that in order to live a flourishing life and overcome our innate negativity bias, we must achieve a positivity ratio of 3:1. At such a ratio, an upward spiral is created which opens our hearts and minds to be more receptive and creative, to discover, to build new skills, new ties, new knowledge and new ways of being. She provides evidence based suggestions and ways to decrease our negativity and increase our positive emotions, acknowledging that it’s not enough to superficially desire to be happy, grin and bear it, or not to worry and be happy. I didn’t necessarily love her writing style, but I did find the information insightful, inspiring and practical. The ten positive emotions she has outlined closely resemble the Christian Fruits of the Spirit: amusement, joy, hope, gratitude, serenity, interest, pride, inspiration, awe, and love and her suggestions include concrete ways of shifting our perspectives and interpretations of events, practicing gratitude and kindness, identifying our strengths and following our passions, and connecting with nature and with others. She speaks to the power of neuroplasticity and says that “your mild and fleeting pleasant states are far more potent than you think. We know now that they alter your mind and body in ways that can literally help you create your best life.”
Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D.
I’ve read a lot of work by Dr. Martin Seligman in the past (and recommend all of his books very highly!) and I have been dying to read this book. Seligman is the former president of the APA, founder of positive psychology, and someone who has had tremendous impact on me throughout this past year and all my Happiness Project endeavors! And I have to say that Flourish was my absolute favorite and a perfect one to study as I wrapped things up. In it he further clarifies that the topic of positive psychology (and my own personal experiment) is not actually just happiness as measured by life satisfaction, but more so wellbeing, measured by flourishing. The goal then, of positive psychology, a successful Happiness Project and beyond is to increase the extent to which an individual is flourishing. The measures which contribute to this state of flourishing are positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment (PERMA). He provides compelling research for each of these five pillars as well as interactive exercises and interventions (like the What Went Well exercise) which help individuals, organizations, and communities as a whole to “[raise] the bar for the human condition.” I LOVED this book and couldn’t recommend it any more highly!
Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D.
If you’ve ever looked into the scientific literature about gratitude or even heard much about in the mainstream, you’ve definitely come across Robert Emmons’ name. As his main area of study, he argues that “gratitude is important not only because it helps us feel good, but because it inspires us to do good. Gratitude heals, energizes, and transforms lives…. Gratitude takes us outside our scope so we see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships, relationships that are mutually reciprocal.” My parents have always impressed upon us the importance of being thankful and gratitude is actually one of my personal strengths which is something I am thankful for in and of itself given all the evidence of its impact upon happiness and subjective wellbeing! If you’re not sold yet, you will be after you read this book and Emmons outlines concrete ways to grow gratitude in our daily lives.
Filling the Happiness GAP
Will Foster is a life coach in the UK who focuses on the power of increasing his client’s happiness in order to achieve a wide variety of health, professional, and relationships goals. His primary focus is on his GAP Program and he outlines tools and activities to increase one’s Gratitude, Acceptance, and Presence. Although this recommendations are based both on research within positive psychology and personal experience from his own life and those of his clients, I found it to be a bit “one-size-fits-all,” which may or not may work depending on one’s personality. For example, a lot of his recommendations related to acceptance did not resonate with me and my personality, which makes sense because according to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s Person Activity Fit Diagnostic, setting and working towards goals, which Foster might consider excessive striving, is a key way for me personally to increase my subjective wellbeing. I acknowledge that his approach may be effective for him and some of his clients, however he definitely prescribes some activities which I think might be less impactful for myself or others with a personality more similar to mine. Foster also writes in a very relaxed, “Bro-style” which might work for some, but was a bit off-putting for me.
The Brain That Changes Itself
Norman Doidge, Ph.D.
And the grand finale of my Happiness Project research (well until the next time I am itching to jump back into the topic – probably sooner than later!) was The Brain that Changes Itself by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge and it was a absolutely fascinating one. Throughout the book, Doidge explores a variety of case studies and research across many different areas to demonstrate the fact that “the brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined… [we have] a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.” Contrary to the longstanding, prevailing scientific mindset of localizationism which argued that the “brain’s structure is fixed, and that our senses, the avenues by which experience gets into our minds, are hardwired…closely related to the idea that the brain is like a complex machine, made up of parts, each of which performs a specific mental function and exists in a genetically predetermined or hardwired location.” Historically the view has been that after a critical period of childhood development, the only changes which occurred in the brain were related to decline with age, injury or disease. On the contrary, Doidge shares a litany of amazing stories of neuroplasticity – where the brain has actually altered its structure and function through thought and activity – proving out the ability of the brain to grow with exercise just like a muscle. I will say there are a few sections of the book which are a bit odd (Doidge is a psychoanalyst and thus disciple of Freud), but overall it was a fascinating book and the implications are massive – by changing your mindset, thoughts and experiences, you actually change your brain, for better or worse.