The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor

Categories Behaviour, Mindfulness & HappinessPosted on

We become more successful when we are happier and more positive, not the other way around

Happiness is the joy we feel striving after our potential

The Happiness Advantage is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realization that we can

The Five Big Ideas

Happiness is not just a mood—it’s a work ethic

We can use our brain to change how we process the world, and that in turn changes how we react to it

Constantly scanning the world for the positive, allows us to experience happiness, gratitude, and optimism

When we reframe failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth (see: post-traumatic growth)

The most successful people, in work and in life, believe that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes

The Happiness Advantage Summary

If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy is a broken formula.

“The typical approach to understanding human behavior has always been to look for the average behavior or outcome.”

The first mistake traditional psychology makes is looking for the average behavior or outcome in order to understand human behavior. Tal Ben-Shahar calls this “the error of the average.”

“If we study merely what is average, we will remain merely average.”

The second mistake traditional psychology makes is focusing on those who fall only on one side of average—below it.

“If all you strive for is diminishing the bad, you’ll only attain the average and you’ll miss out entirely on the opportunity to exceed the average.”

“Countless studies have found that social relationships are the best guarantee of heightened well-being and lowered stress, both an antidote for depression and a prescription for high performance.”

“We become more successful when we are happier and more positive.”

“It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.”

Because positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative, The Happiness Advantage teaches us how to retrain our brains to capitalize on positivity and improve our productivity and performance.

How we experience the world, and our ability to succeed within it, constantly changes based on our mindset. The Fulcrum and the Lever teach us how we can adjust our mindset (our fulcrum) in a way that gives us the power (the lever) to be more fulfilled and successful.

When our brains get stuck in a pattern that focuses on stress, negativity, and failure, we set ourselves up to fail. The Tetris Effect teaches us how to retrain our brains to spot patterns of possibility, so we can see—and seize—opportunity wherever we look.

In the midst of defeat, stress, and crisis, our brains map different paths to help us cope. Falling Up is about finding the mental path that not only leads us up out of failure or suffering but teaches us to be happier and more successful because of it.

When challenges loom and we get overwhelmed, our rational brains can get hijacked by emotions. The Zorro Circle teaches us how to regain control by focusing first on small, manageable goals, and then gradually expanding our circle to achieve bigger and bigger ones.

Sustaining lasting change often feels impossible because our willpower is limited. And when willpower fails, we fall back on our old habits and succumb to the path of least resistance. The 20-Second Rule shows how, by making small energy adjustments, we can reroute the path of least resistance and replace bad habits with good ones.

In the midst of challenges and stress, some people choose to hunker down and retreat within themselves. But the most successful people invest in their friends, peers, and family members to propel themselves forward. Social Investment teaches us how to invest more in one of the greatest predictors of success and excellence—our social support network.

“Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realization that we can.”

Principle #1: The Happiness Advantage

Martin Seligman, the pioneer in positive psychology, has broken happiness down into three, measurable components: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.

For Shawn Achor, happiness is the joy we feel striving after our potential.

“Instead of narrowing our actions down to fight or flight as negative emotions do, positive ones broaden the amount of possibilities we process, making us more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas.”

“Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. They help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allows us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things.”

“People who put their heads down and wait for work to bring eventual happiness put themselves at a huge disadvantage, while those who capitalize on positivity every chance they get come out ahead.”

“Even the smallest shots of positivity can give someone a serious competitive edge.”

“Happiness is not just a mood—it’s a work ethic.”

How to Improve Your Mood and Raise Your Happiness Throughout the Day

1. Meditate

“Neuroscientists have found that monks who spend years meditating actually grow their left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for feeling happy.”

“Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, even improve immune function.”

2. Find Something to Look Forward To

“One study found people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent.”

“Anticipating future rewards can actually light up the pleasure centers in your brain much as the actual reward will.”

3. Commit Conscious Acts of Kindness

“A long line of empirical research, including one study of over 2,000 people, has shown that acts of altruism—giving to friends and strangers alike—decrease stress and strongly contribute to enhanced mental health.”

“Pick one day a week and make a point of committing five acts of kindness.”

4. Infuse Positivity Into Your Surroundings

“Our physical environment can have an enormous impact on our mindset and sense of well-being.”

“Studies have shown that the less negative TV we watch, specifically violent media, the happier we are.”

5. Exercise

“Physical activity can boost mood and enhance our work performance in a number of other ways as well, by improving motivation and feelings of mastery, reducing stress and anxiety, and helping us get into flow—that “locked in” feeling of total engagement that we usually get when we’re at our most productive.”

6. Spend Money (but Not on Stuff)

“In his book Luxury Fever, Robert Frank explains that while the positive feelings we get from material objects are frustratingly fleeting, spending money on experiences, especially ones with other people, produces positive emotions that are both more meaningful and more lasting.”

Spending money on other people is called ‘prosocial spending,’ and also boosts happiness.

“Draw two columns on a piece of paper (or take ten minutes at work to create a nifty spreadsheet) and track your purchases over the next month. Are you spending more on things or on experiences? At the end of the month, look back over each column and think about the pleasure each purchase brought you, and for how long.”

7. Exercise a Signature Strength

“Each time we use a skill, whatever it is, we experience a burst of positivity. If you find yourself in need of a happiness booster, revisit a talent you haven’t used in a while.”

“Even more fulfilling than using a skill, though, is exercising a strength of character, a trait that is deeply embedded in who we are.”

“Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.”

Principle #2: The Fulcrum and the Lever

“While we, of course, can’t change reality through sheer force of will alone, we can use our brain to change how we process the world, and that in turn changes how we react to it.”

“Happiness is not about lying to ourselves, or turning a blind eye to the negative, but about adjusting our brain so that we see the ways to rise above our circumstances.”

“Our power to maximize our potential is based on two important things: (1) the length of our lever—how much potential power and possibility we believe we have, and (2) the position of our fulcrum—the mindset with which we generate the power to change.”

“By changing the fulcrum of our mindset and lengthening our lever of possibility, we change what is possible.”

“It’s not the weight of the world that determines what we can accomplish. It is our fulcrum and lever.”

“‘Reality’ is merely our brain’s relative understanding of the world based on where and how we are observing it.”

“So how exactly is it that our relative perception of what is happening, or what we think will happen, can actually affect what does happen? One answer is that the brain is organized to act on what we predict will happen next, something psychologists call ‘Expectancy Theory.’”

“The expectation of an event causes the same complex set of neurons to fire as though the event were actually taking place, triggering a cascade of events in the nervous system that leads to a whole host of real physical consequences.”

“The mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality.”

“When we reconnect ourselves with the pleasure of the ‘means,’ as opposed to only focusing on the ‘ends,’ we adopt a mindset more conducive not only to enjoyment but to better results.”

“When faced with a difficult task or challenge, give yourself an immediate competitive advantage by focusing on all the reasons you will succeed, rather than fail. Remind yourself of the relevant skills you have, rather than those you lack. Think of a time you have been in a similar circumstance in the past and performed well.”

“When we believe there will be a positive payoff for our effort, we work harder instead of succumbing to helplessness.”

“By changing the way we perceive ourselves and our work, we can dramatically improve our results.”

After many years and hundreds of interviews with workers in every conceivable profession, Amy Wrzesniewski has found that employees have one of three “work orientations,” or mindsets about our work.

“We view our work as a Job, a Career, or a Calling. People with a ‘job’see work as a chore and their paycheck as the reward. They work because they have to and constantly look forward to the time they can spend away from their job. By contrast, people who view their work as a career work not only out of necessity but also to advance and succeed. They are invested in their work and want to do well. Finally, people with a calling view work as an end in itself; their work is fulfilling not because of external rewards but because they feel it contributes to the greater good, draws on their personal strengths, and gives them meaning and purpose.”

“People with a calling orientation not only find their work more rewarding but work harder and longer because of it. And as a result, these are the people who are generally more likely to get ahead.”

“Wrzesniewski’s most interesting finding is not just that people see their work in one of these three ways, but that it fundamentally doesn’t matter what type of job one has.”

“A calling orientation can have just as much to do with mindset as it does with the actual work being done.”

“Unhappy employees can find ways to improve their work life that doesn’t involve quitting, changing jobs or careers, or going off to find themselves. Organizational psychologists call this ‘job crafting,’ but in essence, it involves simply adjusting one’s mindset.”

“if you can’t make actual changes to your daily work, ask yourself what potential meaning and pleasure already exist in what you do.”

“Researchers have found that even the smallest tasks can be imbued with greater meaning when they are connected to personal goals and values.”

“Turn a piece of paper horizontally, and on the left-hand side write down a task you’re forced to perform at work that feels devoid of meaning. Then ask yourself: What is the purpose of this task? What will it accomplish? Draw an arrow to the right and write this answer down. If what you wrote still seems unimportant, ask yourself again: What does this result lead to? Draw another arrow and write this down. Keep going until you get to a result that is meaningful to you. In this way, you can connect every small thing you do to the larger picture, to a goal that keeps you motivated and energized.”

“You can have the best job in the world, but if you can’t find the meaning in it, you won’t enjoy it, whether you are a movie maker or an NFL playmaker.”

“What we expect from people (and from ourselves) manifests itself in the words we use, and those words can have a powerful effect on end results.”

“This phenomenon is called the Pygmalion Effect: when our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life.”

“The expectations we have about our children, co-workers, and spouses—whether or not they are ever voiced—can make that expectation a reality.”

“People act as we expect them to act, which means that a leader’s expectations about what he thinks will motivate his employees often end up coming true.”

“Every Monday, ask yourself these three questions: (1) Do I believe that the intelligence and skills of my employees are not fixed, but can be improved with effort?; (2) Do I believe that my employees want to make that effort, just as they want to find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs?; and (3) How am I conveying these beliefs in my daily words and actions?”

Principle #3: The Tetris Effect

“Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.”

“Inattentional blindness”: our frequent inability to see what is often right in front of us if we’re not focusing directly on it.

“We tend to miss what we’re not looking for.”

“When our brains constantly scan for and focus on the positive, we profit from three of the most important tools available to us: happiness, gratitude, and optimism.”

“Psychologists call this “predictive encoding”: Priming yourself to expect a favorable outcome actually encodes your brain to recognize the outcome when it does in fact arise.”

“The best way to kick-start this is to start making a daily list of the good things in your job, your career, and your life.”

“When you write down a list of ‘three good things’ that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives—things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishment at work, a strengthened connection with family, a glimmer of hope for the future.”

“A variation on the Three Good Things exercise is to write a short journal entry about a positive experience.”

“It’s not your age, or what you do for a living; it’s the training and consistency that count.”

Principle #4: Falling Up

“On every mental map after crisis or adversity, there are three mental paths. One that keeps circling around where you currently are (i.e., the negative event creates no change; you end where you start). Another mental path leads you toward further negative consequences (i.e., you are far worse off after the negative event; this path is why we are afraid of conflict and challenge). And one, which I call the Third Path, that leads us from failure or setback to a place where we are even stronger and more capable than before the fall.”

“Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of a failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth.”

“By scanning our mental map for positive opportunities, and by rejecting the belief that every down in life leads us only further downward, we give ourselves the greatest power possible: the ability to move up not despite the setbacks, but because of them.”

“People’s ability to find the path up rests largely on how they conceive of the cards they have been dealt, so the strategies that most often lead to Adversarial Growth include positive reinterpretation of the situation or event, optimism, acceptance, and coping mechanisms that include focusing on the problem head-on (rather than trying to avoid or deny it).”

“The people who can most successfully get themselves up off the mat are those who define themselves not by what has happened to them, but by what they can make out of what has happened.”

“Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best out of things that happen.”—Tal Ben-Shahar

“When people feel helpless in one area of life, they not only give up in that one area; they often ‘overlearn’ the lesson and apply it to other situations. They become convinced that one dead-end path must be proof that all possible paths are dead ends.”

“A counterfact is an alternate scenario our brains create to help us evaluate and make sense of what really happened.”

Because counterfacts are invented, we actually have the power in any given situation to consciously select a counterfact that makes us feel fortunate rather than helpless. And choosing a positive counterfact, besides simply making us feel better, sets ourselves up for the whole host of benefits to motivation and performance we now know accompanies a positive mindset. On the other hand, choosing a counterfact that makes us more fearful of the adversity actually makes it loom larger than it really is.

“When we choose a counterfact that makes us feel worse, we are actually altering our reality, allowing the obstacle to exert far greater influence over us than it otherwise should.”

“Decades of subsequent study have since shown that explanatory style—how we choose to explain the nature of past events—has a crucial impact on our happiness and future success.”

“People with an optimistic explanatory style interpret adversity as being local and temporary (i.e., ‘It’s not that bad, and it will get better.’) while those with a pessimistic explanatory style see these events as more global and permanent (i.e., ‘It’s really bad, and it’s never going to change.’).”

“Virtually all avenues of success, we now know, are dictated by explanatory style.”

“One way to help ourselves see the path from adversity to opportunity is to practice the ABCD model of interpretation: Adversity, Belief, Consequence, and Disputation.”

“Adversity is the event we can’t change; it is what it is. Belief is our reaction to the event; why we thought it happened and what we think it means for the future. If we believe the former—that is if we see the adversity as short-term or as an opportunity for growth or appropriately confined to only part of our life—then we maximize the chance of a positive Consequence. But if the Belief has led us down a more pessimistic path, helplessness and inaction can bring negative Consequences. Disputation involves first telling ourselves that our belief is just that—a belief, not fact—and then challenging (or disputing) it.”

“Psychologists recommend that we externalize this voice (i.e., pretend it’s coming from someone else), so it’s like we’re actually arguing with another person.”

“When faced with a terrible prospect—for example, the end of a love affair or of a job—we overestimate how unhappy it will make us and for how long.”

“We fall victim to ‘immune neglect,’ which means we consistently forget how good our psychological immune system is at helping us get over adversity.”

“Adversities, no matter what they are, simply don’t hit us as hard as we think they will.”

Principle #5: The Zorro Circle

One of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance is feeling that we are in control and that we are masters of our own fate at work and at home.

“Psychologists have found that these kinds of gains in productivity, happiness, and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have.”

“The most successful people, in work and in life, are those who have what psychologists call an ‘internal locus of control,’ the belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes.”

“Experiments show that when people are primed to feel high levels of distress, the quickest to recover are those who can identify how they are feeling and put those feelings into words.”

“By tackling one small challenge at a time—a narrow circle that slowly expands outward—we can relearn that our actions do have a direct effect on our outcomes, that we are largely the masters of our own fates.”

“Small successes can add up to major achievements. All it takes is drawing that first circle in the sand.”

Principle #6 The 20-Second Rule

“Common sense is not common action.”

William James called creating good habits “daily strokes of effort.”

The reason so many of us have trouble sustaining change is because we try to rely on willpower.

The problem is, the more we use our willpower, the more worn-out it gets.

“This invisible pull toward the path of least resistance can dictate more of our lives than we realize, creating an impassible barrier to change and positive growth.”

“Studies show that these activities are enjoyable and engaging for only about 30 minutes, then they start sapping our energy, creating what psychologists call “psychic entropy”—that listless, apathetic feeling Cathy experienced.

“In physics, activation energy is the initial spark needed to catalyze a reaction. The same energy, both physical and mental, is needed of people to overcome inertia and kick-start a positive habit.”

“It’s not the sheer number and volume of distractions that gets us into trouble; it’s the ease of access to them.”

“Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.”

“By adding 20 seconds to my day, I gained back three hours.”

“The key to reducing choice is setting and following a few simple rules. Psychologists call these kinds of rules ‘second-order decisions,’ because they are essentially decisions about when to make decisions, like deciding ahead of time when, where, and how I was going to work out in the morning.”

“Rules are especially helpful during the first few days of a behavior-changing venture when it’s easier to stray off course. Gradually, as the desired action becomes more habitual, we can become more flexible.”

Principle #7 Social Investment

The more social support you have, the happier you are.

“When over a thousand highly successful professional men and women were interviewed as they approached retirement and asked what had motivated them the most, throughout their careers, overwhelmingly they placed work friendships above both financial gain and individual status.”

“Organizational psychologists have found that even brief encounters can form “high-quality connections,” which fuel openness, energy, and authenticity among coworkers, and in turn lead to a whole host of measurable, tangible gains in performance.”

“Shelly Gable, a leading psychologist at the University of California, has found that there are four different types of responses we can give to someone’s good news, and only one of them contributes positively to the relationship. The winning response is both active and constructive; it offers enthusiastic support, as well as specific comments and follow-up questions.”

“Interestingly, her research shows passive responses to good news (‘That’s nice.’) can be just as harmful to the relationship as blatantly negative ones (‘You got the promotion? I’m surprised they didn’t give it to Sally, she seems more suited to the job.’).

“Gable’s studies have shown that active-constructive responding enhances relationship commitment and satisfaction, and fuels the degree to which people feel understood, validated, and cared for during a discussion—all of which contribute to the Happiness Advantage.”

Recommended Reading

If you like The Happiness Advantage, you may also enjoy the following books:

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink

The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do by Jeff Goins

Buy this book

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Your Brain At Work

Categories Mindfulness & HappinessPosted on

Your Brain At Work helps you overcome the daily challenges that take away your brain power, like constant email and interruption madness, high levels of stress, lack of control and high expectations, by showing you what goes on inside your head and giving you new approaches to control it better.

Dr. David Rock is an expert when it comes to the state of high performance. He’s trained over 10,000 people thanks to his background in neuroscience and leadership and showed them how to get the most out of their brain.

Your Brain At Work is his most popular book, which dives into the brains of Emily and Paul, two fictional characters. As they go through their day they face a lot of challenges, like information overload, lack of focus, emotions boiling over and trying to give feedback to others without criticizing them.

The book breaks apart what happens in the human brain in situations like these and helps you deal with those very same challenges in a better way in your own life.

Neither Emily nor Paul have made it into Blinkist’s summary of the book, but there’s still a lot to learn from it. Here are the 3 lessons I liked best:

  • Your ability to think is limited, so don’t multitask.
  • When you compete against your own self from the day before, you boost your brain power.
  • Don’t give feedback, help others find the answer on their own.

Ready to kick your brain into the next gear? Time to learn!

Lesson 1: Your ability to think is limited, just like your willpower, so remove distractions and don’t multitask.

You might know that your willpower is limited, and that all you can do to get it back after a long tiring day is rest, get plenty of sleep and recover.

Well, your ability to think and solve problems is the same.

A study way back from 1898 had its participants exert physical force on something called a dynamometer, while solving a tough mental task in their head.

When people thought hard about the problem they had to solve, they lost up to 50% of their physical force.

Yes, thinking is exhausting, and eventually, your brain needs to take a break.

Things get even worse if you multitask (lucky for you I wrote the number 1 guide on the web to stop doing it), it lowers your IQ by up to 10 points.

The effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep and is caused by your brain being in “alert mode” for too long, until it loses its grip on things.

Rock suggests 2 solutions to this:

Ruthlessly prioritize your tasks (which is a thinking act in itself and will take a mental toll, so do it in the morning when you’re still fresh).

Turn your most important tasks into habits and let them run on autopilot, thus conserving energy.

Lesson 2: When you compete against your own self from the day before, you boost your brain power.

“Ha, I told you I was right!”

Feels good to say that sometimes, right?

Of course! You can admit it. It’s ok.

We all crave a little status sometimes. That’s why we buy fancy designer clothes, spend hours arguing with our friends about who’s right, and feel better when we see someone who’s a few steps behind us in their journey.

That’s because feeling a sense of elevated status leads to higher dopamine and serotonin levels (2 of your happiness hormones) and lower cortisol levels (a stress hormone).

This even helps you think better, because thanks to those hormones, your neurons can connect faster, meaning you take less time to process information.

Some computers have an overboost function, where the processor can go beyond its usual speed for a little while. This is similar, but it’s your brain on steroids we’re talking about here!

Here’s where it gets interesting: Because your brain uses the same neurons to perceive yourself as it does when it assesses other people, you can just increase your status over your own, past self, and trigger the same effect!

Honing your skills, for example by improving your game on the basketball court a tiny bit every day, will release more happiness hormones, due to feeling better than yesterday’s self, and help you learn faster.

Talk about a lifehack, eh?

Lesson 3: Instead of giving direct feedback, help others see the solution on their own.

Yes, we all need some tough love sometimes.

But have you realized how hard it is to convince someone to do what you suggest, even when they’re openly admitting their problem to you?

You might tell them straight up: do X, Y, and Z, and your problem will be solved, yet they will take forever to implement it.

That’s because they didn’t come up with the solution on their own. Only when we discover a solution or insight ourselves do we truly understand it and can implement it without hesitation.

Giving advice only helps 8% of the time.

Instead, be people’s coach. Guide them towards their own insights. Ask the right questions and elevate their status, for example by saying “I’m sure you did your best, let’s sit down together and work this out!” and acknowledging their skills.

Reduce their anxiety and stress and foster a positive attitude and make them feel in control and soon, they’ll see the solution just as clearly as you do.

My personal take-aways This book is too damn packed with good information

Walden Summary

Categories Mindfulness & HappinessPosted on

Walden details Henry David Thoreau’s two-year stay in a self-built cabin by a lake in the woods, sharing what he learned about solitude, nature, work, thinking and fulfillment during his break from modern city life.

H. D. Thoreau took a two-year retreat starting in September 1845, which he spent in a little cabin he built himself by Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Ralph Waldo Emerson allowed his mentee and friend to live on the woodland he owned so Thoreau could write his first book.

Besides being really productive, the experience turned out to hold so many lessons for Thoreau that he decided to publish the full story as a separate book about nine years later. It’s filled with rich details and a few lessons about a good life.

Here are the 3 I found most important to remember:

A life in solitude doesn’t need to be lonely.

Even a simple life can be challenging and rewarding.

Fulfillment doesn’t cost a thing.

If you’re getting tired of the busy city life and hustling all day, this 150 year old classic holds some timeless advice. Let’s take a look!

Lesson 1: If you mostly keep to yourself you won’t automatically end up lonely.

Every year some weird escapist ends up on television, telling everyone how he survives off chewing bark in the woods and why that’s the path to enlightenment. Even back in 1845, Thoreau faced similar reactions, even though he never took his “sabbatical” to such extremes. He simply wanted to reconnect with life in a deeper, meaningful way. His goal was to spend as much time on reading, thinking and writing as he could.

To achieve this, he focused on covering four basics of life: food, shelter, clothing and keeping his fireplace alit with wood. After building his cabin and acquiring functional clothing, he spent most of his non-recreational time garnering water, wood and food. You’d think all that must get lonely, but Thoreau never felt that way.

First, he found he could just immerse himself in nature for hours, for example by sitting outside on his char and listening to the birds and natural sounds all around him. Second, many of the animals eventually approached him and he even had mice sitting on his table having dinner beside him, keeping him company. Lastly, many friends and passers-by stopped to join him for a meal and a few hours of conversation.

Today we’re more bombarded with activities than ever. If you crave a break from that and just want to be alone for a while, or even most of the time, remember: it does not mean you’ll end up lonely.

Lesson 2: Life doesn’t need to be complicated to be challenging and rewarding.

As you’d expect, winter became the most challenging time for Thoreau. He had to build a chimney for proper ventilation and keeping fires burning, insulate the walls of his cabin and break the ice of the frozen lake to gather water. His simple tasks remained the same, but they became a lot more challenging in this season of his life. We don’t need to artificially complicate our life when it feels easy. It’ll throw us obstacles soon enough.

Interestingly, this increase in difficulty only made his work more rewarding. The soaked timber from the lake burned longer and created more steam, which kept his cabin well-tempered and his home-cooked bread and meat seemed to taste sweeter. When your work has a purpose, its merits increase with every challenge.

There’s no need to artificially try and construct that.

Lesson 3: True fulfillment doesn’t cost a dime, because seeking truth and thinking deeply are available to all of us.

Just like winter made Thoreau’s life harder, spring brought about a transformative experience of natural wonders. Sitting on his chair, he got to watch the ice melt, the lake refill, the grass turn green and the animals awake from their slumber. It was the ultimate revitalization before he returned to the city and started his next chapter.

But his biggest lesson remains in the quote I chose for this summary:

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” –H. D. Thoreau

All the thinking, writing and questioning to find the truth lead him to true fulfillment, yet none of these cost a single cent. The materialism, hustle and bustle that have taken center stage around the globe lead us nowhere if all they bring is more money into our pockets.

After all, we’re all free to think deeply, practice simplicity, learn to be more honest and try to find truth wherever we can. The only thing we need for a good life, then, is time – and there’s plenty of that during a retreat to nature.

My personal take-aways

I always imagined Walden to be a person. Going by ear I would’ve thought this book is a dark novel about the demise of a man. Instead, it turns out to be quite the opposite: the memoir of a man who found happiness. Now I can’t wait to get my hands on it, even if it’ll take me forever to finish. More so, I already feel relieved looking at the tree right outside my window. Ah, the simple life.

The Practicing Mind Summary

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The Practicing Mind shows you how to cultivate patience, focus, and discipline for working towards your biggest goals, by going back to the basic principles of practice, embracing a child-like trial-and-error attitude again and thus make working hard towards mastery a fulfilling process in itself.

Tom Sterner used to be a chief concert piano technician for 25 years. That means he was in charge of all technical elements related to the piano for performances of big bands and star musicians, like the tuning, electric setup, synchronization, etc. for concerts at a major performing arts center, where legends like Ray Charles and Fleetwood Mac gave performances.

Over time and on the side, Tom has developed an approach called Present Moment Functioning (PMF), which helps individuals achieve a state of high performance by focusing entirely on the present – think of it as entering the flow state on command.

Since 2014, he focuses on coaching people in PMF and giving lectures full time, but he’s also shared his approach in this book.

Here are my 3 favorite lessons from it:

  • Forget your end goal every time you work.
  • Never use goals as an indicator of progress.
  • Apply the Do, Observe, Correct technique to keep yourproductivity in check.

Are you prepared to make your mind a practicing one? Let’s learn how to stay in the present moment to increase your performance!

Lesson 1: Completely forget about your end goal every time you work towards it.

Wait, what? Did I seriously just suggest that you should forget what you’re working towards?! Yes and no. What you shouldn’t forget is what you’re doing right now, what the end goal of any given day is, what your final output before you drop the pen, close the laptop or punch out on the clock is.

What you can gleefully hand over to the “forgotten” folder in your brain for that day though, is the ultimate, long-term, final outcome. The monthly salary goal you’re shooting for, the revenue goal you’re working towards or the novel title appearing on Amazon.

Because here’s how procrastination happens:

You realize what you’re doing right now isn’t that much fun.

You remind yourself that it’s part of something bigger.

You remember what that bigger thing is.

You realize how far away you are from it.

You get discouraged and frustrated.

You need something easy, light and fun to console yourself.

You open Youtube.

But if you can manage to shut out that bigger thing for an hour or two and just focus on the process, that’s when real work gets done.

So yes, forget about your end goal while you work.

Lesson 2: Don’t use your goals as an indicator of how much progress you’ve made.

Another area where your big aspirations do more damage than good is when looking at your overall progress bar. Not the daily one, but the monthly, annual or even multi-year measuring stick you use to compare your current success to your former, past self.

Here’s how: Let’s say you’ve graduated college and started a job that pays $40,000 a year. Of course, that’s just the beginning, so you decide to work hard and get promoted as fast as possible, which gets you a position that pays $60,000 two years later. Once you have that, it’ll feel natural to set the next goal to earning $80,000 or $100,000 a year – but where do you go from there?

If you assess how far you’ve come by looking at where you want to go next, you’re setting yourself up for a very miserable life.

Setting bigger and more ambitious goals as you go along is good, it’s just the natural way any upwards curve follows, but if they become self-serving, a way for you to determine your success by, you’ll just be in a bad mood constantly, because you’re never there yet.

That’s why it’s sometimes good to take a second, step back, turn around and actually look back, not forward. You’ll see you have plenty reasons to be proud and feel a lot better about tackling the next challenge.

Lesson 3: When you lose your focus, use the Do, Observe, Correct technique to get it back.

Staying in the present moment and working on a task with maximum focus is hard enough as it is. But sometimes, feelings can make it almost impossible to keep at it. In those cases, you can use what Tom calls the Do, Observe, Correct technique.

Here’s how it works:

You start doing something productive, but pay attention to your concentration level. Notice when it drops!

Then you observe the behavior you’d like to change by asking why you’re losing your focus.

Lastly, you correct those negative emotions by seeing how they influence your productivity and really make everything seem worse than it actually is.

For example, let’s say you’re putting together a balance sheet of a company and find your thoughts drifting, because you’re bored with the work. Once you notice that, you can pinpoint that what you’d like to avoid is getting bored at work and correct course by coming up with reasons why accounting is fun, listening to some music or turning your task into a game, for example.

Overall, the more you apply the Do, Observe, Correct technique, the better you’ll become at self-observing, which is the biggest supporting factor of improving your behavior.

My personal take-aways

This book combines common productivity advice with common mindfulness advice, which, in turn, makes it pretty uncommon. Most books focus on one or the other, whereas this one mixes the two to give you the best of both worlds – and it works. This is pretty much how I stay productive!

Buy this book

The Happiness Project Summary

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The Happiness Project will show you howto change your life, without actually changing your life, thanks to thefindings of modern science, ancient history and popular culture abouthappiness, which the author tested for a year and now shares with you.

“The days are long, but the years are short.” Damn, that’s profound. I wish I’d thought of these 9 words on a rainy afternoon in a bus. But I didn’t. Gretchen Rubin did. Realizing that she’s working hard, but not on the things that will matter once the short years of her life have gone by, she decided to dedicate a year of her life to running happiness experiments.

The Happiness Project is the report of her results from testing ideas about happiness from ancient times, the latest scientific research, as well as popular culture and common belief. She found a multitude of ways in which you can improve your happiness, without moving to the other side of the world or making millions.

Here are 3 of them:

Clean up your house and your brain, because all clutter wears us down.

Accept these two things to build better relationships.

Money is like health.

Alright, at least 2 of those need some thorough further explanation, so let’s hop on the happiness train!

Lesson 1: Both mental and physical clutter are a drag, so clean up your house AND your brain.

The very first area of her life Gretchen looked at was her health, her energy, as she calls it. Why? Because if you’re sick in bed, there’s no way in hell you’ll be happy.

Among more typical things like getting enough sleep, exercise and good food, Gretchen also found that clutter really weighed on her. Not only does it take up to 50% more time to manage your household if it’s very cluttered, all of the unused junk also takes up mental energy, because every item has its spot somewhere inside your brain.

I can vouch for this – having sold all of my video games and 75% of my old clothes . When you declutter your house, you’ll notice a strong relief of stress inside your head too, which will help you take the next step – sweeping the floor on a mental level.

Digital to-do list tools and note taking software are great, but they have a huge disadvantage: no storage limit. If you’ve ever filled up an Evernote file or Trello board with so many tasks that you couldn’t possibly finish them, you know what I’m talking about.

The stress this creates comes from the Zeigarnik effect, which makes your brain nag you about any unfinished task, even if it was started years ago. Getting rid of notes about old tasks she’d never finish or finally checking off small items like making a backup of her computer helped Gretchen get rid of a lot of mental clutter with little effort, thus boosting her happiness.

Lesson 2: These are two great principles to base happy relationships on.

It was really hard to fit these into one fitting headline, so here go two of Gretchen’s principles for happier relationships:

You can’t change your partner; you can only change yourself.

What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.

Our brains remember negative events a lot faster and deeper than positive ones, so in any relationship, it takes about five positive actions to correct one negative one. Therefore, doing less negative ones for example by reducing fighting and quitting the bickering is a great way to make your relationships happier.

Gretchen noticed she was nagging her husband a lot and complaining, but once she reduced that, she herself became happier – even though her husband hadn’t changed at all. When you focus on what you can control, you correct what’s really the root of the problem: your own actions and attitudes.

Similarly, Gretchen started performing more acts of random kindness, with little gestures and gifts for her husband, because she realized these “everyday niceties” matter more than big gifts once a year.

Lesson 3: Money is like health.

Money is like health – you can’t buy it, but whoever has the most of it wins. Ha! Gotcha. You didn’t really think she said that, did you? Here’s what Gretchen actually says about money:

Money is like health – it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be happy, but not having to worry about it makes your life a lot easier.

I like that Gretchen consciously observed this area as well, because even taking a conservative approach, given her multiple bestseller status, she sure is in that situation and went out of her way to explore it from when she wasn’t.

We know that in the US, around $75,000 per year will get you everything you need and more. More than that will only increase your happiness marginally. We also know that excessively buying stuff won’t boost your happiness long-term, because you always return to your baseline level of happiness.

However, Gretchen says that if you spend your money consciously, and make few, but targeted purchases, that the short burst of happiness you get is not only real, but also leads to a feeling of growth. What’s more, if you use the purchase on an ongoing basis and in the right way, it can add to your happiness for a long time.

For example, Gretchen bought an expensive food processor, but now uses it every day to make delicious smoothies for herself and her family, which increases her health, helps her connect with her husband and daughters, and puts her in a good mood.

My personal take-aways

Running one-month experiments for a year is something I’ve been putting off for too long myself. I love the idea. Leo Babauta once did it on zenhabits. Gretchen did it and wrote a book about it. And another one.

I’ve gotten the privilege to work with Gretchen and her four tendencies framework from Better Than Before, through my work as a coach. She has a way of making things sound scientific and sincere without losing the everyday, conversational touch many scientific publications are missing.

The Happiness Project is a buffet of happiness snacks – all you have to do is pick and try them, see which ones work for you, and not worry about the rest. Such a great book!

The Happiness Hypothesis Summary

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 The Happiness Hypothesis is the most thorough analysis of how you can find happiness in our modern society, backed by plenty of scientific research, real-life examples and even a formula for happiness.

If you’re looking for a scientifically proven way to find happiness, you’ve come to the right place.

These blinks show that Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and professor at NYU, has pulled out all the stops.

In the beginning of the book, he establishes a metaphor, which then serves throughout the rest of the book to explain happiness in different contexts.

He says our brain is divided into two main parts. Your limbic system is in charge of your basic instincts, the needs for sleep, food and sex.

The neocortex is, as its name suggests, a newer part of the brain, responsible for your rational thinking. It’s what keeps your limbic system in check and makes sure you don’t run around naked on the street, overeat, or sleep in when you’re supposed to go to work.

While the neocortex follows suit to your thoughts, your limbic brain doesn’t. It’s fully in charge of your heart rate, moving while you sleep or the knee-jerk reflex.

Haidt therefore describes the limbic brain as a wild elephant, with your neocortex being the rider, trying to control the elephant.

Unhappiness comes from the rider and the elephant disagreeing, and Haidt uses this metaphor to show you what you can do to close the gap between the two.

50% to 80% of your baseline level of happiness is determined in your genes, but by changing your thoughts you can still train the elephant.

For example, your limbic brain is trained to recognize danger everywhere, in order to survive, but by becoming an optimist, you can lessen this behavior, which isn’t quite so useful today.

A large chunk of our happiness comes from our social relationships, and the first step towards improving them, is understanding them.

Reciprocity is the principle on which we interact, which is why you feel guilty if you don’t return a favor and Sheldon feels compelled to give a gift back. We feel so strongly about it, that we’d prefer to get nothing, rather than receiving an unfair share.

You can use this principle the next time you fight with your spouse or roommate: Just admit some of the things you did wrong. Your friend will start to reciprocate and also admit what they did wrong, helping both of you to resolve the conflict.

Doing this also helps lessening your self-serving bias, since your elephant thinks it’s always right and your rider usually defends it.

Next to your relationships, your work is one of the few factors that matters a lot to your happiness.

The adaptation principle shows that whatever lucky event or adversity we face, we get used to it. This was proven in a study showing that people who won the lottery and people who became paralyzed both returned to their baseline happiness levels after one year.

However, what you spend your time working on is one of those external circumstances that has a big impact, thanks to the progress principle. It says that we draw much more happiness from working towards a goal, rather than reaching it.

So try to find meaningful work you’re good at – as Confucius says: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Your most important relationship in your life will likely be the one with your partner or spouse. But on your quest for love, don’t just rely on passion. No matter how much “in love” you are at the beginning of the relationship, it naturally fades – and that’s okay.

Haidt says we must seek to develop companionate love, which is what best friends, brothers, sisters and family members share. Having someone at your side through the ups and downs of life, sharing your joy and sadness and exploring and learning together creates a much stronger bond, which can last you a lifetime, but it takes time to develop.

So don’t give up a relationship once passion fades, but give your companionate love time to develop.

The rider and the elephant might also disagree about who you are. For example your rider can try to preserve your image of being an efficient, career-driven manager, while your elephant just wants to cut himself some slack and play soccer with his buddies.

It often takes a crisis for us to see these differences, which is why adversity can make us happier. This is especially true for people in their teens and twenties, who spend a lot of time thinking and looking for meaning in their lives. A crisis gives you the chance to see what the elephant really wants and help the rider adjust your self-image to match your true desires.

Lastly, we need to feel connected to something greater than ourselves, which is why religion has a place in our lives. Even if you’re an atheist, you probably believe in karma, destiny or fortune. That’s a good thing! Belief gives us a sense of awe, because it makes us realize that we’re a small part of something much greater.

To sum up:

Surround yourself with the people you love the most and live in accordance with reciprocity

Do work that matters to you

Find a partner who will stand by your side through sunshine and rain

Allow yourself to be part of something greater

These are just some of the things I learned , as there were so many good insights in the book.

The Happiness Equation Summary

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The Happiness Equation reveals nine scientifically backed secrets to happiness to show you that by wanting nothing and doing anything, you can have everything.

We have a saying in the small village in the Southwest of Germany where I live: today it only rains once – meaning it’ll rain all day. Today was such a day. Luckily, me and my Dad got up early. While we were sitting at breakfast, we saw the sunrise. At 7:30 AM, the sky turned red and for five minutes, we stood outside and watched nature do its thing.

Such a small, insignificant moment, but, as I later realized, an abundance of tiny sparks of happiness. Developing this ability to notice and appreciate the little things has happened slowly over years, but the thinking behind it is the same kind Neil Pasricha put into his book The Happiness Equation.

It’s about the simple nature of happiness and how to get more of it into your life with nine secrets that go against conventional happiness advice.

Here are my favorite 3:

The Germans invented retirement and the Japanese found a cure for it: ikigai.

Take the Saturday Morning Test to fix the relationship with the most important person in your life: you.

Ignore most advice, including the one from this summary, website and me.

The happiness equation isn’t as easy to solve as your usual third grade arithmetics, but if you work on those variables long enough, they’ll fall into place. Let’s practice!

Lesson 1: Ikigai is better than retirement.

In one of his secrets, Neil takes us on a little history tour. He says we (the Germans, that is) invented retirement in 1889. Neil’s right. I remember the actual history lesson in school.

Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the German Empire at the time, who controlled much of the country’s politics, put in place the world’s first proper pension program. Originally designed to pay for the living costs of disabled workers over 70, our modern system still relies on the basics of it today: employer and worker pay equal parts into a fund each month, which is used to pay the annuity later in life.

It is still considered a prime example of a state providing excellent social welfare. There’s only one problem: it stopped working years ago. When Bismarck implemented the system, the average lifespan was 45. Almost no one lived to collect the pension. Today, people who retire at 65 might live another 30 years, and due to the shift in age groups, one guy might have to pay for five retirees.

But fear not, the solution is around the globe. In Okinawa, Japan, where people have the longest life expectancy on earth, a study with over 40,000 people found that ikigai, which means “reason for waking up in the morning” is hugely beneficial to health in old age.

What it comes down to is abandoning retirement altogether and continuing to work until you die, albeit at a slower pace and in different ways. We have an intuitive understanding that being productive gives us purpose: around half of all people would prefer to postpone retirement anyway.

Lesson 2: Take the Saturday Morning Test.

Another one of Neil’s happiness secret is really straightforward: be yourself. Haha, good one Nik, platitudes much? I know that’s easier said than done, because often, we don’t quite know who we are, if we’re honest. It’s a lifelong process of finding out.

That’s what Neil’s made this really cool test for, I took it just now. It’s called the Saturday Morning Test and is rooted in one, simple question: “What would you like to do on a Saturday morning, given you have no other obligations to fulfill?”

I thought I would probably sleep in, have a really nice, big breakfast, or meet someone for it, then have an adventure throughout the day and spend the evening with the girlfriend I currently don’t have. I even caught myself thinking: “maybe write a little.”

That’s a sign I’m on the right track! The idea is that the more Saturday morning activities you manage to implement in your life, the happier you’ll become. Don’t stress yourself, do it for fun.

You can always turn pro later and make your calling your career.

Lesson 3: Don’t listen to much advice at all.

Life is full of contradictions. Often, these contradictions confuse us, because they come to us in the form of advice from so many people, books, lectures, experts, family and friends. Funny enough, none of them know you as well as you know yourself.

The real challenge is not to listen and trust your own judgement. You know who you are better than anyone, therefore, only you can know what works for you. This includes everything I ever say or write, this summary and this entire website! I’m not trying to sell you on all the ideas. I want you to pick the ones that serve you well and ditch the rest.

If anything, I’m a big fan of embracing all of life’s contradictions. Take whichever end of the spectrum serves you the best on any given day. Who cares if you change your mind? People are always mad at everyone for everything. Life’s too short to live by anyone’s rules but your own.

So always subject every single piece of advice to ruthless scrutiny: Does this work at all? And if it does, does it work for me?

You don’t need anyone to tell you what you need. You know. You got this. And you’ll find your own way to happiness.

My personal take-aways

I like the basic formula of the equation, I like the way this book is structured, I like the stories, examples and creative ways of practicing happiness. A refreshing read all around!

Buy this book

Superintelligence Summary

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 Superintelligence asks what will happen once we manage to build computers that are smarter than us, including what we need to do, how it’s going to work, and why it has to be done the exact right way to make sure the human race doesn’t go extinct.

The Matrix, Terminator, Iron Man – the list of movies in which some form of artificial intelligence suddenly goes crazy and tries to take over the world is long. The idea has been around since the 50s, but it seems we’re getting closer to a world where computers are as smart as humans or even smarter.

The question is: what will that look like? Will the machines really be able to rebel against us? Will we put AI into humanoid robots? Will the internet start to think?

Nick Bostrom calls this phenomenon superintelligence. And while some books try to predict what will happen after we’ve created it, this one is pre-occupied with determining what the path towards it must be like in order for it to work out in our favor.

Here are 3 lessons about the state of artificial intelligence to show you it’s up to all of us to make our future a good one:

  • AI used to be limited by hardware, but now it’s mostly a problem of data.
  • There are two different ways to design super intelligent computers.
  • Superintelligence must be the result of global collaboration, not some secret government program, or we’re screwed.

Forget the dusty crystal ball in your attic, this book will give you a much clearer glimpse into the future!

Lesson 1: Initially AI was limited by hardware, now it’s mostly a matter of feeding computers enough data.

After Alan Turing’s “Turing Machine” was invented as the first device to systematically follow and execute instructions in an automated way (watch The Imitation Game for more details, superb movie), the first real “digital” computer was completed in 1946.

Ever since that moment, computer scientists have been wondering how we can get these machines to actually think like us. The Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence was one of the first proper workshops in this area in 1956, and even though the next few years showed some results, like machines solving math problems or writing music, AI soon hit its limit – the hardware simply didn’t suffice to process all the necessary information for really complex tasks.

It took until the 80s for hardware to slowly catch up, but then the development of expert systems gave rise to the first, proper AI, which, for example, could diagnose cars like a mechanic would. Soon information was the limiting factor again, because with enough hardware to store, but not enough information to access, even the best expert systems could still not beat humans (it took Deep Blue over ten years of development to beat world champion Garry Kasparov, for example).

Since the 90s we’ve gotten smarter in how we build AI though, now modeling a lot more after neural systems in the brain and human genetics – by now AI has made its way pretty far into our daily lives, with smartphones and Google, for example.

What we’re still missing though, is an AI that can, for example, beat not just the best guy in chess, but also the best person in Jeopardy and Scrabble – we usually custom-build AI for a specific purpose.

Bostrom and other experts expect computers to be as smart as humans by 2075. Give it another 30 years until 2105 and we’ll have true superintelligence.

Lesson 2: Superintelligence could either imitate or simulate humans, building on biology or technology.

What we’re currently doing with AI is mostly teaching computers to imitate human thinking. Computers use logic to navigate a wealth of information, calculate probabilities and then take shortcuts humans can’t come up with to imitate their behavior – just faster.

As described above, this requires access to a lot of information in real time and that’s a problem. An alternative would be to get computers to simulate the human brain, not just imitate it. This is called WBE – whole brain emulation – and would result in a computer that’s like a child: equipped with basic information about the world and the ability to learn the rest on its own. To achieve this we don’t even need to decode the entire human brain, we just need to be able to copy it.

However, this would require us to take actual human brains, get the data out of them, and upload it somehow. Sounds like Minority Report? Well, that’s also about how far it’s away 🙂

Lesson 3: If some secret government program comes up with super intelligence first, we’re probably screwed – we all have to work together.

Just like there are two ways to technologically make superintelligence a reality, there are also two socially different ways it can be developed.

One is again very similar to what you see in a lot of movies: some secret government unit or program toils away behind closed curtains for decades, until it emerges with a new piece of highly superior technology – you know, something like the A-bomb.

In this scenario, a small group would produce one, single, superintelligent machine. This would give that country a strategic advantage over all others – but it’d also be a problem. Because if just one unit exists, it only takes one set of evil hands to wipe out our entire species. And if something goes wrong, there aren’t enough people who know how to fix it either.

The only way it can really work is the second scenario: a global collaboration to gradually develop superintelligence, based on humankind working together as one.

Such a team effort would make sure all steps taken are the safest ones, because many parties and the public control the project, developing safety regulations along the way. It might not be as fast, but it’s sure as hell safer.

My personal take-aways

A lot of books about these topics paint a bright future of infinite life, zero work and perfect health. But we have to get there first. And there’s a very real chance that if we do it the wrong way, we’ll get none of that, and instead be at the mercy of something we built, but have no control over. I like the fantasies, but I try to stay in the present too. Out of all the books on AI, this is the one you should read first.

Stumbling On Happiness Summary

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Stumbling On Happiness examines the capacity of our brains to fill in gaps and simulate experiences, shows how our lack of awareness of these powers sometimes leads us to wrong decisions, and how we can change our behavior to synthesize our own happiness.

Daniel Gilbert is a Harvard psychology professor, whom I learned about a few years ago, when watching his fantastic TED talk.

Very eloquently, he explains the science of happiness, based on our brain’s ability to simulate the future.

His 2006 New York Times bestseller, Stumbling On Happiness, provides lots of scenarios, in which simulations lead us to making the wrong decisions and false assumptions about ourselves.

The book tries to help you become self-aware of these tricks your brain plays on you, so you can avoid them in the future and thus create your own happiness.

Here are my 3 major takeaways:

  • Your brain is really bad at filling in the blanks, but it keeps on trying.
  • You should always compare products based on value, never on past price.
  • Bad experiences are better than no experiences.

Time to double check!

Lesson 1: Your brain is really bad at filling in the blanks, but it keeps on trying.

Did you know you have a blind spot? It’s a certain area of your vision that’s basically blank – you can’t see what’s there, due to your nerve fibers blocking your retina where they leave the eye.

Why have you never noticed any black spots on photographs then?

Because your brain fills in the missing information.

It guesses what needs to be there and adds the remaining pieces to the image. If you stop to think for a second, you’ll notice that this means your brain completely invents a part of your vision and therefore your reality in any given moment.

Not only is this an incredible trick your brain plays on you, it does so all the time, and is often wrong.

For example your memories. You might be at a party and have the time of your life, but right before going home, someone throws up on your new shoes.

Chances are your brain won’t store this in your memory as the greatest night of all time, but exaggerate the bad part of the experience at the end, leaving you to remember it as a bad party.

Similarly, you only need to think about wanting to eat pizza at a new restaurant (which I do a lot), and your brain instantly conjures up the perfect experience, smell and taste in your head.

Naturally, you believe in this best-case scenario of the future and are disappointed at anything less than that, neglecting the millions of alternative scenarios – the place could have burned down for all you know.

Your brain is not so great at filling in those blanks, but it will keep trying, so just be aware of when it’s doing it.

Lesson 2: Always compare products based on value, never on past price.

Dang it! How could that coffee place raise the price again?

We usually compare products based on prices we’re used to, so if your espresso now costs $1 instead of $0.50, you’re annoyed and think it’s a rip-off.

Instead of comparing it to previous prices or other coffee, try thinking about what you could get for the money elsewhere.

Once you realize that $1 won’t even buy you a carrot, maybe a single sock, and 10 minutes of parking tops, the espresso will seem like a much better deal, in spite of the higher price.

Similarly, people will rather buy a $500 TV that was reduced from $600, instead of getting the same TV for $400, if the price went up from $300.

Always judge based on value for the money, never make price comparisons.

Lesson 3: Bad experiences are better than no experiences.

Speaking of comparisons, consider this paradox: You are introduced to someone you find attractive and then given the choice between one of two options:

Marry them. In this case, the person will become a pyromaniac down the road (someone who sets fires on purpose for personal enjoyment, and might light up your house).

Not marry them. In this case, the person will become a billionaire.

Which one would you regret more?

Astonishingly, Gilbert says it’s the latter.

Because even if your spouse turns out to be a complete maniac, your brain can still learn something from the experience, and see the positives in it.

You’ll probably walk away from this experience thinking: “Ha, anyone that comes now will be better, the worst is behind me.” or “Now I can really assess people a lot better.”

But it’s hard for your brain to come up with a positive view of something that never happened. Since you don’t even know what it’s like to be married to a billionaire, you kick yourself for not going for it in the first place, and thus end up unhappier.

So whatever you do, do something. Action beats inaction, every time.

Note: I personally believe that action is the cure to anything. Thinking is great, but we should do it much less.

My personal take-aways

Just like yesterday’s book, it’s almost impossible to pull out only 3 good things here. It’s fascinating how we make bad decisions and wrong assumptions, not because of being over-confident or smug, but simply because of the way our brains are wired.

I think the consequences have a much bigger impact on our lives than even the book suggests. Considering our brains manipulate both our past and future to such an extent is mind-blowing.

Then again, sometimes these qualities help us see the good in bad situations. According to this book, the only truly bad thing you should avoid at all costs is doing nothing.

Solve For Happy Summary

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Solve For Happy lays out a former Google engineers formula for happiness, which shows you not only that it’s our default state, but also how to overcome the obstacles we face in remaining in it.

One of the scenes I remember most distinctly from the Lord of the Rings movies is the one in which King Théoden of Rohan finds out his son fell in battle. After his funeral, he breaks down in front of the family grave, saying: “No parent should have to bury their child.” It’s heartbreaking, but I think the reason it stuck with me is that for the first time, I realized there are much scarier, worse things in life than death.

Mo Gawdat would know. The former chief business officer of Google [X] went through the same tragedy as King Théoden. During a routine medical procedure while they were on vacation, his 21-year-old son Ali suddenly passed away. Since then, he’s had a million reasons to be sad, which is exactly why he chose happiness instead. He and Ali had been working on a formula for years: “Happiness is equal to or greater than the events of your life minus your expectation of how life should be.”

Shortly after his son’s death, Mo began to write, which is how Solve For Happy started. Besides the equation, which shows happiness is really our default state, he also shares six grand illusions and seven blind spots, which ruin this state, as well as five ultimate truths.

Here’s one from each category:

Your inner voice is not the real you.

Many cognitive filters prevent you from seeing the whole world around you.

No matter if life is good or bad, staying in the present always makes you feel more content with it.

Life is short. There’s no time to waste. So let’s solve for happy!

Lesson 1: The voice inside your head is not you.

Every single person on earth has an inner monologue that runs 24/7/365. It’s a stream of thoughts that uses the I- or You-form when addressing us, for example “I should stop partying so much,” or “you can never be a professional at basketball.” The first big illusion Mo wants to help us shatter is the belief that this voice is not just talking to us, it is us.

In the 1930s, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky found out that the larynx, the part of our body that contains the vocal cords, occasionally shows the slightest of movements, even when we we’re not actually talking. He later built an entire theory around thinking and speech, indicating our inner monologue is nothing but an internalization of the external speech we use to talk to others. This means we’re not really talking to ourselves, our brain just happens to use the best tool it knows to talk to us.

Our minds process the outside world and then try to make sense of it as best as possible. But the resulting inner speech is just a flow of suggestions they make to help us decide what to do. That doesn’t mean you have to listen. You can question these ideas. Say no. Do something different.

If you strip away everything, what you own, your friends, your body, even your identity, the only thing that’s left is the invisible observer of the world. That’s the real you, and no one can take it away from you. If you expect nothing but to keep observing, life always exceeds your expectations.

Lesson 2: Your brain’s automatic filters keep you from observing everything around you.

Humans are built on heuristics. They’re little if-then rules for automatic behavior in certain situations. Shortcuts, if you will. For thousands of years, these heuristics have allowed us to survive, find food, and reproduce. However, over the past 2,000 years of somewhat modern civilization, they’ve become a lot less useful.

In the modern world, little threatens to kill us, while much of what escapes us makes us unhappy. What used to ensure our survival now seems like a long list of errors standing in the way of us and happiness. Mo calls these errors blind spots, psychology refers to them as cognitive biases. There’s a long list of them in a variety of categories, but the first, and biggest, may be filters.

Filters select what sensory information is passed on to your brain to process, because taking it all would be too much to handle. For example, while our eyes are very powerful, they can’t visualize everything in our view, so whatever is missing the mind fills in from memory and imagination. Similarly, you’ll feel the fabric on your skin when you first put on your socks in the morning, but throughout the day, you stop noticing they’re even there.

It’s impossible to turn these filters off completely, and that’s a good thing, because they help us function. But if you try to remain aware of their presence, you can get more out of life by remembering to observe the world more mindfully and soak in every detail.

Lesson 3: Living in the present always makes you happier, even if bad things happen.

Matt Killingsworth has been researching happiness at Harvard and Berkeley for several years. As part of his work, he runs a large-scale happiness study through the Track Your Happiness app. Over 15,000 people have joined and the results clearly show one thing: the more we focus on the present moment, the happier we are.

Irrespective of whether what’s going on in our lives is negative or positive, as long as we are mindful and stay in the now, we tend to be content. However, we spend about half our time doing the exact opposite: mind-wandering. We think about the past and what we would change, or worry about the future, wishing for some perfect outcome. But as with filters and inner speech, if we can turn off the projectors and just focus on right now, we’ll feel calmer and less anxious.

Once again, it’s about awareness and going with the flow. This is the first ultimate truth Mo shares, and he wraps it all up in the Taoist concept of wu-wei. Wu-wei simply means that sometimes, doing nothing is the best option, and that if you remain aware, acting will be effortless.

My personal take-aways

Solve For Happy is not a revelation, but it’s a solid compendium of what we know about happiness. Given the mission of the man behind the book, I think it’s a cause well worth supporting by helping to spread the word. May we all solve our own happiness equations.

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