The concept of happiness: 5 essential books

by Todd Hebert

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The concept of happiness is a subject that endlessly engrosses me and is often the subject of Hipster Monk posts. Humans strive for happiness. People ask: What does it take to live a happy life? Money? Success? Sex? Family? Faith? Is there some secret that no one is telling me?

I don’t have the ultimate prescription for true happiness. I’m pretty sure there isn’t one. But what I do know is that happiness won’t be found in any of the thousands of self-help books taking up valuable space at the book store. In the history of publishing, I highly doubt anyone has found true and lasting happiness from a self-help book. Skip those time wasters. Instead, read about the concept of happiness.

Here are 5 recent and essential books that look at this elusive concept of happiness through the lenses of science, philosophy, history and even geography.

1. The Antidote

To be happy it’s fundamental to always look on the bright side of things and think happy thoughts, right? Eh…maybe not so much. “Too much focus on positivity and optimism is the problem, not the answer,” concludes journalist Oliver Burkeman after investigating the “negative path to happiness.” Perhaps, it is precisely our constant obsession with happiness that makes us unhappy. Ancient philosophies as well as modern psychology seem to agree.

Addictive and truly enlightening, The Antidote is one of Hipster Monk’s favorite books from last year and is enthusiastically recommended.

2. The Happiness Hypothesis

Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? How can happiness be found? These questions have plagued humans since the beginning of our existence. Many compelling and brilliant ideas have emerged over the centuries from Buddha to Plato to Jesus. In The Happiness Hypothesis, psychology professor Jonathan Haidt takes ten of these “Great Ideas” and examines them based on modern psychological research.

“I don’t believe there is an inspiring answer to the question, ‘What is the purpose of life?,'” Haidt writes. “Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the question of purpose within life.” By the end of this ambitious book, Haidt has presented us with centuries of great philosophical wisdom coupled with fascinating scientific findings to arrive at a general definition of where happiness comes from. If you own one book on the concept of happiness, The Happiness Hypothosis may be the one to have.

3. Happiness: A History
We are a culture that tends to believe happiness is a right. Happiness sits at the top of most of our priority lists. We even prescribe medicine to help in that pursuit. But societies and cultures haven’t always given so much precedence to the pursuit of happiness. In Happiness: A History, Darrin M. McMahon traces the history of mankind’s ideas about the concept of happiness from Socrates to the present. Modern westerners might define happiness as a generally positive sense of well-being, or something along those lines; and most of us consider ourselves to be happy. The ancient Greeks and Romans were more along the lines of, “no man can be considered happy until after death.” A sharp contrast!

4. Happiness
Though subtitled “A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill,” molecular biologist turned buddhist monk Matthieu Richard’s Happiness is not self-help in the classic sense. He’s not giving us step-by-step instructions to attain happiness. Instead, he’s giving us his philosophy and definition of happiness based on buddhist tradition, neuroscience, and western cognitive psychology. His is a truly fascinating perspective: east meets west, science complimenting spirituality, mind harmonious with the heart.

Check out his 2008 TED talk to get a sense of his perspective.

5. The Geography of Bliss
Eric Weiner, a former NPR foreign correspondent, travels the globe to find the happiest people in the world in this page-turner travel memoir. Does a country’s location, socio-economic policies, climate, wealth, or culture have a profound effect on one’s personal happiness?

Weiner writes about his journey for happiness with a self-depreciating, yet self-absorbed voice that is sometimes infuriating but always compelling and funny. A self-described unhappy grump, Weiner aims to learn about other’s happiness in hopes of improving his own. From the book’s introduction:

And so, on a typically steamy day in Miami, I pack my bags and depart my home on what I know full well is a fool’s errand…As the author Eric Hoffer put it, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” That’s okay. I’m already unhappy. I have nothing to lose.

Post image courtesy of On Being.

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