Brain Pickings

7 Essential Books on the Art and Science of Happiness

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From Plato to Buddha, or what imperfection has to do with the neuroscience of the good life.

If you, like me, are fascinated by the human quest to understand the underpinnings of happiness but break out in hives at the mere mention of self-help books, you’re in luck: I’ve sifted through my personal library, a decade’s worth of obsessive reading, to surface seven essential books on the art and science of happiness, rooted in solid science, contemporary philosophy and cross-disciplinary insight. From psychology and neuroscience to sociology and cultural anthropology to behavioral economics, these essential reads illuminate the most fundamental aspiration of all human existence: How to avoid suffering and foster lasting well-being.

THE HAPPINESS HYPOTHESIS

The question of what makes us happy is likely as old as human cognition itself and has occupied the minds of philosophers, prophets and scientists for millennia. In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, psychology professor Jonathan Haidt unearths ten great theories of happiness discovered by the thinkers of the past, from Plato to Jesus to Buddha, to reveal a surprising abundance of common tangents. (For example, from Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” From Buddha: “Our life is the creation of our mind.”)

Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains work so well that our reasoning can work at all.”

Haidt takes this ambitious analysis of philosophical thought over the centuries and examines it through the prism of modern psychology research to extract a remarkably compelling blueprint for optimizing the human condition for happiness.

STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS

Nearly four years ago, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert published Stumbling On Happiness. To this day, it remains the best-researched yet captivatingly digestible book on the art and science of happiness, exposing with equal parts wit and scientific rigor the many misconceptions we have about happiness, the tricks our minds play on us in its pursuit and how the limitations of our imagination get in the way of the grand quest.

Sample the book’s nuggets of wisdom with Gilbert’s excellent TED talk from 2008:

We have within us the capacity to manufacture the very quality we are constantly chasing.” ~ Daniel Gilbert

THE ART OF HAPPINESS

Science may be a reliable source of illumination, but it would be short-sighted to let it completely eclipse centuries of spiritual tradition investigating the underbelly of human nature. There is hardly a cultural figure more revered in that realm than His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The Art of Happiness, a landmark articulation of the philosophy of peace and compassion as a foundation of happiness by Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, has served as a powerful guide to well-being for secular and spiritual happiness seekers alike for the past twelve years.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” ~ His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Both timeless and timely in today’s cultural landscape of ubiquitous moral, political and environmental turmoil, where it’s all the more important to develop the skills for finding inner peace amids chaos, The Art of Happiness captures with eloquent simplicity the most important point of all: Happiness, like any art, requires diligent study and disciplined practice.

HAPPINESS

French scientist-turned-Buddhist-monk Matthieu Ricard is one of our greatest intellectual heroes. The son of prominent French philosopher and intellectual Jean-François Revel, Ricard got a degree in molecular genetics, then decided to step away from his career in science and devote his life to the study of Buddhism. His inner scientist, however, remained wide awake as he developed a keen interest in the neurological effects of meditation and mindfulness training.

In Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, he distills 25 centuries of Buddhist spiritual tradition alongside bleeding-edge neuroscience and the most compelling findings of Western cognitive psychology — an intelligent and refreshing vision for fusing the life of the mind and the life of the heart into a path of genuine psychoemotional fulfillment.

For a taste of Ricard’s genius, don’t miss his fantastic TED talk, one of our top five of all time:

THE HAPPINESS PROJECT

On a rainy afternoon in 2006, New York Magazine writer Gretchen Rubin found herself having one of those inevitable carpe diem epiphanies about the fleeting nature of life and the importance of savoring the moment. Instead of shrugging it off as a contrived truism, however, Rubin decided to turn it into an experiment: She set out to test humanity’s ample arsenal of theories about what makes us happy, from ancient philosophies to pop culture prescriptions to the latest scientific studies. She chronicled the experience on her blog and eventually adapted it in The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun — an enlightening and entertaining record of her journey through awkward moments and surprising successes that together weave a rich mesh of existential insight.

We reviewed it in full in 2009 and, after having the pleasure of meeting Gretchen recently, fully recommend the The Happiness Project as a profound yet pragmatic guide to personal growth.

AUTHENTIC HAPPINESS

Back in the day, we had the pleasure of studying under Dr. Martin Seligman, father of the thriving positive psychology movement — a potent antidote to the traditional “disease model” of psychology, which focuses on how to relieve suffering rather than how to amplify well-being. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment offers a toolkit for harnessing our core strengths to make everyday interactions more fulfilling, complete with a range of assessment tools and self-tests rooted in cognitive science and behavioral psychology research.

Relieving the states that make life miserable… has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority. The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life.'” ~ Martin Seligman

Seligman gives a provocative primer on positive psychology in this must-see TED talk:

THE GIFTS OF IMPERFECTION

Brené Brown is no ordinary sociologist. She calls herself, quite accurately, a “researcher-storyteller” and her seminal research on vulnerability, shame and empathy has brought about a whole new understanding of an intricate dimension of human authenticity and worth: Something she calls “wholeheartedness.” Her most recent book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, isn’t the self-help bible the title may mislead you to expect. Rather, it’s a treasure trove of insight on emotional health and psychological balance, rooted in a decade’s worth of rigorous research but delivered in a deeply human way. It’s so fantastic, in fact, that when we first featured it late last year, it quickly became one of the most-read, most-shared Brain Pickings articles in all of 2010.

Brown’s talk from TEDxHouston is our favorite TEDx talk of all time and absolutely unmissable, so we’ll repost it here in case you did miss it:

In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen.

The Gifts of Imperfection examines one of the greatest foundations of happiness — our sense of and need for belonging, both with others and in our own skin — and brings to it a level of authenticity and understanding that fundamentally changes the way we relate to ourselves and each other.

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Why Man Creates: A Saul Bass Gem from 1968

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I love iconic graphic designer Saul Bass and have a soft spot for luminaries’ musings on the nature of creativity.

Naturally, I’m head over heels with Why Man Creates — a remarkable short documentary from 1968, animated by Bass and alluringly subtitled “a series of explorations, episodes & comments on creativity.”

Playful yet profound, the film is a series of sequences that at first appear unconnected but eventually converge into a compelling exploration of (wo)man’s most fundamental impetus to create, featuring such delightful tongue-in-cheek vehicles as this exchange between Michelangelo and da Vinci:

Whaddaya doin?” ‘I’m painting the ceiling! Whadda you doin?” “I’m painting the floor!”

For more on Bass’s design legacy, and its place in the context of other seminal design work, see the magnificent monograph Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design.

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They Were There: Errol Morris Spotlights Computer Pioneers

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We tend to think of the evolution of technology as this disembodied force that changes, for better or for worse, the way we live. But, in fact, it’s the product of individual innovators and the companies who unite them. Among the most monumental tech innovators of our time is International Business Machines, known today simply as IBM. Founded in 1911, IBM is responsible for inventions such as the first school time control system, the first electronic keypunch and the first large-scale electro-mechanical calculator. For its centennial this year, the company has released a duo of documentaries exploring its legacy and the history of seminal technologies that shaped the course of contemporary computing.

They Were There by legendary documentary director Errol Morris spotlights the pioneers who “changed the way the world works,” quite literally, with music by none other than Philip Glass.

100 X 100 chronicles a century of technological achievements, presented by 100 people, each recounting the IBM achievement recorded in the year he or she was born, moving from the oldest to the youngest — a refreshingly innovative storytelling device, layered on top of some fascinating historical trivia.

For more on the history of IBM, one of the most wide-reaching innovators of our time, we highly recommend The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson, Sr. and the Making of IBM — the remarkable story of America’s first celebrity CEO told through rare, never-before-explored documents and riveting tales of optimism amidst chaos.

HT Coudal

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What Is Reality? A BBC Horizon Documentary

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What walking through walls has to do with tropical fruit and the search for the God particle.

We’re big fans of Horizon, BBC’s iconic popular science documentary series, whose claims to fame include pitting science against God and illuminating how music works. Their latest installment deals with one of the most fundamental questions of human existence: What Is Reality? — an inquiry so deep and complex it has occupied the seemingly insufficient minds of brilliant scientists and philosophers for eons.

It’s one of the simplest yet most profound questions in science: The search to understand the nature of reality. But on this quest, common sense is no guide.”

The series is available on YouTube in its entirety, and covers a number of fascinating scientific theories about the nature of reality, from theoretical physics to mathematics to quantum mechanics.

From the discovery of quarks, the fundamental building blocks of matter, to the story of the Large Hadron Collider, to the elusive Higgs boson, better-known as the God particle, the series takes an ambitious peer into the depths of intellectual inquiry and the outermost frontiers of human understanding.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, the documentary bridges concepts familiar from science fiction — parallel universes, time travel, teleportation — with areas of rigorous scientific research, brimming with concepts and discoveries so mind-bending yet grounded in present scientific investigation that they leave you questioning the very nature of everything you’ve come to know and accept as real.

For more on this enormous question, on par with our grand inquiry into what makes us human, you won’t go wrong with Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality — an elegant and eloquent read about the most important clash in theoretical physics, which shaped the course of quantum research. And of course — we’re almost embarrassed to mention this, that’s how fundamental a read it is — Stephen Hawking’s seminal A Brief History of Time should be required reading on any academic curriculum and a linchpin on every lifelong learner’s syllabus.

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