Top critical review
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on 1 March 2013
I bought this book out of curiosity - not because I felt particularly unhappy, but because I wondered how I could be even happier. After reading the introduction I was hooked and expected the book to be truly interesting as it was written by an academic researcher specialised in positive psychology.
As someone with a scientific background myself, I was pleased to read in the introduction that "The How of Happiness is different from many self-help books as it represents a distillation of what researchers of the science of happiness, including myself, have uncovered in their empirical investigations. Every suggestion that I offer is supported by scientific research; if evidence is mixed or lacking on a particular subject, I plainly say so." (p.3). The author then goes on to explain that only double-blind experiments with participants chosen at random can determine whether a claim is true, which are often missing in other books and magazines providing advice on how to become happier. Unfortunately, the book didn't live up to these expectations. Mrs Lyubomirsky often resorts to unscientific anecdotes and personal stories (isolated cases) to illustrate her methods. There is hardly anything scientific past the introduction. It's just another book of advice like any other one. It may be based on serious research, but unless you decide to check all the references in the notes section, very little is explained. You just have to trust her. That's not a very convincing approach.
Overall I found the book annoyingly repetitive, with lots of empty sentences stating the obvious or things that are common sense.
The book was also clearly written for an American audience, starting from the premises that the readers are inordinately materialistic and obsessed with work, money and keeping up with the Joneses. It almost feels like the author had the Desperate Housewives in mind when she wrote the book.
I will go as far as to question the reliability of the content of the book itself. When I read on page 45-46 that the weather and personal safety are not important to achieve happiness, one could wonder why so many Northern Europeans suffer from depression in winter, or why bullied children and harassed workers ever commit suicide. Mrs Lyubomirsky claims that studies comparing the happiness levels of Californians and Midwesterners didn't show that Californians were happier in average, and therefore that weather is not a factor influencing happiness. It doesn't take a genius to understand what a gross simplification that is. If people could live as happily in the Arctic regions, then why is there so few people moving to the Canadian North, Greenland or Lapland ?
Mrs Lyubomirsky completely disregards Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which states that people can only be happy once they fulfil life's needs by order of importance. At the bottom of the pyramid are the most fundamental needs, like food, water, sleep and sex. Then comes personal safety, then only friendships and love. Without all these, people cannot move to the next level, which is self-esteem, confidence, and achievements. And only when these needs have been fulfilled can an individual truly reach the level of self-actualization and happiness. How can she, as a psychologist, believe one second that personal safety is not an essential step to achieve happiness ?
I think that the main problem with this book is that the author doesn't understand the essential distinction between being (un)happy about a temporary situation and life in general. She claims from the first page of chapter one that being in a relationship, having a baby, getting a better job, a bigger house, and so on will only make us happy for a short time, until we get accustomed to the novelty and want more. However, some of these cravings are more than mere whims. It is true that some people can be perfectly happy staying single and not having children. But that's a personal choice, emanating from one's character and physiological needs. There are people who simply cannot live a happy life without being in a relationship or without having children. The author's approach is to compare statistics of the happiness level between two groups of people, then wildly claim that because both groups have similar levels of happiness, one factor (like being in a relationship) does not significantly influence happiness. That is very poor science indeed.
What's more, her suggestions to improve our long-term happiness do not differ much from the small highs one get by buying a new car or getting a promotion at work. She advocates doing a series of small things on a daily basis, like being kind to others, showing one's gratitude, or savour one's food. Each of them will only provide a small boost, but doing them frequently and regularly will improve long-term happiness, she explains. I fail to see the difference with enjoying one's life by eating out with friends, watching a good movie, or redecorating the house. It's as if Mrs Lyubomirsky had a moral issue with achieving happiness through material ways and wanted us to do it only through mental or spiritual ways. Perhaps that is a reaction to living in a too materialistic society (California).
There are actually quite a few simple ways of boosting one's mood, and therefore happiness, on a daily basis, which aren't mentioned in the book at all. Sleeping well is one of the most important, as sleep deprivation makes up irritable, stressed, unpleasant and aggressive with others, and even depressed. Watching comedies, playing games, and so on are also good ways.
Finally, Mrs Lyubomirsky only looks at positive ways to enhance happiness, but fails to recognise the importance of reducing negative circumstances. Her methods will never work on someone who is bullied on a daily basis and can't escape from it. That person will remain miserable, because he or she did not achieve personal safety, towards the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If it is true that we possess an uncanny faculty to adapt to positive changes, even winning the lottery, and some negative changes (illness, unemployment, loss of a relative), deficiencies in the basic necessities of life can seriously affect long-term happiness. Sometimes having a house big enough for all its occupants can become a basic necessity if it is the only way to sleep well regularly. Too bad the author couldn't understand that.