Discover more from Graymatter
Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier
by Athur C. Brooks, Oprah Winfrey
On my never-ending quest to be the best version of myself and experience life to the fullest, I was curious to learn the science and practicality of getting happier by reading the book Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier by Harvard Professor Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey. I relate to the idea that “happiness is not a destination; happiness is a direction.” I learned that happiness is something we need to practice daily. Even in the face of obstacles, there is an agency to manage our emotions and double down on the macronutrients of enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. This is the inner work we must do first. Then, we are in a position to build the life we want by turning outward to family, friendships, work, and spiritual life.
In the following paragraphs, I will share curated content from the book and my nuggets of how I may be putting these ideas into practice. Change only happens when we learn the art and science and then apply this knowledge in our daily lives. I encourage you to derive your nuggets from this book and become happier in the process.
Managing Your Emotions
You can’t be happy - though you can be happier. And your circumstances and your source of unhappiness don’t have to stop you.
We can also stop believing that our individual problems are the reasons we haven’t achieved happiness.
The biggest reason people don’t get happier is because they don’t even know what they are trying to increase.
Happy feelings are not happiness; they are evidence of happiness.
The macronutrients of happiness are enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose.
Enjoyment takes an urge for pleasure and adds two important things: communion and consciousness.
All addictions involve pleasure, not enjoyment
🌟 My nugget: Given that pleasure is fleeting and solitary, seek out friends and family to share experiences that are memorable.
The second macronutrient of happiness is satisfaction.
It’s how you feel when you do something difficult - maybe even painful - that meets your life’s purpose as you see it.
If you don’t suffer from something - at least a little - it doesn’t satisfy you at all.
🌟 My nugget: Embrace and lean into challenging work where I will grow - the easy path is not the path.
The third macronutrient is the most important: purpose.
Without purpose, however, we are utterly lost, because we can’t deal with life’s inevitable puzzles and dilemmas.
When we do have a sense of meaning and purpose, we can face life with hope and inner peace.
🌟 My nugget: Allocate my time, energy, and focus on experiences where I can practice my craft that exudes my purpose. Resist the opportunities that offer rewards unrelated to my purpose.
Getting happier, in other words, requires that we accept unhappiness in our lives as well, and understanding it isn’t an obstacle to our happiness.
The secret to the best life is to accept your unhappiness (so you can learn and grow) and manage the feelings that result.
Happier is not a state of being, but a state of doing - not a thing you wait around and hope for, but an achievable change you actively work toward.
You feel the feel, then take the wheel. You get to decide how you’ll respond.
🌟 My nugget: We have the agency and strength to understand our emotions and not allow them to control us. Observe my emotions from a distance and learn to understand what they mean and how I should respond.
You can’t choose your feelings, but you can choose your reaction to your feelings.
Metacognition (which technically means “thinking about thinking”) is the act of experiencing your emotions consciously, separating them from your behavior, and refusing to be controlled by them.
Evolution favors the people who love learning and rewards them with pleasure.
🌟 My nugget: Be curious about life and ask interesting questions. Engage in experiences where I learn every day.
Between the conditions around you and your response to them is a space to think and make decisions.
Journal your experiences and feelings over the course of the day. Also write down how you responded to these feelings, and which responses were more and less constructive.
🌟 My nugget: expand my daily journal to reflect on feelings and their meaning.
You can’t alter history. You can, however, change your perception of it.
The reason your memories change is that you construct stories of past events from fragments of memories in accordance with your current self-narratives.
The fact that your current conditions and feelings influence how you reconstruct memories gives you a lot of power to change your understanding of the past.
🌟 My nugget: Be brave to learn from the painful events or failures of my past by reprocessing the memories with new knowledge that may change the meaning and free me from its chains. You often hear advice that thinking about your past wastes time - I used to believe it, too. I experienced some tough times in my past, and the meaning I gave them drove me into deep depression, anxiety, and fear. Over many years, there were experiences that I could not explain. I eluded myself into thinking that it was I was to blame. Then, years later, I read a few books and learned more about a few topics that freed me from my past, as many of those issues had nothing to do with me. I had reprocessed events I could not explain that now all made sense with my newfound knowledge. The baggage weighing my mind and body down for many years was set aside on the road to lighten my load as I pursue my future.
First, when you experience intense emotion, simply observe your feelings.
Second, journal your emotions.
Third, keep a database of positive memories, not just negative ones. Reviewing it when you feel down or out of control.
Fourth, look for meaning and learning in the hard parts of life.
In your journal, reserve a section for painful experiences, writing them down right afterward. Leave two lines below each entry.
After one month, return to the journal and write in the first blank line what you learned from that bad experience in the intervening period.
After six months, fill in the second line with the positives that ultimately came from it.
🌟 My nugget: Stay committed to daily journaling to observe emotions and memorialize my life's positive and adverse events. There is always a nugget to learn, and it may require time for this gold to reveal itself.
You often don’t have to accept the emotion you feel first. Rather, you can substitute a better one that you want.
Gratitude isn’t a feeling that materializes in response to your circumstances. It is a life practice.
The best way to start practicing gratitude is by including it in the journal you use to be more metacognitive.
Look at these grateful memories regularly - every day or at least every week - to remember and train your mind to do this automatically in difficult moments.
Another technique for increasing gratitude: contemplate your death.
🌟 My nugget: Add 1-2 things I am grateful for each day in my journal. Tomorrow is not guaranteed - make the most of the day you have been given, and spread goodness and value in your work.
Consuming humor - enjoying jokes - brings joy and relieves suffering.
There’s a world for believing you can make things better without distorting reality: not optimism, but hope.
Hope involves personal agency, meaning it gives you a sense of power and motivation.
First, imagine a better future, and detail what makes it so.
Second, envision yourself taking action.
🌟 My nugget: Believe in yourself, and take massive action. Prove the naysayers wrong.
To become a more compassionate (and thus happier) person, start by working on your toughness.
To be tougher in the face of another’s pain doesn’t mean feeling it less. Rather, you should learn to feel the pain without being impacted to act.
Being self-compassionate means doing the hard things that you actually need to do, notwithstanding your feelings.
🌟 My nugget: care for others and do hard things that align with your purpose.
Focusing less on yourself and your desires will make you happier.
First, avoid your own reflection.
Second, stop judging things around you so much.
Third, spend more time marveling at the world around you.
To manage emotions, almost all of us need to work to care less what others think about us.
Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.
The prison of other's approval is actually one built by you, maintained by you, and guarded by you.
Envy, in short, is a happiness killer.
First, focus on the ordinary parts of other’s lives. The main way we water that terrible weed is with our attention.
Second, turn off the envy machine.
Third, reveal your unenviable self; stop trying to be envied yourself.
🌟 My nugget: Be curious and present about the world and people instead of yourself. Be authentic, and don’t care what others think or have.
Building What Matters
Thomas Aquinas listed what he called idols that occupy our days and waste our lives: money, power, pleasure, and prestige.
These idols all stand in the way of enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose.
The four idols are distractions to numb us to emotional circumstances we dislike and feel we can’t control.
Emotional self-management lowers the attractiveness of these distractions.
This is where to spend the time, attention, and energy released by emotional self-management.
The four pillars are family, friendship, work, and faith.
Oprah: I have learned to live my life so I’m attached to the work I do and the things I create and the people who matter to me - but not in a way that involves expectations.
Conflict is the cost of abundant love.
Acknowledging family conflict is good, because it improves communication and gives you opportunities to solve problems.
First, do try to read minds.
Second, live your life, but don’t ask them to change their lives.
Third, don’t treat your family like emotional ATMs.
Take the lead by treating your family the way you do your friends, both generously giving and gratefully accepting emotional support.
🌟 My nugget: Accept that there will be family conflict and be the leader in creating a trusting space for open communication that leads to better outcomes for the whole family.
The fact is that the more we achieve compatibility, the harder love gets to find and maintain.
Romantic love requires complementarity - that is, differences.
First, seek out differences in personality and tastes.
Second, focus more on what really matters.
Third, if you are dating, let humans make your matches instead of machines.
🌟 My nugget: Be open to meeting women who are different from me and learn about their world.
Negative culture in a family can make problem-solving impossible, so there is no growth or learning, just chronic unhappiness.
To achieve greater happiness and freedom, we all need to abandon these sorts of partial forgiveness.
Four successful forgiveness strategies that family members use to heal a relationship after a transgression or conflict has occurred: discussion (Let’s talk this through so I can let go of the hurt”), explicit forgiveness (“I forgive you”), nonverbal forgiveness (such as showing affection after a fight), and minimization (which involves classifying the transgression as un-important and simply choosing to disregard it).
First, when you’re choosing forgiveness, remember that resolving a conflict is not charity - it primarily benefits you.
Second, widen your conflict-resolution repertoire, especially when what you have tried before isn’t working.
Third, don’t dismiss minimization too quickly; abandoning a conflict rather than trying to solve it is the perfect solution.
🌟 My nugget: Family conflict happens; be courageous to understand and forgive. There are likely stories you are making up in your head that make it worse. Create a safe space for discussion and forgiveness.
The true action of love is to stop avoiding problems and simply look outward and say what you see - to be courageous and work toward a family that can take it.
Families where people bottle up their feelings and beliefs are not at their best, because they can’t bring their full selves to the party.
The point of honesty is having enough love for others to be precisely who you are, with complete transparency, even if it is difficult for both of you.
First, before being honest, solicit and accept honesty from others.
Committing yourself to honesty starts with a commitment to be honest with yourself, and an effort to seek out and accept complete honesty from others, especially loved ones.
Second, offer truth to heal, never to harm.
Third, make the truth appealing.
🌟 My nugget: Honesty is essential for the family bond and love. Confront problems with the truth and eliminate the need for any lies in the family.
Friendship accounts for almost 60 percent of the difference in happiness between individuals, no matter how introverted or extroverted they are.
You need at least one close friend besides your spouse, and there is an upper limit of perhaps ten friendships that you can realistically spend enough time on to regard them as close.
There is one type of friend almost everyone has: the friend from whom you need or want something.
These are what social scientists call “expedient friendships” - with people we might call “deal friends.”
One of the best predictors of well-being in middle age is being able to name a few truly close friends.
With your list of real friends - and people you would like to be on that list - make a concrete plan for staying in touch and seeing one another.
🌟 My nugget: Contact at least one close friend a week. Get out of the house and make more friends in the Austin area, unrelated to my work.
Samudaya teaches that attachment is the root of human suffering.
To find peace in life, we must be willing to detach ourselves and thus become free of sticky cravings.
The humility to admit when we are wrong and to change our beliefs can lead us to make more friends and get happier.
First, admit quickly when you think you are wrong.
Second, welcome contradiction.
Third, start small.
🌟 My nugget: Be open to learning about beliefs and opinions from your friends. Be willing to let go.
The most important predictor of late-life happiness is stable relationships - especially a long romantic partnership.
The important thing for well-being is relationship satisfaction, and that depends on what social scientists call “companionate love” - stable affection, mutual understanding, and commitment.
First, lighten up.
Second, make the companionate love more about the two of you, and less about each individual.
Make we your default pronoun when talking with others.
Look at disagreement as something we need to find time to fix, instead of as me being attacked by you, which is a disturbing emergency.
🌟 My nugget: Seek a long-term relationship to live a long, healthy life with someone who believes in the companionate principles of stable affection, mutual understanding, and commitment.
Technology that crowds out our real-life interaction with others will lower our well-being and thus must be managed with great care in our lives.
Research has shown that deeper conversations bring more well-being than short communications.
First, choose interaction over vegetation. Make use of device options that inform you of the time you are spending on social media and the internet.
Second, create a communication hierarchy. Make an effort to meet in person. The more face-to-face communication people had with others, the more understood they felt and the more satisfied they were with their relationship.
🌟 My nugget: Meet friends in person as the top option, then a visual or regular phone call. Seek friends who desire deep conversations.
Job satisfaction and life satisfaction are positively related, and causal: liking your job cause you to be happier all around.
To build a career that makes you happier means understanding yourself.
Your pay and benefits are what are called extrinsic rewards.
You need extrinsic rewards to get by, but you need intrinsic rewards to get happier.
Rather than relentlessly pursuing a “perfect match” career, a better approach is to remain flexible on the exact job, while searching for two big things.
The first is earned success. Gives you a sense of accomplishment and professional efficacy.
And this leads to the second, related intrinsic goal, which is service to others - the sense that your job is making the world a better place.
🌟 My nugget: Seek work that leads to achievement with pay and benefits to sponsor my dreams. Continue my pursuit as a world-class coach to serve others - helping people unlock their true potential in this short life.
Relying on extrinsic rewards lowers satisfaction.
It can even lock you into the wrong career trajectory for decades to come. This is because it makes you pursue a career path that is wrong for you.
🌟 My nugget: Resist paths that do not align with your purpose and offer only extrinsic rewards.
Despite the extolled virtues of maximum work, the costs will almost certainly outrun the benefits, as they do in self-medicating addictions.
The burnout, depression, job stress, and work-life conflict will get worse, not better.
Workaholism can lead to secondary addictions, such as to drugs, alcohol, or pornography.
There are solutions to work addiction, according to Harvard professor Ashley Whillans.
She recommends three practices starting with a “time audit.” Keep a careful log of your major activities - work, leisure, running errands - as well as how long you spent on each one and how it felt.
Next, Professor Whillans recommends scheduling your downtime.
Finally, program your leisure.
Treat your walks, prayer time, and gym sessions as if they were meetings with the president.
🌟 My nugget: Record all activities on my Outlook calendars and color code to distinguish tasks. Add non-work activities in advance, so I have something to work toward and enjoy.
It is all too easy to lose your true self to a representation of yourself that is your job title of duties. This is what is called self-objectification.
Humans are capable of objectifying themselves in many ways - by assessing their self-worth in terms of their physical appearance, economic position, or political views, for example - but all of them boil down to one damaging core act: reducing your own humanity to a single characteristic, thus encouraging others to do so as well.
Recognize that you will never be satisfied as long as you objectify yourself.
First, put some space between your job and your life.
Make some friends who don’t see you as a professional object.
Striking up friendships with people who don’t have any connection to your professional life encourages you to develop nonwork interests and virtues, and thus be a fuller person.
The great irony is that by trying to be special, we end up reducing ourselves to a single quality and turning ourselves into cogs in a machine of our own making.
You are not your job.
🌟 My nugget: Embrace a holistic identity that includes work and all the other roles I play in life. Build more relationships not related to my professional work.
Transcendental beliefs and experiences aid dramatically in our efforts to get happier.
It makes us happier by taking the focus off ourselves and putting it instead on the Majesties of the universe.
Most importantly, the path of transcendence is an adventure, a spiritual expedition that can add a kind of excitement to our lives beyond anything else we have ever experienced.
Oprah: What I’ve observed over thousands of conversations is that Life is always speaking to us, trying to urge us toward the best version of ourselves.
Religious belief is strongly correlated with searching for - and finding - purpose in life.
Now, close your eyes in meditation or prayer. You become truly present in this moment of your life - you are mindful.
The most important part of starting (or supercharging) a transcendental journey is, well, starting.
First, keep it simple; like slipping into a religious service and sitting in the back, observing without judgment or expectation.
Second, read more.
Third, let go.
Serve the tenets of the divine, seek the ultimate truth, and thus work to make others happier rather than yourself. Only then will you be more successful in your own quest.
🌟 My nugget: Commit to 15 minutes of spiritual or philosophical thinking/ reading daily.
Now, Become the Teacher
To put the ideas into practice, you have to remember them. Here’s how to do that: teach what you’ve learned to plastic platypus.
If you can explain something coherently, you will absorb the information and remember it.
Teaching a subject is the most reliable way to learn it deeply.
Our world needs advocates and warriors to help the millions suffering without relief.
So many still believe that there is no hope as long as there is pain in their lives. Find the people in your life in this situation. Be their hope.
Don’t hide your own struggles. Use them to help others understand that they are not alone, and getting happier is possible. Your pain gives you credibility, and your progress makes you an inspiration.
Crystallized intelligence is an increasing knack for combining complex ideas, understanding what they mean, recognizing patterns, and teaching others.
People should hold different roles throughout their lives that complement each type of smarts - but always tending toward teaching and mentoring as the years pass, because that is your increasing natural strength.
In life, we do best and are happiest when we rely more on our wisdom as we age.
To embark on a project to get happier, and to do the work to manage your emotions, is to say that you love yourself enough to make this investment.
And to become the teacher of what you have learned is an act of abundant love toward everyone in your life.
Start each day saying, “I don’t know what this day will bring, but I will love others and allow myself to be loved.”
The key to progress isn’t perfection, it’s to being again, and again, and again.
Every day is a new day, another opportunity to pick up the hammer and go back to work.
🌟 My nugget: Share my life experiences and wisdom so others can benefit. Teach others who have lost hope that they have the agency to take the wheel. Be the professor. Be the coach. Love those who cross your path.
Thanks for reading Graymatter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.