For most of its history, the main goal of the field of psychology was to prevent and treat mental health problems. It wasn’t until twenty years ago that prominent psychologists shifted their attention from reducing suffering to studying how people can lead a good and happy life. Instead of trying to get depressed and anxious patients back to a neutral state, this new area of research focused on what a person would need to flourish – to go from feeling “OK” about life to finding fulfillment.
Positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal human functioning, searching for the factors that allow individuals to thrive. With an ever-growing body of research, positive psychology wants to build a bridge between the academic theories and the self-help movement. Because how do we define happiness? What do we need to be happy and how can we put the results from all those studies into practice?
Have a look at these 5 must-read positive psychology books from the leading experts on happiness.
5 Positive Psychology Books for a Happy, Fulfilling Life
Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar
What is happiness and what are the elements of a happy life? When Harvard-lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar turned the scientific answers to those questions into practical principles, his class ‘Positive Psychology’ instantly became one of the most popular courses in the university’s history.
And it’s not hard to see why. Happier combines easy-to-read writing with serious science. According to Ben-Shahar, it’s in our nature to seek happiness – in fact, it’s our ultimate currency. But happiness is more than fleeting feelings of joy and euphoria. Experiencing positive emotions is a necessary element of a good life, but it’s not enough.
The book describes four archetypes of happiness and explains how we can be happy now and work towards future goals. Happiness shouldn’t be a trade-off between short-term pleasure and long-term fulfillment; it’s about creating a life in which both work in harmony.
Happier provides inspiring insights from a wide variety of sources. One that I particularly liked read:
“Meaningful and pleasurable activities can function like a candle in a dark room. Just as it takes a small flame or two to light up an entire physical space, one or two happy experiences during an otherwise uninspiring period can transform our general state.”
To break up the theories on happiness, Ben-Shahar also includes ‘time-ins’ – questions to reflect upon what you’ve read and how you can implement that in your own life. Every chapter also contains research-backed exercises. The final sections of the book are devoted to applying this knowledge to your work life and relationships, including meditations on all facets of happiness. So if you want to learn the secrets to daily joy and lasting contentment, Happier is the perfect starting point.
Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson
“A daily dose of positive emotions is just as important as eating your fruit and vegetables.”
To be able to bounce back from stressful times, you need a healthy balance between positive and negative emotions. In Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson presents the now famous positivity ratio – the amount of positive emotions we need to counteract the negative ones.
Based on her broaden-and-build theory, Fredrickson explains why positivity is an important part of a flourishing life. What distinguishes this book from many other positivity self-help guides is the acknowledgement that negative feelings have their own purpose too. The goal isn’t to ignore sadness, anger and guilt or replace them with happier alternatives, but to find a constructive balance between negativity and positivity.
Because emotions arise from the way we interpret events, we have more control over our feelings than we might think. Positivity list 10 positive emotions, like joy, hope, love and inspiration, and how we can cultivate them to create an upward spiral. We could practice gratitude, do a loving-kindness meditation and build positivity portfolios.
By mixing her own research with personal stories and concrete exercises, Barbara Fredrickson has written an accessible and helpful positivity book without wearing rose-colored glasses. If you’re looking for tried-and-tested ways to up your happiness ratio, Positivity is the right book for you.
The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith
What makes life worth living? In a world obsessed with happiness, it’s unusual to say that leading a good life isn’t the same as being happy. And yet, that’s exactly what Emily Esfahani Smith proposes in The Power of Meaning.
In the story-driven yet well-researched book, Smith examines the one thing that matters more than happiness: a life of depth and significance. All throughout history, people have asked themselves: What drives me? What gives me inspiration and energy, hope and consolation? Because life isn’t always easy. But despite your problems and heartache, you can still experience value and meaning.
“Does what I do here matter? I think we all struggle with this question.” – Emily Esfahani Smith
The book identifies four pillars of meaning: our relationships with others, working towards a purpose, telling stories and connecting with something bigger than ourselves. With anecdotal evidence, Smith describes (rather than prescribes) how these four components add up to a rewarding life. The Power of Meaning is a thoughtful book for anyone who feels there’s more to life than superficial happiness.
Flourish by Martin Seligman
The term flourishing refers to living in the optimal range of human functioning. According to Martin Seligman, the pioneer of positive psychology, you need five elements for that ultimate state of wellbeing: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. This PERMA-model is the focus of his most recent book Flourish – A New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing.
Like the other authors listed, Martin Seligman rejects the oversimplified definition of happiness. When people are asked how satisfied they are with their lives, their answer depends strongly on their current mood. But a good life depends on more than fleeting feelings of joy.
That’s why Seligman proposes a template for a flourishing life, in which we experience pleasant emotions, find fulfillment and achieve meaningful tasks – well, most of the time. The book then explains how we can put this new well-being theory into practice. Especially his ‘What Went Well’ exercise has become one of the most cited and recommended exercises to increase your long-term happiness. Next, Seligman explains how these concepts translate in the work force, educational field and the army.
Flourish is by no means a practical guide for being happier in life. But if you want a deeper understanding of positive psychology, Flourish covers intriguing and important (new) grounds.
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
When are people happiest? According to psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, it’s when we actively participate in creating an optimal experience. It’s that rare moment when which we feel completely in control of our lives. Flow is the mental state during which you’re completely involved in a challenging but attainable activity for its own sake. Like when you’re running a race of giving you’re all on the dance floor. Time flies and only the present moment exists.
In Flow, Csikzentmihalyi takes us on a scientific journey through the mind. Rather than providing tips, he gives examples within this theoretic framework. The book starts with an anatomy of the conscious mind. Having control over our consciousness determines our quality of life, because pleasure and pain only exist there. Flow experiences bring order to the conscious mind. Because when you’re absorbed in flow activities, there’s no room for uneasy thoughts troubling your consciousness.
“Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. (…) Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each individual.”
So what can we do to achieve that flow state? Csikzentmihalyi explains how we can bring more flow into our lives, through our body, our thinking, our work and our relationships. He doesn’t provide list of what to do, but describes the concept of flow with historical evidence and examples.
Flow is not your average bedtime read, but it’s clear to see why this book has become ground-breaking classic.
Which positive psychology book has given you new insights on living a happy, fulfilling life?
This blog post contains affiliate links, but all opinions are my own.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like: