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Be warned that a lot of book summaries will be coming in the near future. I have a 2 month backlog of 8 books that I need to write summaries for.

Finished Slow is Beautiful: New visions of community, leisure, and joie de vivre by Cecile Andrews. In this book Andrews motivates the idea of the "slow life" and discusses some way of slowing down your own life.

The central claim of this book is that the "fast" life does not lead to happiness. The constant chase after more money, more status, and more stuff decreases happiness rather than increases it. Some people find the fast life satisfying, but it is increasingly clear that the universal emphasis on the fast life is harmful to individuals and communities.

Andrews supports this claim with an overview of some of the recent research on happiness. This research supports the conclusion that the things that make us happy are the things that we have less time for in our overworked, over scheduled lives. For most people happiness comes from spending time with people they care about, participating in activities where they can achieve a state of flow, and having enough free time to do these things.

Andrews concludes that we need to slow down our lives to make room for the things that make us happy. She gives a number of tips for this, but she also emphasizes the importance of social change to allow more people to choose to slow down their lives. Andrews realizes something that much of the happiness literature misses: in American society today, slowing down your life is a privilege that few can take advantage of. Even those financially able to work part time have a hard time doing so in the career of their choice because many careers do not offer part time opportunities (part time software engineers are few and far between; I have heard stories of lawyers who were asked to leave their practice when they asked for a "part time" 40 hour week). Those who can find part time work that they find interesting usually have to sacrifice health care. Andrews recognizes that slowing down society (or at least giving all of its members the choice to slow down) will more than individual life changes.

Despite all the good things about this book, I can only give it a middling recommendation overall. The parts that were on topic were quite good. However, Andrews would occassionally go off into a political rant that was, as often as not, only tangentially related to the topic at home. These political rants rarely added to the discussion. Even reading this in April of 2009, the frequent criticisms of George W. Bush seemed dated. Sadly, these digressions were frequent enough to seriously detract from the quality of the book.

This book is a valuable read, but you have to be willing to leave behind the dirt and take home the gems.
erikars: (Default)
This is true for so much more than food:
The value of relationship marketing is that it allows many kinds of information besides prices to travel up and down the food chain: stories as well as number, qualities as well as quantities, values rather than "value." And as soon as that happens people begin to make different kinds of buying decisions, motivated by criteria other than prices. - The Omnivore's Dilemma
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Finished Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. This is, according to reviews, one of the better of the current glut of positive psychology books. This book is high quality because Gilbert does not focus on happiness. He rarely talks about happiness directly. He focuses on cognitive tendencies of human beings and their effects on how people interpret how they feel, remember how they felt, and anticipate how they will feel.

One cognitive trick that reoccurs throughout the book is that the brain summarizes. Memories of the past are not faithful recordings of the events but reconstructions based on a few key points. Observations of the present only gather a small part of the information around. (Side note: it is my opinion that this is why the faddish "law of attraction" seems to work. Focusing on a desire does not change the world, but it does change your perception of the world.)

Summarizing also applies to images of the future (although the exact word choice becomes a little odd). One's predictions tend to focus on a few key points and ignore everything else. For example, most people would feel that they will have a strong and long lasting reaction to the outcome of the next presidential election. Often, people are right about the strength of their reaction, but they are very wrong about the duration. This mistake occurs because predictions of the future leave out the details about the rest of life that tend to very quickly temper your emotions (whether your candidate wins or loses, you will still, for example, have to walk in the rain and will still get to go out to a nice dinner).

That is not all there is to this. Although people tend to over estimate their future happiness or unhappiness, the strength of their anticipation tends to color how they remember an event. Thus, if you think you will feel some amount of happiness from event and you actually feel some different amount, the amount of happiness you remember feeling will be somewhere between the two.

Gilbert does not give happiness tips, but I will take a stab at using his observations to analyze some common happiness tips. Consider the following (seemingly inconsistent) tips: live in the moment, look forward to the future, do not worry too much about the future, do not dwell on the past, cherish your happy memories. If you compare these tips with what we know about the mind, you can start to see why they all can help. Focusing on the moment raises the happiness you actually experience. Anticipation raises the happiness you will remember having experienced. Remembering past experiences provides material for your mind to use when it is making predictions about the future, so focusing on the happy memories will help you to anticipate that similar future events will bring happiness.

This book does not pretend to have all the answers. Instead, it focuses on helping you to understand how the human mind works. With these tools, you can begin to understand why certain bits of common wisdom on happiness work and why they sometimes fail. And, if you are like me, just knowing that makes you a little bit happier.
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This article on the adverse affects of commuting is just another example of a theme that has been coming up a lot for me lately. People are really bad at judging whether what they think they want really fulfills the values that they have. The article brings up several examples of trade-offs. For example, people often work far from where they live so they can get a job that helps them afford a better home or so they can get their children into better schools. Some amount of commuting is a reasonable, and possibly necessary, trade-off, but once commuting reaches a point where it makes the amount of time spent in the lovely home with the lovely children negligible, the trade-off is no longer worth it.

The strain that runs through examples such as these is that people over emphasize one value (e.g., having a good home) to the point where it overshadows other values (e.g., spending time with children). This may build to the point where not having a big picture view of one's values can actually be detrimental to the values not in the lime light. My question is: what can we do to help people understand their own values and how their choices affect all of those values, not just the values they are focusing on at the moment?
erikars: (Default)
I love this list of things to do to make you happier over at The Happiness Project.
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Finished Happy Hour is 9 to 5 By Alexander Kjerulf (available for free online). The subtitle of this book provides a more concise summary than I could come up with: "how to love your job, love your life and kick butt at work". The book discusses that people should expect to be happy at work, causes of happiness or unhappiness at work, and specific things that employees and companies can do to promote happiness at work.

Kjerulf's book is very readable, entertaining, and fully of good advice. It also is rather shallow; most of the citations refer to news articles rather than more rigorous sources. Despite this, the overall message rings true. People can and should be happy at work. Happiness is something you can do yourself and do now. A good atmosphere and the right level of challenge make you happier in the long term than yet another raise. You spend so many waking hours at work; enjoy them!


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Erika RS

May 2012

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