My mother-in-law was recently visiting from France and was interested in borrowing a book from my collection of positive psychology texts so she could learn more about the science of happiness. I brought her to my bookshelves and told her to browse what was there and to let her curiosity be her guide. After a few minutes she had selected three that she wanted to ask me about: 1. “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, 2. “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin, and 3. “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. Which one would I recommend?
It is a difficult choice. Only one of the books is truly “positive psychology.” “The How of Happiness” is written by a psychologist and is based on actual research findings on the roots and causes of happiness. Of the three it is the most “evidence based” and grounded in real science.
“The Happiness Project,” on the other hand, is written by a housewife and former lawyer, who decided to test out different ways to create happiness in her life. Some of her “experiments” are based on the science of positive psychology, but some come from wisdom handed down from her elders, ancient philosophy, or from sources in popular culture such as Oprah Winfrey.
And the third book, “The Power of Now” is written by a spiritual guru who seems (at least by his own accounts) to have transcended his own ego through a practice of mindfulness and now teaches spiritual enlightenment to others.
Many of the people I know who study or work in positive psychology would say that the first book (by Sonja Lyubomirsky) is the only one worth reading. After all, it is the only one that has actual scientific research to support its claims. It is the only one that has theories and methods which have withstood the tests of science. But science has its limitations. Some would argue that the science behind positive psychology is still pretty slim. And even as it evolves, science doesn’t provide us with all we need to know.
Scientific research shows us things that have been tested and found to have results greater than a placebo on a sufficiently large population of subjects. But it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about what will work for any one individual. Although scientific studies help to discover results that are applicable in the real world, the reality is that the nature of research requires controls to be placed on it, which vary the conditions from what is typically found in a real world setting. In other words, a study done in a university psychology department that tests the results of some intervention on the happiness of a group of college students participating in exchange for class credit may or may not represent how the intervention will work on a middle-aged mother of two out in the real world.
In “The Happiness Project”, Gretchen Rubin is that mother of two, trying things out, seeing how they work for her, and sharing her experiences with the world. The things that work for her may or may not work for her readers, but she encourages them to try things out for themselves by doing their own “happiness projects.” There are lots of things we can learn from the experiences of others, even when they haven’t been the subject of a rigorous scientific study.
Eckhart Tolle and other spiritual leaders like him are probably the most likely to be repudiated by the scientific community. He may be denounced as a snake oil sales man—a charlatan, promising enlightenment as a way to sell books. But there is always the possibility that he is an outlier. Perhaps he truly has found enlightenment in a way that few people have. As an outlier, the phenomena of his experience and achievements would be discarded in scientific research. Statistically he would be viewed as an error that could contaminate the rest of the data where the commonalities and trends for how things work across broad populations are sought.
Ellen Langer, a mindfulness researcher, speaks of “the psychology of possibility,” saying, “if I can make one dog yodel, then we can say that yodeling is possible in dogs.” Normal scientific research does not uncover these kinds of possibilities. And so if Eckhart Tolle might be one of the few people who claims to have found the secret to true happiness, maybe it is worth reading his book, and seeing if what he has to say rings true for you.
Science is important. Theories should be tested. Research should be done. Evidence should be gathered. But this is not the only pathway to learning. Learning comes from sharing stories, from legends and myths, and from individual experimentation and inquisitiveness. Which one of these books would I recommend? They are all good. Which one is most meaningful to you?
References and recommended reading:
Langer, E. J. (2009). Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. New York: Ballantine Books.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.
Tolle, E. (1999). The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Vancouver: Namaste Publishing.