The Hamburger of Happiness

A simple 2×2 model for understanding Happiness

In his recent book Happier, Harvard University lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar presents a wonderful model of happiness which he has christened The Hamburger Model. What I really like (apart from the 2×2 format which all MBAs love…) is the simplicity of it. It goes something like this:

Junk Food Burger
: tasty but unhealthy. When people are asked to describe what a happy life means to them they quite often think of a life filled only with pleasure and devoid of any pain. This is the life of the hedonist, someone who lives only for the moment, giving little thought to future consequences. Young children are like this, until they learn to forego immediate gratification for some longer-term reward. But what would happen if your life were only ever about indulgence? In a continuous succession of pleasurable experiences, how would you distinguish one from another? Put simply, if you ate your favourite food every day, how long would it take before you got thoroughly sick of it?

Vegetarian Burger: healthy but not tasty – the kind you eat because you know it’s good for you, not because you really want to. In this quadrant of the Hamburger Model, you forgo current pleasure entirely in order to derive some future benefit, living your life according to the ‘No Pain, No Gain’ principle. The problem with this is that you can start to believe that happiness is something you can only achieve in the future. And when you reach that future, what then? Often, you’re still searching…Life has become a rat race.

Worst Burger: both tasteless and unhealthy. Before you ask, “well why would you eat it then?”, some people become resigned to the belief that their life is pretty pointless – they give up on the present and the future and spend their time ruminating on what went wrong or what could have been. Seligman’s research on a phenomenon called ‘Learned Helplessness‘ shows how easy it is for us to learn that we have no control over our own lives and that whatever we do is futile. Ben-Shahar describes this desperate place as ‘Nihilism’. Fortunately what has been learned can be unlearned.

Ideal Burger: both tasty and healthy. The Happiness quadrant is where you enjoy a good balance of pleasure, fulfillment and purpose in your life. Sounds simple doesn’t it? There are two crucial points here. Firstly – take a moment to consider your own personal definition of happiness. If you’re thinking you’d like to experience pure unremitting bliss for the rest of your days, beware. Leading psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud has suggested that we really should be aiming for no more than “mild contentment”. Anything more and you’re likely to set yourself up to fail. So you might have to revisit your expectations. Secondly, does your definition of happiness incorporate activity as well as feeling? If not, think about it again – only you can make you happy, so in order to be happy, to create meaning and purpose in your life, you have to do something.

So what are you going to do differently?

2 Responses

  1. Sridhar Sarnobat Says:

    Thanks for the diagram. I really liked the model he described in his book, and for those who haven’t read it they should at least see this diagram of yours.

  2. Bridget Says:

    Thanks for your comment Sridhar. The other day I came across another article about Tal Ben-Shahar’s Harvard lectures which was not so complimentary – when I find it I’ll post a link to it.

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