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9 Essentials for a Happier Life, According to Oprah Winfrey

Her new book ‘Build the Life You Want’ with Arthur C. Brooks offers an action plan for ‘happierness’


spinner image left book cover of build the life you want by arthur c brooks and oprah winfrey right oprah winfrey speaking at cinemacon twenty twenty three
Portfolio / Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Oprah Winfrey’s decades mining emotional topics on her TV talk show lent her “a front-row seat to unhappiness,” she writes in her and Arthur C. Brooks’ new book Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier. But, Oprah, 69, adds, it also allowed her to meet so many people who, even in the face of tremendous challenges, were remarkably happy. What made them so?

To better understand and explain happiness, she turned to Brooks, 59, a social scientist who teaches a course on the science of happiness at Harvard and writes a popular column on happiness, How to Build a Life, for The Atlantic. Last year he published From Strength to Strength: Finding Happiness, Success, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.

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Their new book argues that with time and effort — there’s no quick fix — anyone can be happier. (Winfrey likes the term “happierness”.) They cite research-tested essentials of happiness, starting with a focus on your inner life and turning outward to focus on what they call the four pillars of happiness: family, friendships, work and spiritual life.

So, how can you be happier? Their advice, in brief:

 1. Understand what happiness is — and isn’t.

Happiness, the authors argue, is a combination of three essential things: satisfaction, enjoyment and purpose. And, they emphasize, happiness is not about a lack of unhappiness; unhappiness is an inherent part of being human. In fact, “getting happier requires that we accept unhappiness in our lives as well.” To put it another way: “Be grateful for the bees, not just the honey.” And it requires effort.

2. Practice metacognition.

You can’t choose your feelings but you can choose your reaction to your feelings. How? Through metacognition, which is about experiencing your emotions consciously — taking a step back and observing them rather than reacting instinctively. “Between the conditions around you and your response to them is a space to think and make decisions,” they write. “In this space, you have freedom.”

3. Choose better emotions.

Once you are able to notice your emotions with a bit of distance, you can make an effort to choose better ones. “There is more than one reasonable way to feel about the situation at hand,” the book notes. The challenge is that we often contend with our own negativity bias — a natural human tendency to focus on the negative far more than the positive.

The most effective way to overcome that bias, they say, is by focusing on gratitude. Keep a list of things you are grateful for, to remind yourself. 

4. Focus less on yourself.

Research shows that focusing less on yourself and your desires will make you happier. On a most basic level, the authors point to the benefits of avoiding mirrors, but they also suggest learning to marvel at the world around you (experiencing awe is associated with happiness) and trying to care less about what people think of you.

As Winfrey puts it, “The surest way to improve your inner world is to focus on the outer world, because happiness inside comes from looking outside.”

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5. “Build your imperfect family.”

No family is without conflict. The authors offer advice for managing that conflict, including trying not to take others’ negativity personally; preventing unhappy family members from spreading their negativity (sometimes this might involve “strategic avoidance” of that person); learning to forgive (forgiveness is “the secret weapon in all families”); and practicing honesty (start by being honest with yourself).  

 6. Forge “deeply real” friendships.

The authors discuss “deal friends” versus “real friends.” The latter are, obviously, better; the first are friends from whom you need or want something — they are useful, but not likely to bring lasting joy or comfort. Make a list of your friends, they suggest, noting whether each is a deal or real friend. Then make “concrete plans” for spending more time with your real friends. And not just online: “Real friendship requires real contact,” they note. Technology is a “terrible substitute.”

 7. Perform meaningful work.

While many people don’t have the luxury of choosing their ideal job, there are ways to find satisfaction in work, the authors say. This involves seeking intrinsic rewards in what you do, beyond money and power, such as earned success and service to others. And be alert to work addiction: “You are not your job.”

 8. Embrace faith.

Science has shown that “transcendental beliefs and experiences aid dramatically in our efforts to get happier.” Why? Focusing on religious or spiritual practices, they write, offers us a more accurate perspective on life by moving our attention beyond “our quotidian worries and everyday cares” and drawing it to “the majesties of the universe.”

They also point to practicing mindfulness as an important tool for enjoying the present moment.

 9. Teach others what you’ve learned about “happierness.”

Once you’ve absorbed the lessons above, share them. While doing so, be honest about your own struggles and pain (“your pain gives you credibility, and your progress makes you an inspiration”). “Happiness multiplies when we share it,” Winfrey notes in her conclusion. “I hope this book lets your sharing begin.”

Don't miss: The Evidence Is in on What Makes a ‘Good Life’

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