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About the book

We’re all laboring under our own and society’s expectations to be perfect in every way-to look younger, to make more money, to be happy all the time. But according to Tal Ben-Shahar, the New York Times bestselling author of Happier, the pursuit of perfect may actually be the number-one internal obstacle to finding happiness. OR DO YOU WANT TO BE HAPPY? Applying cutting-edge research in the field of positive psychology-the scientific principles taught in his wildly popular course at Harvard University-Ben-Shahar takes us off the impossible pursuit of perfection and directs us to the way to happiness, richness, and true fulfillment. He shows us the freedom derived from not trying to do it all right all the time and the real lessons that failure and painful emotions can teach us. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT TO BE PERFECTLY HAPPY! In The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar offers an optimal way of thinking about failure and success–and the very way we live. He provides exercises for self reflection, meditations, and “Time-Ins” to help you rediscover what you really want out of life.

Buy book: Amazon

Year published: 2009


Quotes from the book

The Pursuit of Perfect (Tal Ben-Shahar)

  • If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.
  • Our behavior toward others is often a reflection of our treatment of ourselves.
  • Change is not a threat but a challenge; the unknown is not frightening but fascinating.
  • As J. P. Morgan once remarked, ‘I can do a year’s work in nine months, but not in twelve.’
  • The pain associated with the fear of failure is usually more intense than the pain following an actual failure.
  • Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard noted ‘To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare, is to lose oneself.
  • The problem in today’s corporate world, as well as in many other realms, is not hard work; the problem is insufficient recovery.
  • If the only dream we have is of a perfect life, we are doomed to disappointment since such dreams simply cannot come true in the real world.
  • Taking the constraints of reality into consideration, the Optimalist then works toward creating not the perfect life but the best possible one.
  • Focusing on the good does not mean ignoring the bad, but rather the understanding that the most effective way to eradicate the bad is to do good.
  • Abraham Lincoln once jokingly asked, ‘How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?’ His answer? ‘Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.
  • Those who understand that failure is inextricably linked with achievement are the ones who learn, grow, and ultimately do well. Learn to fail, or fail to learn.
  • Acceptance is not a call for mediocrity, for compromise, but rather a prerequisite for the attainment of optimal success and happiness on a personal as well as interpersonal level.
  • It is doubtful whether any heavier curse could be imposed on man than the complete gratification of all his wishes without effort on his part, leaving nothing for his hopes, desires or struggles.
  • Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
  • Paradoxically, our overall self-confidence and our belief in our own ability to deal with setbacks may be reinforced when we fail, because we realize that the beast we had always feared—is not as terrifying as we thought it was.
  • Matt, the student who jokingly threatened to report me to his roommate if he saw me unhappy, thought that a person teaching happiness should radiate joy 24-7. Matt’s idea was not only unrealistic, it was in fact a recipe for unhappiness.
  • The notion that we can enjoy unlimited success or live without emotional pain and failure may be an inspiring ideal, but it is not a principle by which to lead one’s life, since in the long run it leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
  • The first step was to accept the reality that I could not have it all. While it seems obvious that you cannot work fourteen hours a day and remain fit and healthy and be a devoted father and husband, in my perfectionist fantasy world, nothing was impossible.
  • Helen Keller, who in her lifetime knew much suffering, as well as joy, noted that ‘character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
  • In essence, Perfectionists reject everything that deviates from their flawless, faultless ideal vision, and as a result they suffer whenever they do not meet their own unrealistic standards. Optimalists accept, and make the best of, everything that life has to offer.
  • Why the double standard, the generosity toward our neighbor and the miserliness where we ourselves are concerned? And so I propose that we add a new rule, which we can call the Platinum Rule, to our moral code: ‘Do not do unto yourself what you would not do unto others.’
  • If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.
  • low self-esteem, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychosomatic disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, alcoholism, social phobia, panic disorder, a paralyzing tendency to procrastination, and serious difficulties in relationships.
  • Optimalists tend to be benefit finders—the sort of people who find the silver lining in the dark cloud, who make lemonade out of lemons, who look on the bright side of life, and who do not fault writers for using too many cliches. With a knack for turning setbacks into opportunities, the Optimalist goes through life with an overall sense of optimism.
  • The emotional life that the Perfectionist expects is one of a constant high; the Optimalist expects his life to include emotional ups, emotional downs, and everything in between. The Perfectionist rejects painful emotions that do not meet his expectation of an unwavering flow of positive emotions; the Optimalist permits himself to experience the full range of human emotions.
  • In the psychological realm, injuries come in the form of emotional harm; feeling lethargic, anxious, or depressed are some of the signals that we need some time to recover. These signals, unlike physical injuries, are more subtle and easier to discount. And it is not uncommon for a person to continue working just as hard, if not harder, while the mind and the heart are pleading for a break.
  • When the Dalai Lama was then asked to clarify whether indeed the object of compassion may be the self, he responded: ‘Yourself first, and then in a more advanced way the aspiration will embrace others. In a way, high levels of compassion are nothing but an advanced state of that self-interest. That’s why it is hard for people who have a strong sense of self-hatred to have genuine compassion toward others. There is no anchor, no basis to start from.’
  • The rising levels of mental health problems, coupled with improved psychiatric medication, are thrusting us toward a brave new world. To reverse direction, rather than listening to advertisers who promise us the wonder drug, the magic pill that will improve performance and mood, we need to listen to our nature and rediscover its wonders. Regular recovery, on the micro-, mid-, and macrolevels, can often do the work of psychiatric medicine, only naturally.
  • … psychologists today differentiate between positive perfectionism, which is adaptive and healthy, and negative perfectionism, which is maladaptive and neurotic. I regard these two types of perfectionism as so dramatically different in both their underlying nature and their ramifications that I prefer to use entirely different terms to refer to them. Throughout this book, I will refer to negative perfectionism simply as perfectionism and to positive perfectionism as optimalism.
  • Perfectionism and optimalism are not distinct ways of being, an either-or choice, but rather they coexist in each person. And while we can move from perfectionism toward optimalism, we never fully leave perfectionism behind and never fully reach optimalism ahead. The optimalism ideal is not a distant shore to be reached but a distant star that guides us and can never be reached. As Carl Rogers pointed out, The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.
  • The word appreciate has two meanings. The first meaning is ‘to be thankful,’ the opposite of taking something for granted. The second meaning is ‘to increase in value’ (as money appreciates in the bank). Combined, these two meanings point to a truth that has been proved repeatedly in research on gratitude: when we appreciate the good in our lives, the good grows and we have more of it. The opposite, sadly, is also true: when we fail to appreciate the good—when we take the good in our lives for granted—the good depreciates.
  • The basic premise of cognitive therapy is that we react to our interpretation of events rather than directly to the events themselves, which is why the same event may elicit radically different responses from different people. An event leads to a thought (an interpretation of the event), and the thought in turn evokes an emotion. I see a baby (event), recognize her as my daughter (thought), and feel love (emotion). I see the audience waiting for my lecture (event), interpret it as threatening (thought), and experience anxiety (emotion).
  • One of the wishes that I always have for my students is that they should fail more often (although they are understandably not thrilled to hear me tell them so). If they fail frequently, it means that they try frequently, that they put themselves on the line and challenge themselves. It is only from the experience of challenging ourselves that we learn and grow, and we often develop and mature much more from our failures than from our successes. Moreover, when we put ourselves on the line, when we fall down and get up again, we become stronger and more resilient.
  • We all have an image of our ideal self, an elaborate construct of the kind of person we would like to be. While it is not always possible to feel as this constructed self would (fearless and compassionate at all times, for example), we can act in accordance with its ideals (courageous, generous, and so on). Active acceptance is about recognizing things as they are and then choosing the course of action we deem appropriate and worthy of ourselves. It is about recognizing that at every moment in our life we have a choice—to be afraid and yet to act courageously, to feel jealous and yet to act benevolently, to accept being human and act with humanity.
  • The goal of cognitive therapy is to restore a sense of realism by getting rid of distorted thinking. When we identify an irrational thought (a cognitive distortion), we change the way we think about an event and thereby change the way we feel. For example, if I experience paralyzing anxiety before a job interview, I can evaluate the thought that elicits the anxiety (if I am rejected, it will all be over and I will never find a job) and reinterpret the event by disputing and replacing the distorted evaluation with a rational one (although I really want this job, there are many other desirable jobs out there). The distortion elicits an intense and unhealthy fear of failure; the rational thought reframes the situation and puts it in perspective.