What I’ve Been Reading

1. Free Flight: Inventing the Future of Travel by James Fallows.

A nice introduction to amateur aviation if you know nothing about it. The second half of the book (published 2001) is about the air taxi movement which by now is out of date. You can get the latest on air taxis from Fallows’ blog.

2. Hearth and the Cosmos: A Cosmopolite’s Viewpoint by Yi-Fu Tuan.

Tuan discusses the tension between the “hearth” (family and local ties) and the “cosmos” (cities and external urban life). The tension exists because “hearth, though nurturing, can be too confining; cosmos, though liberating, can be bewildering and threatening.” He writes, “The elite can have both world and home; they can be cosmopolitan and yet return to the hearth for nurturance and renewal.”

I sympathize when Tuan says, “The more Americans participate in…globalism, the more they learn for locality, tradition, and roots — for the hearths and ethnos that they can directly experience and understand, for the small milieu that yields emotional satisfaction.”

He’s eloquent when describing the shift from hearth to cosmos: “Each step is a move beyond confinement within a particular color patch in the mosaic to the mosaic as a whole that is the United States. Each step is not necessarily the abandonment of a particular cultural heritage, thought it does mean the loss of unreflective acceptance, or a certain innocence, that can be so assuring. As we take these steps, we come closer to recognizing that all cultures are flawed binders as well as the source of unique illuminations, that they deserve affection rather than idolatry, that they are our first home rather than our last.”

These are interesting ideas — I’ve blogged a lot about identity and cosmopolitanism over the years — but on the whole I was disappointed by this book and would recommend passing, though I do recommend Tuan’s mildly-famous Dear Colleague letters.

3. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.

A clever approach: cull the famous books of wisdom from all the major faiths and philosophers and report on what you learn. Anyone who’s read bits and pieces of the classics, or sampled from modern positive psychology texts, will in this book find much you already know. Still there are some worthwhile themes and nuggets:

  • Over and over again, psychologists find that the human mind reactions to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things.


  • Twin studies generally show that 50 percent to 80 percent of all the variance among people in their average levels of happiness can be explained by differences in their genes rather than in their life experiences.



  • We engage in massive self-delusion. From the person who cuts you off on the highway all the way to the Nazis who ran the concentration camps, most people think they are good people and that their actions are motivated by good reasons.



  • For many traits, such as leadership, there are so many ways to define it that one is free to pick the criterion that will most flatter oneself.



  • Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.”



  • Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent, interferes with concentration and increases stress. It’s worth striving to remove sources of noise in your life.



  • Pleasure feels good in the moment, but sensual memories fade quickly, and the person is no wiser or stronger afterwards.



  • Optimists are for the most part people who won the cortical lottery: They have a high happiness setpoint, they habitually look on the bright side, and they easily find silver linings. Life has a way of making the rich get richer and the happy get happier.



  • Letting off steam makes people angrier, not calmer.



  • Wisdom is based on “tacit knowledge.” It’s “knowing how” rather than “knowing that.” Wise people are able to balance three responses to situations: adaptation (changing the self to fit the environment), shaping (changing the environment), and selection (choosing to move to a new environment).



  • It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.


6 Responses to What I’ve Been Reading

  1. JU says:

    I loved the Happiness Hypothesis. Even as someone who has read many books on positive psychology, this one gave me the best practical guide to making myself happy. There are so many precepts for happiness (family, exercise, friends, optimism, cognitive behavioral therapy, pets, etc.). How do you keep track of these and manage them?

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    Re: precepts for happiness, I try to just focus on a few and remember /
    practice them.

  3. Rebecca says:
  4. Chris Yeh says:

    Don’t forget, there’s an outline of “The Happiness Hypothesis” here:


  5. Twin studies of any kind are incredibly interesting to me. I have a few genetics books (for laypeople, I’m not a scientist), and the stuff that brings out about us as humans is very compelling.

  6. Cameron R says:

    Off of the noise and relationships piece, New Scientist had an interesting piece at the end of last year regarding happiness as a function of the people that you interact with.


    A greater incentive to examine our own happiness -> spread it to others?


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