Why do we read books? The best answer to this question comes from examining the broader question of why do we do anything. In considering the myriad of choices that face us in this very minute of existence, we will choose what, we think, will make us the happiest. Animals, even protozoa, follow this fundamental biological principle of maximizing pleasure. The single-celled protozoon expends 60% of its hard-earned energy supply to swim one millimeter towards the smaller protozoa that it will eat. My dog chooses to drink from the toilet instead of from her dog bowl. A plant grows towards the light. My wife sits absolutely still for hours at a time in a state called “meditation.” Why do they do it? They do it to make themselves happy.
As human beings we are blessed with the highest brain to body weight ratio of the biological kingdom. Unfortunately, this added brain mass has not given us the ability to actually be happier than our animal cousins. But we are endowed with the unique ability to plan for happiness. This is what separates man (and woman) from the animals.
Just as we are the only biological creatures with the ability to plan happiness, we are the only biological creatures that read books. This is not a coincidence. Let us consider the decision between watching TV or reading a book. Watching an episode of “Lost” is more fun than reading a book, but our highly developed cerebral cortex tells us that though we’ll be very happy for the 30 minutes of “Lost” (actually 20 minutes after subtracting out the commercials), the happiness just won’t last. Reading a book on the other hand can, in some cases, make us happy for at least several days. These same higher level brain calculations account for why people eat whole wheat bread. White bread tastes better. Anyone who says different is a communist. But, our magnificent brain tells us that we feel better, for longer, after eating whole wheat bread, and sometimes it is worth it.
So reading books is better than TV. How do you pick out the book that will make you happiest? You can ask your bookstore-owning-sister who carefully researches book reviews and even reads the books themselves. But she could be a communist. How else do you explain the book she sent me about the heroic doctor ministering to the poor in Haiti? Does she think I should go to Haiti? We’ll, I’m not going…. period.
But I digress… To pick out the best book to make you happy, don’t go to the “good” book section of the store. These books have been written to address the author’s happiness, not yours. You should go to the section of the bookstore where the author’s explicit goal is to make you happy. We’re talking about the whole-wheat section of the bookstore, the long-term happiness section… yes… the “Self Help” section.
I’m not the only person to appreciate the importance of self-help books. This section of a bookstore can be frighteningly large. Even worse, some of these books suck. I should know. I’ve read many of them. Some of the advice is pretty awful, especially that one suggesting I go to Haiti. But after more than 20 years of effort I found two that actually work. They are Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life and its sequel, I Need Your Love – Is That True?: How To Stop Seeking Love, Affection, and Appreciation and Start Finding Them Instead, by Byron Katie.
How on earth did I happen upon books which such long titles? It turns out that Byron Katie is pretty famous, but I came across her work because she is married to a friend of my wife’s Zen Buddhism teacher. Katie, as she is known to her friends, hangs out with a lot of Zen Buddhist types and there is a Zen influence in her work. But she didn’t have to go through obscure ancient texts or participate in week-long sitting meditations to get insight. No, she did it the old fashioned way… a nervous breakdown. Somehow, from the depths of severe depression, she saw a route to happiness and well-being and it is simple.
Her fundamental insight is that unhappiness happens when your mind creates and believes it’s own fictions, fictions that are your own inventions and do not accurately reflect reality. In other words, there is glorious reality right now right this very minute and then there is all your thoughts about it which lead to unhappiness. Get rid of your stories, your beliefs, your thoughts… get rid of your unhappiness. The happiness that will then come is not the traditional type of “I’m getting what I want so I’m happy.” The happiness that comes is what happens when you live reality without a whole bunch of interpretation. This is not new stuff. It is in ancient Eastern texts and even in the bible,… I think … It must be in there somewhere… What is new is her method for separating your thoughts from reality. She has come up with four questions and something called a “turnaround” that she uses to confront every type of unhappiness imaginable, from “he should have put the toilet seat down” to “my father should not have abused me sexually.”
Her method really can’t be described in a short little essay because what it is really about is applying the four questions and turnaround idea repeatedly to many situations until their application becomes reflexive. In the books, she explains the four questions and then demonstrates their use in dialogues with people who are unhappy just like you and me. As you read her books you might think, “this is great stuff, but these dialogues must have been made up. Nothing this simple could be that helpful.”
Or could it? I needed to find out. I didn’t want to go to Haiti. I didn’t want to meditate. I didn’t even want to eat whole wheat bread. Maybe, I thought, I could go to a workshop with Bryon Katie. It would be nice if it could happen in a nice place just in case she was a kook. I like having back up plans for my happiness.
So I found a weekend Byron Katie workshop at Esalen, a human-potential institute on the California Coast with stone hot tubs carved into cliffs hundreds of feet above the crashing pacific surf and filled with natural volcanic hot water, morning yoga sessions; beautiful people (sometimes naked); and good natural homegrown food. I could be happy there… even if Byron Katie was kooky. But she wasn’t’ kooky and I saw her method in action. It works.
Thus, we have shown that if you are a human being and you are alive, you are making plans for maximizing your happiness. You can’t help it. It is the nature of your existence. We have further shown that books are superior to television and that some books are superior to others. Byron Katie’s books are the best.