Book Review: “The Happiness Hypothesis”

Author: Jonathan Haidt

Choosing Curiosity, Taking Control

Emotions are flares to guide your path. They will help direct your journey, but be careful to not let the heat consume you.

I learned anger after my first deployment. Anyone who sat through a command&staff with me, or was there when the local police called – again – about one of my soldiers, certainly saw my anger. My husband saw my anger. My friends saw it. In the military we hide anger with jokes, and cynicism, and booze – but it sits there – seething under the surface.

I learned isolation from traumatic family events. For all the calls I didn’t return, the help I refused to take, and the nights I did not sleep worrying about everything that I didn’t know how to handle – I still refused to let any of it go. I put everyone else before me, isolating myself in the name of protecting and caring for my wounded family.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Happiness Hypothesis” was my first exposure to thinking about the source of my emotions. Haidt uses a powerful metaphor to describe the relationship between our “conscious mind” and our “emotional response”. He describes the relationship as a rider (conscious mind) trying to steer an elephant (emotional response). The rider thinks he has control but really – come on – at the end of the day, the elephant will do what it wants!

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is a creation of our mind” – Buddha (taken from Haidt’s book, Ch 2)

Haidt describes 10 Great Ideas drawn from his studies of the world’s major religions. He talks about how even across oceans, humans approach concepts like reciprocity, seeking happiness, love, the power of adversity, and many more Great Ideas in very similar ways. He explores how our rituals, our art, and our social customs shape our perceptions of the world around us. Using the metaphor of the rider and elephant – it is pretty clear how a lifetime of experiences ultimately train our elephants.

As I walked with Haidt on his Great Ideas adventure, I began to see how my life experiences – from my education, to my family traumas, to the experience of war – had shaped the way I interact with the world fundamentally. I began to see that my world shaped my thoughts yet my world was also created by my mind.

Finally, with this kinda confusing, “chicken and egg” realization – the words of a good friend finally started to make sense. “The Trauma happened only once. We then experience that Trauma a thousand times over as our minds struggle to process it. That is the cycle of PTSD.”

About the same time I was reading the “The Happiness Hypothesis,” I was also exposed to the concept of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) at a Veteran retreat. CBT is a tool used to help people learn methods for interrupting negative feedback loops to help control responses that are physically or emotionally harmful.

Situation – Thought – Emotion – Physical Response – New Situation

There it was again. My thoughts. Armed with the confidence that I could deliberately shape my thoughts, I realized I might be able to re-learn how to responded to the world. I did not have to be angry. Or feel isolated. I became curious about my thoughts – without judgement. I learned to pause in the emotion and wonder why it was there. What experience from my past had trained my mind to respond in such a way?

“The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it.” – Marcus Aurelius (Haidt, Ch 2)

Learning to be curious about my emotions – to catch them and investigate them – was the first step in taking control of my subconscious. I was riding an elephant yes – but I was training him along the way. My emotions were my guides – now telling me to pause for exploration and giving me control over how I responded.

Little by little, I chose to stop being angry. I decided to stop feeling isolated. And so – I wasn’t. My world is my thoughts. My world is created by my mind. I chose my world.

I am the elephant.


Here is the VA’s page of resources on PTSD and the VA Crisis Line

These are just a couple amazing Veteran retreat options I know:

Book Review: “Thank You for My Service”

Author: Mat Best

Not Your Normal War Story

I loved war too. Thanks for telling your story Mat.

In late 2007, somewhere in Iraq, sometime between 2 pm and 2 am – I sat on a dusty couch watching, with 10 or so other people, a 20 year old crew chief that smelled like dust, Skoal, and sweat perform the most incredible rendition of “One” by Metallica. His fingers flew across the instrument so fast I could not follow. None of us was ready to try this song. But here he was – slaying it. As the final note passed, we all went crazy cheering like he had hit the game winning home run. And at the moment, he had. He was a Guitar Hero. For that moment – he was a god.

There is a LOT of time to kill in war. 455 days of deployment was more like 445 days of sheer boredom, 8 days of “hey that was cool,” and a couple of days we just don’t talk about – all dosed out in 8-10 hr increments thanks to flight hour/crew rest restrictions. We also played a lot of Call of Duty, Halo, some dumb WWII airplane game, and my personal favorite, Tony Hawk (for the soundtrack).

We did missions too. Those were fun most of the time. – That’s right. Fun. I loved flying and still do. There is no place in the world that a pilot can push, test, and utilize every feature of their aircraft except war. Even flying a routine mission can push the platform and the pilot (dust landings and AFG mountains are no joke). I miss the fun of flying in those environments (the “res” just doesn’t quite cut it). And I miss the people. Nearly every veteran I know misses the camaraderie that is built in combat.

Mat Best’s book “Thank You For My Service” is his story of his time in the service of our nation. Mat unapologetically describes how his time shaped him, gave him confidence, and propelled him to be the entertainer and creator he is today. He clearly loved every minute.

Mat is honest in his rendition of his service – doesn’t sugar coat it. If you don’t know Mat Best, I suggest checking out his videos linked at the end of this page before making a purchase to calibrate your expectations – this is not your normal veteran war book.

Which is why its worth reading.

Mat uses humor to drive a spike right into the heart of sensitivities, language, or veteran cultural taboos (suicide, PTSD, sexuality, and alcohol – mostly whiskey). If you are able to set aside judgement, for the week or so it takes to read this book, at the end you will have gained an honest look inside one part of the culture of war. You might not like it. You will probably not agree with him. You will almost certainly be offended by something. But you will have given him the chance to tell his story – which is one story of many from the veteran community.

Perhaps we owe all veterans the right to tell their story – as they see it – without our judgement.

For many, we loved our time in War. Most days, we miss it. Yes – almost all of us have scars. Yet today, we are thriving and kicking ass not in spite of war, but because of it.

Check out more Mat Best creations at Black Rifle Coffee, on YouTube, and on all sorts of social media platforms…

Book Review: “The Boys in the Boat”

Author: Daniel James Brown

Finding courage on the water

No sport more exemplifies team than rowing. A balanced boat is faster than one with a few strong rowers. Power seats trying to drive alone will be passed by a crew – rowers with hearts that beat on the catch and breath that escapes on the release. Harmony comes not by seats, or pairs, or oars – only boats.

I was a strong rower in college. A power seat. A port. I could pull some pretty incredible erg times and enjoyed holding a 500/m split consistently that was always better than my last times. I raced against myself. And thus, I was a terrible in the boat.

There are no superstars in a boat. Pulling together, in perfect harmony, makes a boat fly across the water. Superstars just create drag. I was drag.

Daniel James Brown’s book “The Boys in the Boat” is the incredible story of 9 young men who come together and beat the odds. These men were never expected to amount to anything – many hailing from the poverty that was quite common in the Depression Era. The book is set against the back drop of the 1936 Olympics pitting the US against a powerful Nazi Germany. American under-dogs who rise up to beat one challenge after another….

This book is about much more than under-dogs. It is about team. And sacrifice.

Forged in the icy waters of the Pacific Northwest, the men of the University of Washington crew team learned what it means to matter to something greater than yourself. Daily, the crew rowed not for the win, or the school, or the glory – but for each other. In rain and snow and heat – these men left the safety of land in a boat about 15 inches wide and traveled miles into the unforgiving waters of the ocean. Distance and water have a way of cementing the truth that every oar is needed to bring you home. Failure then becomes the ragged breath or sagging shoulders in the back you follow.

So you sit straighter. You do not let your shoulders sag or your catch drop. And you swing together.

I learned that to go faster in my boat, I had to slow down. Attacking the catch created drag. Rushing the slide could almost stop the boat. Power misaligned was simply lost. Slowing down, finding pace with the other members of the boat, and swinging in harmony resulted in the near levitation of the boat across the water as it raced to the finish.

Today, I don’t get the chance to fill a mighty 8 and take it racing down the river. But I am still on many crews. And my boats are filled with people who are willing to slow down, and swing together.

Come row with us!

For more about the story of this incredible boat – check out the PBS film from American Experience, The Boys of ’36.

Want to row – check out USRowing.

Book Series: Expeditionary Force

Author: Craig Alanson

Voice Actor and Narrator: R.C. Bray

Skippy –

Sometimes I need the space and time to grow. So I pick up a science fiction – to be entertained and maybe grab a leadership lesson along the way.

Craig Alason’s book series Expeditionary Force both entertains and sometimes make makes me think. I started listening to these books as my PhD dissertation was getting into the tough stage – trying to end but not yet there. The books gave my mind a rest for a bit. In 30 – 60 minutes, I could mentally rest. Listening was key to this series because the narrator – R.C. Bray – truly makes the books come to life, especially one of the main characters, Skippy the Beer Can. I highly encourage you to listen to the audiobook version of this series.

I have only listened to the first 5 books in Expeditionary Force but there are at least 8 main storyline books, and some spin off stories, which is pretty common in science fiction. The premise of the series starts out in Book 1 with a simple science fiction plot: alien race comes to earth, aliens treat us badly, humankind fights back.

Enter: “Joe”

Joe is a grunt. An Army Grunt – E5. He is a normal guy from New England that happened to make some lucky, albeit telling decisions, during the invasion, and save earth. The young NCO finds himself rewarded with a trip to a far off world to fight for an alien species that turns out to be embroiled in universal war far greater than humans ever could have known.

Enter: “Skippy the Beer Can

Truly there is no better character in modern science fiction than Alanson’s “Skippy the Beer Can.” The first book takes about half the plot to get to Skippy – wait – wait for him. It is worth it.

Skippy is an all-knowing, all-powerful, artificial intelligence that despite his infinite knowledge and winning personality, is physically limited by the absence of hands and feet. Joe finds Skippy on a far off world and the two of them proceed to embark on a hero’s quest together – with humor and humanity all in one.

The book is light mostly, but sometimes deep. Joe must lead his crew, and with that comes choices that challenge his values and morals. Skippy learns that human connection and love are the one thing that cannot fully understood through writing code. It must be gained by personal interactions with the crew and Joe. Together, these characters lead a crew across the galaxy, finding themselves in a fight that is as old as the universes itself. The book is hilarious and I am grateful to the talent of R.C. Bray, who brings the characters to life.

Growth isn’t immediate. I find that I have to give myself the space and the time to grow. Reading books takes me some time – more time than blogs or social media. But I also need time to experiment with lessons, try out an idea, mull over concepts, fail, succeed, and try again.

Frequently, I just need an emotional rest. To give my mind a place to lay down, perhaps after a long week or challenging encounter. I need to give myself the forgiving minute – to breath.

Criag Alanson’s books give me just a few more minutes. Through humor and a damn good story, I can find the space to rest, recover, and grow.

I breath. I laugh. I grow.