Ben-Shahar's Happiness Model

Finding the Right Path to Happiness

(Also known as "The Hamburger Model")

Ben-Shahar's Happiness Model - Finding the Right Path to Happiness

© iStockphoto

Find your own path to happiness.

Many people are raised with the belief that if you get good grades in school, get a degree from a good university, and then secure a good job, then you'll be happy. Sounds pretty familiar, right?

The problem is that, sometimes, this approach to life doesn't make people happy. Sure, they might have a wonderful family, a good job and a lovely home, but they are still dissatisfied with life and are searching for something else. No matter how hard they work, or how much money they earn, they still feel unfulfilled.

However, when we experience true happiness, our life takes on a joyful luster and vividness. We're fulfilled and productive in what we do, we accomplish our goals, and our lives have meaning and purpose.

So how can we find this type of happiness? According to Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, leading researcher and author of the book "Happier," we need to learn how to live for today and for tomorrow at the same time. Only when we find the right balance can we achieve our goals, and live the life we've always imagined.

In this article, we'll explore Tal Ben-Shahar's Happiness Model, and explain how you can use the model to bring more happiness to your own life.

The Model Explained

According to Ben-Shahar's model, there are four archetypes that people can exhibit in the way they live. These are:

  • Nihilism.
  • Hedonism.
  • "Rat Racing."
  • Happiness.

As you can see in Figure 1 (below), the model is divided into four quadrants. The horizontal axis represents current detriments and current benefits, and the vertical axis represents future detriments and future benefits. (As an example, "staying late at work" is an action that creates a current detriment, but – you hope – delivers a future benefit. As such, it falls in the top left quadrant.)

Each quadrant represents one of Ben-Shahar's archetypes, and each of these archetypes reflects a different combination of present happiness and future benefit.

The Happiness Model Diagram

Let's look at each archetype in greater detail.


Nihilism falls in the bottom left hand quadrant of the Happiness Model.

Nihilists are people who have given up hope of finding meaning in life. Nihilists don't enjoy any present happiness, nor do they have any sense of purpose or hope for the future. As a result, they're "resigned to their fate."

Example: Jim has worked his entire life as a supervisor in the same industry. He's unhappy in his job, and at this point in his career, he's given up on the idea that he'll ever receive another raise.

Not only is Jim unhappy with his current state, but he has no belief that things will change anytime soon. As a result, he's unwilling to work hard to change things.


Hedonism falls in the lower right hand quadrant of the model.

Hedonists focus on present happiness only, and give little thought to future consequences. They may think that "working hard" is painful and tedious, and may avoid this.

As a result, hedonists feel unchallenged, and are often unfulfilled.

Example: Maggie has worked as a temp for years. She flits from one organization to the next, thriving on learning a new role and getting to know new colleagues. But once she has gotten comfortable in the new organization, she quickly becomes bored with her tasks and her colleagues. So, she asks for a transfer.

Although Maggie's life is fun and easy, she's unhappy because she never really accomplishes anything. She has no future goals, nor does she have any purpose to her life.

Rat Race

The Rat Race falls in the upper left hand quadrant of the model. In the Rat Race, we detrimentally put off present happiness in the hope of some future benefit.

This archetype is likely the most familiar to many of us. Here, people constantly pursue goals that they think will make them happy. When those goals are achieved, however, a new goal (and the accompanying stress and anxiety) almost immediately takes its place. While Rat Racers may experience brief flashes of satisfaction when they achieve goals, any thought of present happiness is then quickly pushed to the side.

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Example: Carl worked extremely hard through high school, taking advanced placement courses so he could get into a top-notch university (which is what his parents always told him he had to do to succeed). When he got to college, he did a degree in business (when he would've preferred to major in theater), and put off trips and nights out with his friends so he could study.

When Carl graduated, he had numerous job offers thanks to his good grades and past internships. Although he knew he should be happy at his success, he wasn't. He took a job with the largest firm, and started his new career. He continued to work hard, but every promotion and raise he received only added more stress and unhappiness to his life.


The Happiness archetype falls in the upper right quadrant of the model. This archetype reflects a good balance between present happiness and future benefits.

According to Ben-Shahar, we achieve happiness when we're able to enjoy both the journey and the destination that we're moving towards. We've learned how to set goals that are meaningful, but we don't focus exclusively on achieving them at the expense of everything else. We focus on today's pleasures, as well as our dreams and goals.

Example: Joan just transferred to a new department in her organization, and she's excited about the role she's taking on. She loves the company, and finds her work meaningful and rewarding. This is the kind of organization she can see herself being a part of for the rest of her life.

Although the option is there for her to work 80-hours a week, Joan has politely but firmly told her boss that she's unable to put in these kinds of hours: spending time with her family is extremely important to her, and she's committed to devoting time for this. She works a reasonable number of extra hours ("no successful business was ever built working 9 to 5"), but, by and large, Joan is home every night for dinner. She's achieved a perfect balance in her career: she's there for her family, and engaged in a challenging and rewarding career.

Using the Model

Dr. Ben-Shahar says that it's impossible for us to feel constantly happy all the time. Sometimes, we do have to put off present happiness for important future gains; for instance, when we have to stay late at work to finish an important project.

It's also sometimes important to focus on present pleasures, as a hedonist does. For instance, lying on the beach or watching TV can not only rest and rejuvenate us, but these pleasurable activities can also bring happiness into our life.

The point, however, is to spend as much time as possible engaged in activities that give us both present and future benefits.

What's most useful about the Happiness Model is that it can be used as a window into our life. For instance, look at the four quadrants. Where do you spend the majority of your time?

Are you living a Rat Race life, pursuing future goals at the expense of your present happiness? Or are you living more as a Hedonist, avoiding challenging goals in order to pursue daily pleasures, with no thought to future growth or development?

Or, do you feel that you've achieved happiness? Are you taking pleasure in today, as well as focusing your efforts on pursuing longer-term goals?

We can use the Happiness Model to assess where we are in our current life. If we're not in the right quadrant of the model, we can start today making changes that will create more balance in our life.


To explain this model, Ben-Shahar uses the analogy of eating different types of hamburger. "Nihilistic hamburgers" taste bad and leave you feeling ill. Hedonistic hamburgers taste great, but make you fat. Rat race hamburgers are boring but are good for you; while happiness burgers are healthy and taste great!

This is why Ben-Shahar calls this model "The Hamburger Model."

Key Points

The Happiness Model was developed by Harvard professor, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, and published in his book, "Happier."

The Happiness Model defines four happiness archetypes. These are:

  1. Nihilism – Nihilists have lost the joy in life. They derive no present pleasure in their work or life, and expect no future benefits or rewards. They've "given up."
  2. Hedonism – Hedonists live for the moment. They pursue pleasure and an easy life, and give little or no thought to future consequences and plans.
  3. Rat Racing – The Rat Race archetype often sacrifices current pleasures and benefits in anticipation of some future reward.
  4. Happiness – True happiness is achieved when there is a perfect balance between present pleasure and future benefits.

We can use the Happiness Model to shed light on the life we're living now, and the life that we wish we were living. The power to change always lies within us!