Book Review: What Happy People Know by Dan Baker

It’s finally here, people! The long-awaited 2nd book review that I promised back in February. To be fair, I’m only late because this book was so damn awesome, I just had to do a deep dive into it.  (That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!) Enjoy!

Title:  What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better

Author: Dan Baker, PhD and Cameron Stauth
Paperback, 259 pages
Published January 19, 2004 by St. Martin’s Griffin
Genre: Business / Small business / Entrepreneurship
Goodreads rating: 4.09 stars / 5
Mel’s rating: 4 stars / 5

From Goodreads

Dr. Dan Baker, director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch, has devoted his life to teaching people how to be happy. And apparently, most of us could use a little tutoring. Research has shown that the root of unhappiness–fear–lies in the oldest, reptilian part of our brains, and negative reactions are often dictated by primal instincts. We’re literally “hardwired for hard times.” In What Happy People Know, Dr. Baker uses evidence from the new science of happiness to show us how we can overcome this genetic predisposition toward negative reactions and lead a truly rich, happy, and healthy life.  [Read the rest]

My thoughts on this book

I must admit, I think I’ve started and stopped reading this book at least 5 times. The problem, is not even a problem at all; it was TOO GOOD!

I found myself constantly fascinated by the ideas and concepts that were presented which led to many deep dives into particular pieces whenever inspiration and curiosity struck me. It’s not often I struggle to make it through reading a book because it’s so good.

Dan Baker wrote this book when Positive Psychology was in its infancy. If you’re a Positive Psych enthusiast like me, you’ll catch a few things that have since been expanded on, but everything in it pretty much still holds true. Baker is a Clinical Medical Psychologist by trade, which means he often uses biological / neurological explanations for his concepts (which is great if you’re a science nerd and like cold hard facts). But what I loved most was that more than once, he actually craps on his own profession for continuing to use therapies that don’t work (Seriously, how many times has a therapist asked you about your childhood or your relationship with your parents?).

This book is so far from the WooWoo side of Happiness research, it will win over even the most logical skeptic.

Some of the critics might say that his experience doesn’t reflect the general population because his career at Canyon Ranch was spent working with the uber-rich, but I actually appreciated that the lesson there was that Happiness (or lack thereof) is universal, and contrary to what most people think, being uber-rich will NOT (necessarily) make you happier.

So let’s dive in, shall we?

What’s in the book?

What Happy People Know is written in nine (9) Chapters and an epilogue (called “Going Sane”).

Baker begins the book by proposing 12 qualities of happiness, which form the basis for the rest of the book. According to him, if you combine all of these together, you end up with a generally happy life.

Here are those 12 qualities with a short explanation.

The 12 qualities of Happiness

  1. Love – Love is the polar opposite of Fear (emotionally and neurologically). You can’t feel them both at the same time.
  2. Optimism – It provides power over painful events. If you can survive a shit storm, you can survive anything.
  3. Courage – nature’s balance for the fear that helped us survive
  4. A sense of freedom – Freedom is a choice. Unhappy people have forgotten that they always have a choice
  5. Proactivity – Happy people participate in their own destinies, and forge their own happiness
  6. Security – It’s about Confidence. Nothing lasts over time. Security is an inside job.
  7. Health – It’s about the Mind-Body connection. You can’t be happy if you’re not healthy. You can’t be healthy if you’re not happy.
  8. Spirituality – Let go of control and welcome extraordinary experiences
  9. Altruism – Unhappy people become self-absorbed. Being altruistic feels good and reconnects you to others.
  10. Perspective – Unhappy people see things in absolute terms and can’t distinguish small problems from big ones. Happy people know how to prioritize problems and turn them into possibilities.
  11. Humor – Humour is a shift in perception.
  12. Purpose – Happy people know what they are here to do; and they’re doing it.

The 5 Happiness Traps

Baker also warns against five concepts that at first, seem to lead to happiness, but if you get caught in their trap, you just end up digging yourself into a bigger hole.

I’ve summarized them here to give you an idea of what Baker meant.

  1. Trying to buy happiness – Pretty self-explanatory. Money (i.e. things you can buy with money) can’t buy you happiness. (I’ve since seen new research about the specificity of what you spend your money on, but when you read Baker’s examples, it’s pretty clear he means “stuff”)
  2. Trying to find happiness through pleasure – Sex, drugs & rock n’ roll will only bring you the illusion of happiness. Sadly, there are too many examples of overdoses and suicides in the media, of people having fallen into this trap.
  3. Trying to be happy by resolving the past – This is where Baker confronts the crappy side of Psychology historically (Oh Psychology, you’re so young and naïve, and have so much to learn. To be fair, it’s gotten a lot better since this book was published). Baker believed that you can’t resolve the anguish of the past (ex. someone who experienced rape can’t ever resolve this trauma). The pain will always be there. Instead, he believed that people can be taught to rise above the traumatic event.
  4. Trying to be happy by overcoming weaknesses – Trying to “fix” your weaknesses only reinforces them. Baker was actually an early proponent of the strengths-based approach.
  5. Trying to force happiness – This quote says it best: “You can’t just decide to be happy, any more than you can decide to be taller.” Happiness is hard work. Shit will inevitably happen and you have to work to make happiness a habit.

Happiness Tools

Conveniently enough, Baker also proposes tools we can use to get ourselves out of the happiness traps, and increase our overall happiness over time. Each tool is linked to one of the 12 qualities of happiness.

Below, I’ve made it super easy to understand each concept and I even made the link to each of the 12 qualities of happiness (aren’t I just the nicest person ever?). You’ll also see that some of the 12 qualities would likely fit in more than one of the tools but I’ve chosen to only write them once (must quiet my super analytical brain that sees multiple connections).

  1. Appreciation – Most fundamental of all the happiness tools (it’s the strongest form of love)
  2. Choice – The father of Freedom. Giving into the fear reaction limits our choices drastically (Perspective)
  3. Personal Power – Has 2 components: taking responsibility, and taking action. “Personal power keeps you from being a victim” (Security & Optimism)
  4. Leading with your Strengths – The automatic fear response makes you focus on your weaknesses. “People often think that fixing their weaknesses will save them, but it rarely works.” (Courage & Proactivity)
  5. The power of language and stories – Language has the power to alter perception. To change your life, change the story you are telling. “We don’t describe the world we see – we see the world we describe” (Spirituality can fit here, along with Humour)
  6. Multidimensional living – Baker says there are 3 components of life: Relationships; Health and Purpose. Happiness comes from a life where all 3 are in balance. (also linked to Altruism)

Notable quotes:

There are so many delicious quotables in this book, I could just have written a ton of pages full of them. Here are a few my favourites.

“Happiness is a way of life – an overriding outlook composed of qualities such as optimism, courage, love and fulfillment. It’s not just tiptoeing through the tulips of la-la land, and it’s not something that changes every time your situation changes. It is nothing less than cherishing every day.”


“Happiness is not something that you either have or don’t have. It is a skill that you can acquire and practice.”


“When happy people choose their jobs, they don’t follow money – they follow their passions.”


“I realized that there was something happy people know that unhappy people don’t: No matter what happens in life, there’s always something left to love, and the love that remains is always stronger than anything that goes against it.”


The most important lesson in the whole book

“Happiness isn’t la-la land. It’s not for the weak or the lazy.”

The most important takeaway for me, is the notion that Happiness isn’t some magical solution; that you can’t just “think positive thoughts” and magically be happy.

You will have to work hard at it, and you can’t be lazy about it for very long before you find yourself in a rut once more. What this book says to me is that happiness is about growth. It’s about constantly learning and becoming self-aware.

It’s about giving yourself permission to experience tough situations when they happen. But it’s about having the courage to get back up and dust yourself off afterwards, and choosing to look for the good in the world around you, despite the crap that’s out there.

It’s about constantly looking for ways to integrate appreciation into each and every day, to train your brain to have an optimistic outlook on life.

It’s about taking responsibility for the way your life is going (which is SUPER hard to do), and taking charge of where your life leads you next.

And above all, it’s about deliberately choosing Love over Fear, humour over anger, and kindness over self-absorption.


I hope you enjoyed this review and that it has enticed you into reading all the yummy goodness for yourself. It’s one of those books that I just want to buy 20 copies of and gift to everyone in my life.

If you do end up reading it, let me know what you thought! I’d love to hear what your favourite parts were!

3 thoughts on “Book Review: What Happy People Know by Dan Baker

  1. Kristin Reply

    Thank you for sharing. Wonderful summary and ignites my passion to learn more about the topic of happiness. I enjoyed how you relate your professional knowledge with the content in the book. Very helpful. Thank you for sharing.

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