Build the Life You Want Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: Build the Life You Want is a practical instruction manual on becoming happier in two parts, first offering several science-backed tools for emotional self-management, followed by actionable advice on how you can start improving the 4 big pillars of happiness: family, friendships, work, and faith.

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Build the Life You Want Summary

When her legendary show ended in 2011 after 25 years and over 4,500 episodes, Oprah Winfrey fell into a big void. “What will I do next?” she wondered. Theater, perhaps?

“I used to always think that I would be happy going to Broadway,” Oprah says in an interview. She even received the perfect opportunity: a Broadway screenplay from the award-winning Tony Kushner. But then, doubts appeared.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do this play every night for 8 shows a week,” she realized. Once she pictured the details, Oprah understood she could never live in New York, let alone perform on Broadway. She had loved the idea, not the reality of it.

Declining the offer came with one of the many lessons now in her new book, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier: Everybody wants to be happy, but few people define what happiness really means to them. Co-authored with Harvard researcher Arthur C. Brooks, this #1 NYT bestseller combines cutting-edge science with human stories to help you better manage your emotions and find “happierness,” as Oprah calls it.

Here are 3 lessons you can use to get started, regardless of your circumstances:

  1. No matter how many stones life has thrown in your way, it’s never too late to become a happier person.
  2. You can discover your natural mix of happiness and unhappiness with the PANAS test.
  3. The 4 biggest pillars of happiness you should work on are family, friendship, work, and faith.

Let’s learn how to be happier!

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Lesson 1: Even if life has dealt you a tough hand, it’s never too late to turn your life around.

Albina Quevedo was Arthur Brooks’ mother-in-law. At age 93, as she lay dying in the same Barcelona apartment she had lived in for 50 years, she told him: “Such a difference with my life now. I am much happier than I was back then.”

Brooks was surprised to hear these words. Albina hadn’t been able to walk for two years. She had also suffered immensely during the Spanish Civil War. What’s more, after she gave birth to 3 children, Albina’s husband abandoned her, sending her into poverty and single-motherhood.

For a few years, Albina felt miserable and hopeless. But then, at age 45, she enrolled in college to become a teacher. It was hard, but after graduating, she felt more empowered. She could now provide for her kids. After 14 years of separation, her husband also re-approached her. Albina didn’t need to, but she took him back, and together, they built a new, stronger relationship, resulting in a total of 54 years of happy marriage.

The big lesson? No matter what happened to you in the past, it’s never too late to become a happier person. Once you decide you don’t have to wait for the world to get better, you’ll discover there’s always something you can do.

Lesson 2: Do the PANAS test to discover your natural tendencies towards happiness and unhappiness.

While one of the big messages of the book is that your happiness is not just based on genetics, we do all have different starting points. A quick but enlightening way to find out yours is the PANAS test. PANAS stands for “Positive and Negative Affect Schedule.”

First developed in 1988, this 5-minute self-assessment reveals how strongly you feel good and bad emotions. You can take the test online or grab pen and paper. Do it while in a neutral emotional state, for example after lunch.

On a scale from 1 to 5 (ranging from “very slightly” to “extremely”), rate how deeply you feel the following 20 emotions on average. Go row by row:

Attentive Hostile
Active Irritable
Alert Ashamed
Excited Guilty
Enthusiastic Distressed
Determined Upset
Inspired Scared
Proud Afraid
Interested Jittery
Strong Nervous

With your scores in hand, add up the points for each column. The total for the left is your positive affect (PA). Right is your negative affect (NA). The global average for PA is 35, for NA it’s 18. Are you above or below? Note your result in both categories. Accordingly, you’ll fall into 1 of 4 PANAS quadrants:

Build the Life You Want Summary (PANAS Test Quadrants)

If you’re above average on both scales, you’re a “Mad Scientist,” someone who’s worked up about something, good or bad, most of the time. Below on both makes you a “Judge,” detached and cool as a cucumber. High-NA, low-PA people are “Poets” who tend to see threats behind every corner. And high PA with low NA? Those are “Cheerleaders,” people who always focus on the positive.

Naturally, everyone wants to be the latter, but that’s neither possible nor necessary. Poets are creative, judges check our impulses, and Mad Scientists keep life interesting. Your role in life is unique, and “your profile is a gift,” the authors write. “But no matter what your profile is, you have room to increase the happiness in your life.”

How? By focusing on the 4 pillars of happiness, coming up next!

Lesson 3: If you want to be happy, spend most of your time and effort working on the 4 big pillars: family, friendship, work, and faith.

When we don’t feel in control of our lives, we might spend them chasing “the 4 idols” outlined by 13th century-philosopher Thomas Aquinas: money, power, pleasure, and prestige. But even knowing we can change our lives, where do we start? How about the 4 big pillars of happiness?

  1. Family are the people we are related to.
  2. Friendships are the people we cherish and trust.
  3. Work is however we might spend our day trying to be useful to others and ourselves, paid or unpaid.
  4. Faith needn’t be religion, but it should have a focus on something larger than yourself.

Albina, for example, started by taking control over her work. The job offered her meaningful work, new friends (from teaching in impoverished neighborhoods), and financial stability. With those, her family life fell into place.

Here are a few tips to try for each of the pillars in your life:

  • Family: Make sure communication keeps flowing during conflicts.
  • Friendships: Focus on shared passions over transactional relationships.
  • Work: If you lack intrinsic rewards and a feeling of being of service, consider a change.
  • Faith: Even if you’re not religious, you could start mediating or frequently spending time in nature.

Whatever you do, remember it’s never to late to get happier. Discover your PANAS, start working on the 4 pillars, and build the life you want!

Build the Life You Want Review

Build the Life You Want takes an interesting approach to happiness. First, the authors give you some tools to better handle your emotions. After all, completely eliminating unhappiness is neither possible nor the goal. Then, they provide a useful framework via the 4 pillars. Both Oprah and Arthur bring a down-to-earth approach to a hyped up topic, making this one an awesome read!

Who would I recommend our Build the Life You Want summary to?

The 38-year-old customer support agent who feels her career will never go anywhere, the 71-year-old widower who thinks it’s too late to reinvent himself, and anyone who doesn’t yet know their PANAS.

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Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!