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10 Keys to Happier Living (Book Review)

written by Angus Skinner 7 April 2016

Angus Skinner, MAPP, works in his beloved and beautiful Scotland as an independent management consulting professional. He is also a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde. He has over 40 years experience of social work services across the UK. As Chief Social Work Inspector for Scotland for 15 years, Angus provided advice directly to ministers on all matters of social work service legislation, policy, and practice development. Full bio. Articles on Positive Psychology News by Angus are here.

Over a decade ago the Director of the Edinburgh Science Festival, on joining a new choir, explained her reasoning thus: “I have been reading all this research that people with religious affiliations live longer. I thought it might be down to the fact that they get to sing more.” The relevance of this to Vanessa King’s timely and practical overview of positive psychology lies in its title, 10 Keys to Happier Living. In this frame, being happy, like love and indeed singing, is a verb: something to do, rather than a state to achieve. The distinction is vital.

Navigating the Book



It is easy to find your way through and around King’s book which has lots of signposts and markers, as well as goals, top tips, Try this suggestions and, thankfully, Pause points. Along with this master class in mind-mapping, King provides compendious lists and pointers to the research for those who want to delve.

However, this is essentially a book aimed at action. Read sections with your coffee each morning, and you will end up choosing to drink (slightly) less coffee. Reflect on other sections, and you will understand why Fredrickson’s theory of broaden and build is such a foundation pillar of positive psychology and matters in so many tiny steps. Dip in anywhere and you will be reminded of the pervasive importance of Peterson’s dictum, “Other people matter.”

What the Book Does

It is a practical book. So bend it, write on it, make notes on it, doodle. As you will learn reading it, an active engagement with this task of living more happily is urgently required. Moreover it is within reach, in however many small steps and with however many setbacks on the way.

This book is a manual from the UK non-profit Action for Happiness. It is intended to energize as well as to guide. As Richard Layard says in his foreword, it is meant to engage the “head and the heart.” True guides are people who hold lamps to help light the way ahead; they are not people who think they have all the answers. So no need to agree with all that is written here. This is not like a car manual or a guide to safety procedures. It is not precise. Positive psychology, achieving happier living, or whatever you want to call it, calls for creativity, imagination, application, and a tolerance for messiness. That’s life.

Since its millennial foundation, positive psychology has suffered from much misunderstanding. This well presented overview provides some sound protective balances. Three are particularly important.

  1. The vital roles played by negative emotions in our lives and in our well-being are clearly acknowledged, noting of course that without them we humans would not be here at all, let alone able to deal with life’s challenges.
  2. The importance of exercise is highlighted, indeed emphasized. This embodiment, as it were, of positive psychology is crucial, just as it is for individuals. As the work of Hefferon and colleagues has shown it is crucial in all conditions, even the most severe.
  3. While noting the importance of playing to top strengths King resolutely highlights the importance of all the strengths. This is not just to acknowledge that collectively we need them all, each playing their part, but that individually over the life course we will need to draw, as Peterson was fond of saying, on the full quiver. Drawing from the excellent work of Ryan Niemiec and his colleagues at the VIA Institute, King provides a handy overview of ways that each of the strengths can also present problems through overuse or underuse.

Putting the Book to Use

10 Keys to Happier Living runs at what might now be called an accelerator pace. Equally you can dip in for a sprint or a 400 yard race. Could you read this book while holding a baby? Absolutely. You might have to put one or other down at times, even if only to read the sections on the dangers of multi-tasking and the importance of focus and attention. Can you eat chocolate while reading this book and not feel guilty? Of course, see pages 149 and 268. Though she does not mention chocolate we know from other (Swedish) research that mothers who eat chocolate have happier babies. Fathers who hold babies also have happier babies, whoever gets the chocolate.

There are intriguing passages on the vexed questions of self-esteem and how it is different from self-compassion. This is one of the most difficult areas. Many problems arise out of people having too much self-esteem that has gone unchallenged for decades, possibly their whole lives. Adam Grant provided some advice cited in the chapter on giving which rightly opens the book. In his own research and writing he has highlighted the dangers of narcissism in business and leadership.

The importance of continuous learning is given good prominence with a lively chapter on Trying Out which draws heavily on Carol Dweck’s work on the importance of growth as opposed to fixed mind-sets.

How Can Positive Psychology Contribute to Our Collective Future?

In summary this is an excellent overview of positive psychology and indeed of what has been called “the second wave of positive psychology” which encompasses better acknowledgment of both the vital nature of negative emotions and the importance of embodying positive psychology. Both of these matters were there from the beginning, though perhaps played down. Some critics set up straw figures of what they thought positive psychology was, and then sought to knock them down. They still do. They still miss the point.

The broad sweep of the book gives rise to the millennial question of how the behavioral sciences can best contribute to the future. Might there be a third wave, one that recognizes more widely that this developing scientific knowledge base must be applied across all society? This is not about talking therapies, about mindfulness for people under stress, about meaning for people lost in their lives. This is surely about changing the way we live together, all of us.

So, for example, while the renewed interest in mindfulness has been due in large measure to the work in chronic illness and in mental health, its future surely lies in developments such as Youth Mindfulness. In Scotland there are common elements to statutory care standards that apply to both the top boarding schools and secure units for troubled young people. On such threads of social cohesion, woven horizontally as well as vertically, much of our future may lie. In the UK, one target for Action for Happiness might be the review of residential care of children that the Prime Minster has requested Sir Martin Narey to undertake. Another might be the Goddard Review of Child Abuse.

I would have liked to have seen more attention to death, how we deal with it in our societies, and often do not. There might be more on disability, wherein lie heroic stories with increasing global attention. Indeed there could be more about singing which is resurgent, at least in the UK where the evidence of its benefits grows daily.

These points are just to emphasize that this is no Bible. It is a very welcome, informative, and practical book, an excellent overview of the landscape of keys to happier living, a life-long work in progress.

Available for purchase:
World-wide (Free delivery)

To appear on Amazon US later this year.



King, V. (2016). 10 Keys to Happier Living: A Practical Handbook for Happiness. Headline Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1-4722-3342-4

Vanessa King speaking on what she learned researching the book in The Science of Happiness, 9 March 2016:

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Fancourt, D., Williamon, A., Carvalho, L. A., Steptoe, A., Dow, R., & Lewis, I. (2016). Singing modulates mood, stress, cortisol, cytokine and neuropeptide activity in cancer patients and carers. ecancer, 10: 631. Abstract.

Grant, Adam. (2013). Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Viking Press.

Ivtzan, I., Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Worth, P. (2015). Second Wave Positive Psychology: Embracing the Dark Side of Life. Routledge.



Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Women in the Choir courtesy of Zefrog
Dancing courtesy of RAW.hu
Holding a baby courtesy of donnierayjones
Men in the choir courtesy of Zefrog

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Margaret Greenberg 9 April 2016 - 6:11 am

What a comprehensive and enjoyable review! 10 Keys to Happier Living will be the very next book I devour. Thanks you Angus for peaking my curiosity.
Congratulations Vanessa! Margaret
PS – Angus, you write so beautifully. I hope we see a book authored by you one day.

Suparmin Karangpucung 14 April 2016 - 10:59 pm

Very good !


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