Happiness Is.: Unexpected Answers to Practical Question in Curious Times

Unexpected Answers to Practical Questions in Curious Times

Happiness Is

“Destined to inspire an entire generation with the excitement and happiness to be found in the nurturance of compassion and the quest for meaning.”

Paul Farmer, MD
Founding Director of Partners in Health
Author of “Haiti After the Earthquake”

Just loved it! A wonderful and inspiring read! ‘Happiness Is.’ succeeds in humanizing every persons quest for lasting happiness with sensitivity, compassion and humor. I found the generous anecdotes and shared insights from the Dr. Shea’s experiences to be enormously reassuring and joyfully easy to identify with.
An Amazon.com Reader
A book so approachable that from the opening chapter to the final page you feel warmth of heart, insight, and most importantly hope. I so hope that people will read this book. It will change your perspective. Reading is believing. In fact I would say “Happiness can be!”.
An Amazon.com Reader
I enthusiastically recommend Dr. Shea’s book to all.  I have reviewed a lot of books over the past few years, but this one has got to be in the top of my “A-List”.
An Amazon.com Reader

“Finding an enduring happiness through the skilled use of the human matrix.”

Critical Acclaim for Shawn Christopher Shea’s first book for the general public, Happiness Is.

“A bold, dazzling, and wonderfully fresh antidote to the simplistic platitudes so common in the self-help books of today! Shawn Christopher Shea pulls on everything from his clinical practice to arcane philosophy to pop culture as he poignantly answers a most modern question: If we’re so successful, why aren’t we happier? The end result is deeply affecting, often funny, and always instructive. Destined to inspire an entire generation with the excitement and happiness to be found in the nurturance of compassion and the quest for meaning.”

Paul Farmer, M.D., Ph.D.,
Harvard Medical School
Founding Director of
Partners in Health
Author of The Uses of Haiti

“This book is in a very special group of works that, springing from clinical experience and wisdom, moves to expand with wondrous insights the life of all those it touches.”

Juan E. Mezzich, M.D., Ph.D.
World Psychiatric Association

“A remarkable achievement that is a wonderful blend of science, clinical wisdom and personal anecdote. Using a writing style that is enjoyable, engaging and incredibly effective, Shea has crafted a book that will have an impact and make a difference in many many lives. It will stay with you, challenge you and change the way you look at the world.”

M. David Rudd, Ph.D., ABPP
Baylor University
President, American Association
of Suicidology

“Following in the groundbreaking footsteps of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, Shawn Shea guides us down the road to happiness in his insightful and engaging book. I found it very compelling.”

Jack Canfield
Co-creator of Chicken Soup
for the Soul

“A moving book, filled with touching and insightful stories, containing much wisdom and the practical methods of applying them to our lives to help us find happiness, meaning and a successful life.”

Bernie Siegel, M.D.
Author of Prescriptions for Living and 365 Prescriptions For the Soul

In this highly entertaining and literate book, Shawn Christopher Shea takes us on a provocative journey into the world of practical philosophy, applied spirituality and everyday psychology. Calling upon more than twenty years of clinical experience, fifty years of navigating life’s ups and downs, and an array of thinkers and pop icons – from Alan Watts to Albert Einstein, Billy Graham to Bob Dylan, the Dalai Lama to the English mystic Julian of Norwich – he weaves a gentle compassion and a tart wit into this compelling look at human nature and our never-ending quest for happiness.

Not content with traditional stereotypes of happiness, Shea is on a search for a tougher happiness that is present and revitalizing even during times of stress, loss, and pain. He begins with the intriguing twist that happiness is not so much a feeling as it is both an attitude and a feeling. He shows how to distinguish between success and happiness, emphasizing the importance of embracing life as a series of moments to savor as opposed to a series of goals to achieve.

For Shea happiness is determined within each moment by five interacting processes – our biologies, our perspectives, our relationships, our environments, and our spiritual quests. These five interacting, constantly shifting processes, give happiness its fluid nature; change one factor, and you change them all. This “matrix effect” explains why happiness is often elusive and fleeting. It need not be so.

Using the human matrix, Shea shows what it is that limits our ability to find happiness and what it is that allows us to transcend those very same limits. Shea demonstrates how an understanding of this human matrix can be used to forge a resilient and enduring attitude of trust and a resulting feeling of confidence and compassion – a combination we call happiness.

Written with elegance, wit, and a disarming playfulness, Shea’s surprising answers to difficult questions are not so much things to do as they are creative ways of thinking, fresh manners of conceptualizing and innovative approaches to understanding human nature – all of which are invaluable tools for finding our own unique answers to the puzzle of happiness.


“As a matter of fact, happiness is something dynamic, a reality that must continuously be struggled for, but which, once we attain it, cannot be diminished by the external circumstances of life . . .which is why it’s a reality that each of us can achieve.”

The Monks of New Skete

Happiness. Some would argue that, like a unicorn, it is the most elusive of human quests and may not even exist. The wizened Monks of New Skete do not seem to think so. Nor do I.

As a psychiatrist, I have asked hundreds of patients what happiness is. I have received hundreds of different answers. But despite the fact that each person may ultimately view happiness differently, I am convinced that there is a common thread – a most unexpected one – to be found in all those who have established an enduring sense of happiness. Through my clinical work, my readings, and my personal experiences, the nature of this thread has become clearer and more tangible. It is a thread that is of the utmost utlility. It is the thread that leads to happiness.

In the following pages we will meticulously track down this thread. We will sculpt a definition of happiness that provides us with a compass for better understanding how to pursue it. Our quest will lead us to search out the very nature of man, where we will uncover a new and exciting model – the human matrix. This contemporary model of human nature will show us what it is that limits our ability to find happiness and what it is that allows us to transcend those very same limits.
In our quest, we will pull upon a vast array of resources, trying with every step to see the world anew from as many perspectives as can shed light on our pathway. We will hear from saints and sinners, quantum physicists and poets, avatars of analytic thought and those who trust more the realm of magic and hope. We will also tap the wisdom of my patients and the wisdom I have gained through my own quirky encounters with the strange wonderment we call life. As we pull upon all of these resources, we will find ourselves exploring the nooks and crannies, the nuances and shadows, the details and the unknowns of everyday existence, for it is in such nuances that wisdom often waits.

I should also mention what the book is not. Our book is not a scholarly or academic treatise filled with case studies and statistics. I believe in such writings, and, indeed, have spent much of my career writing them. But the goal of this book is not proof. It is provocation. It is incantation. It is an invitation to think creatively, to view our very existence with a new lens. And with this fresh lens – the human matrix – to search for the type of applied spirituality where we find bits and pieces of our self and our purpose in our daily encounters.
The answers to finding an enduring sense of happiness, the type of happiness to which the Monks of New Skete allude in our epigram, must be spontaneous, imaginative, and flexible. Indeed, the answers to finding happiness are often unexpected. They are not so much things to do as they are ways of thinking, manners of conceptualizing, and approaches to understanding. They are not just concrete suggestions for action but methods of understanding how and when to take these actions. They are not just habits to be grown but perceptions that allow one to break those habits that hinder growth. Happiness is not a static thing to achieve but a vibrantly resilient way of being that allows us to achieve.

As we wrap up this Introduction, you will note that I keep using words such as “our book” and “we shall uncover”, as if you, the reader, were, in reality, one of the authors of the book. The reason for this choice of words is a simple one – you are.

Not in the sense that you are writing the words, but in the sense that only the reader can determine the final meaning of the words. Each reader puts his or her own stamp on a book’s meaning as surely as any editor puts his or her stamp on its words. Many gifted writers have been keenly aware of this fact – that their final period does not end the creative process. It begins it.

The goal of the writer is to spark creativity and excitement in the reader, to create movement. In truth we really are co-creators of this work. As the author I am fully aware that I am not the one who has ultimate control of the creation. You are. In that sense I hope that you have great fun with it and that you create marvelous works of living art in the pursuit of your quest for happiness.

The gifted novelist John Fowles wonderfully captures the peculiar nature of this co-creation between writer and reader. From the very first time I read the following excerpt, it had a strange fascination for me. It seemed to hint at the magic that occurs between an author and a reader, for I truly believe it is a magic of sorts:

“I don’t want some passive thing: to be sold, to be read. Writing is active, and the kind of writing I have always admired, and shall always want to achieve, makes reading active too – the book reads the reader, as radar reads the unknown. And the unknown ones, the readers, feel this.”
As you read this book, I hope that you palpably feel this tension between the writer and the reader, between you and me, between you reading the book and the book reading you. Happiness Is. will read you in the sense that it will trigger memories, moments and laughter that are unique to you and no other reader. This coming face to face with one’s own story is critical for understanding the unique pathways that each of us must find in our pursuit of happiness.

In the following pages the explorations of some of my patients, as they sought the meaning of their stories, are told. In all instances their names have been changed, and, at times, distinguishing characteristics or facts have been altered to further protect their identity without disrupting the essential reality of our work together.

As we conclude, I am reminded of a Zen parable. In it, the attributes of a man of true wisdom, a monk of the highest order are described. The list of attributes is a surprisingly short one. Great masters seem to share the following three traits: 1) they are very funny and particularly good at laughing at themselves, 2) they are driven by an intense sense of compassion, and 3) despite years of practice, they approach every aspect of Zen with a “Beginner’s Mind”, always open to new ideas and fresh solutions.

I believe this is a good standard by which to judge our co-creation. If we both do our jobs, we can only hope that when we are done, that the writing and the reading of “Happiness Is.” will have made us laugh loudly, stirred our sense of compassion, and opened our minds to the endless wonderment of our never ending ability, as Homo sapiens, to be both the creator of our problems and the designer of our solutions.


“The purpose of life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others. Only then have we ourselves become true human beings.”

Albert Schweitzer, M.D.

It is with true pleasure that I sit down to write the Preface for the second edition. Much has changed in our field of mental health since the book first appeared 10 years ago—some of it good and some of it not so good. My pleasure arises from the fact that the cornerstone principles of the first edition—sensitivity and compassion—still resonate in our field today; in fact, in the age of managed care and tight time constraints, they may play an even more important role as guideposts than before.

One of my biggest pleasures over the past 10 years has been the warm reception given to the system of “facilics,” introduced in the ffrst edition. Facilics has been adopted as a core component of graduate training programs across disciplines—from masters’ programs in counseling and social work to psychiatric residencies. For those not familiar with it, facilics is an approach for understanding how we, as front-line clinicians, can most sensitively structure our interviews and effectively manage time constraints during the initial assessment. An innovative aspect of the facilic system is an easily learned system of schematics for supervisors to utilize while tracking the structuring and engagement strategies of the clinician. These schematics function as a supervisory shorthand and provide a direct visual platform for individual supervision and class discussion. Although developed long before the pressures of managed care, facilics has proved to be a popular method for allowing clinicians and supervisors to discover new ways of sensitively handling those very same pressures. For these reasons once again, in the second edition, facilics has been highlighted.

I have tried to keep intact whatever elements of the book the reader feedback has suggested were most effective. Indeed, other than updates to the DSM-IV, most of the chapters have relatively minor changes. On the other hand, Chapter 8 on suicide and violence assessment has been greatly expanded and introduces a new system for eliciting suicidal ideation, which I hope you will find practical and immediately useful. Furthermore, a good deal more time has been spent on practical tips and strategies for assessing violent ideation, an area of relative weakness in the first edition.

The biggest changes in the book are to be found in the appendices, in which more than 100 pages of new information appear. In speaking with readers at my workshops throughout the United States, perhaps the most common suggestion for improvement has been for the addition of an annotated transcript of an actual 60-minute intake. The second most common request has been for the inclusion of practical information on how to write up an assessment that is both clinically useful and forensically sound. Both requests have been fulfilled in the appendices of the second edition.

In addition, there is an appendix that gives specific quality assurance guidelines and “dictation prompts” for the written document. For those who like to record the initial database on a standardized clinical form, a prototypic clinical assessment form provided. There is also a copy of the actual written document derived from the database of the annotated interview itself, thus allowing the reader to see the interview unfold, in actual practice, from the first greeting of the interview to the last period in the written document.

Over the years, I have often been approached by young psychiatrists who ask whether or not the book would help them prepare for the oral boards. Although the first edition was not designed specifically for that purpose, in my heart I have always thought it would help, because I strongly believe that good clinical principles are at the core of the oral boards. In the second edition however, I can now confidently answer “yes” to this question, because I have included an entire appendix that is devoted to practical tips and strategies for passing the oral boards.

I hope that the reader enjoys reading this book as much as I enjoyed revising it. In the final analysis, interviewing should be fun. I think it is important to emphasize that this book does not pretend to show the “correct” way of interviewing, because there is no correct way. Instead, I offer suggestions that will hopefully, provide the reader with the principles to develop his or her own creative style of interviewing, always flexibly matching the interview to the needs of the patient, not the dictates of a school of thought”

In closing, this is a book about knowledge—knowledge applied to the art of healing. In the last analysis, as students of art, it will always remain our great privilege to ensure that the knowledge of our minds is guided by the compassion of our hearts.

Shawn Christopher Shea, MD

Table of Contents

Defining the Goal of the Quest: the Meaning of Happiness

Prelude: The World at Our Fingertips

The Tense Young Man Who Didn’t Know that He Already Knew

Heaven Inside Hell

Married to the Surprise

Not Necessarily A Magician

The Thief in the Mirror

CHAPTER 7 – The Heron on the Ski Slope

Part II
The Essence of the Questing Beast: the Human Matrix

All Ends in Mystery

Far More Beautiful

CHAPTER 10 – Wondrous and Worthy of the Utmost Attention

Part III
The Rules of the Quest: Inside the Human Matrix

Blue Lakes, Unknown Hands, and Dark Winters

Slumber Parties and Red Herrings

The Woman Who Wanted God’s Telephone Number

The Three Paradoxes of the Magic Theater

Part IV
The Quest Achieved: Using the Human Matrix to Uncover Happiness

Meet You at the North Fork Dam

The Trouble With Cats and Dogs

Looking for Tom

The Journey Outwards

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