Book Review: The Courage to Be Happy by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

Nicole Dieker reviewed The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga in 2019. It remains the most popular book review she’s ever written.

There’s one chapter in The Courage to Be Happy that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I read it — and although I know I shouldn’t spoil my favorite part of the book for you, I’m going to do it anyway:

The philosopher had brought out a piece of paper folded into a triangular column. From where the youth sat, only two of its three faces could be seen. On one face were the words “That bad person,” and on the other, “Poor me.” According to the philosopher, the complaints of anxious people always ended up being one or the other. And then the philosopher slowly rotated the triangular column with his thin fingers, and revealed the words written on the remaining face — words that shook the youth’s heart.

These words — the ones that literally change everything — are “What should I do from now on?”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought about that little triangle, and the way it asks all of us to make a choice. Make a change. Make magic.

The rest of the book, unfortunately, is slightly less memorable.

If you had to choose only one of the two books — that is, The Courage to Be Disliked or The Courage to Be Happy — the original remains the better read, both in its explication of Adlerian philosophy and in its life-changing insights (separation of tasks, living without the desire for recognition, vertical vs. horizontal relationships, and so on).

The Courage to Be Happy focuses primarily on how a person can apply Adlerian philosophy in the classroom — that is, how one can teach without rebuking or praising (because both rebuke and praise create a vertical relationship in which the student is not encouraged to complete their own tasks).

Except even this is explained better, and more succinctly, in the first volume:

Philosopher: Having understood that studying is the child’s task, one considers what one can do for him. Concretely speaking, instead of commanding from above that the child must study, one acts on him in such a way that he can gain the confidence to take care of his own studies and face his tasks on his own.

Youth: And that action isn’t forced?

Philosopher: No, it’s not. Without forcing, and with the tasks always kept separate, one assists the child to resolve them by his own efforts. It’s the approach of “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” He is the one who has to face his tasks, and he is the one who makes the resolution.

Youth: So you neither praise nor rebuke?

Philosopher: That’s right, one neither praises nor rebukes. This kind of assistance, which is based on horizontal relationships, is referred to in Adlerian psychology as “encouragement.”

I’ll give you an example of what this looks like, from my actual life: Yesterday, I played the first and second movements of Mozart K332 for L — and when I was done, instead of telling me what he thought of my performance (creating a vertical relationship in which he had the power to decide what was good/bad about me) he sat very quietly and looked at me and then I told him what I thought of the work I had just done.

And then I told him what work needed to be done before I played for him again.

At that point, L (who teaches piano, when we aren’t enjoying the rest of our lives together) could provide assistance; tips, technical exercises, and so on.

That’s the difference between encouraging and rebuking/praising.

The trouble is — and this is what much of The Courage to Be Happy is about — that many young people haven’t yet developed the presence of mind to think clearly about the work they’ve done or what work needs to be done next.

The youth argues that children need to be told what is good and bad, by someone who knows, before they can develop this skill on their own.

The philosopher argues that all you have to do is encourage, and through this process the child will become motivated to evaluate and improve their own efforts.

Is that true? It would be wonderful if encouragement always led to motivation — if encouragement led to courage, as the youth finally figures out — but I know from my own teaching work that some students leave my classes eager to put their new techniques into practice and others just leave.

Which could mean that I am not as encouraging of a teacher as I could be.

It might also mean that encouragement-based education doesn’t scale; that any time a teacher is working with multiple students at once, it becomes difficult to encourage each one individually (and very, very easy for students to notice who is being encouraged and who isn’t, creating a classroom hierarchy that causes some students to feel discouraged instead).

The book also argues that if certain students are not fully committed to your classroom, it may be because their primary motivations lie elsewhere; they might not want to become a pianist or a writer, for example, and might have their own projects and interests that they are courageously pursuing in their limited free time — to which the youth responds “that’s great for piano or whatever, but everyone ought to learn basic literacy and numeracy and history and so on, how do you teach that without rebuking or praising?”

Encourage them to take up the task of learning, the philosopher says again.

And then the youth essentially says “My students are not the little self-motivated Adlerian models that you describe! Teaching is a lot harder when you have bad students instead of perfect ones! Poor me!”

And then — well, you know what question the philosopher asks next. ❤️

Book Review: The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

I first heard about The Courage to Be Disliked through Khe Hy’s newsletter; when he wrote that it was a book about “whether happiness can be learned, how inter-personal relationships form our identities, and how to overcome a fear of failure,” I instantly put a library hold on a copy.

I did not, however, join Hy’s online book club. I thought about it, and then I reminded myself that I did not have time to take on another commitment—which was definitely the right choice.

So was reading this book.

The Courage to Be Disliked takes the form of a dialogue between a philosopher and a youth; together, they break down the various tenets of Adlerian psychology, such as “all problems are interpersonal relationship problems.”

There were certain aspects of the dialogue that felt instinctively right; I loved the section about the division of tasks, for example. (One of the reasons we get into interpersonal problems is because we try to do other people’s tasks for them or try to get other people to do our tasks.)

I also loved the idea that we should strive for true horizontal relationships, in which both parties see and relate to each other as equals, instead of the more common vertical relationships in which one person sees themselves as above or below the other.

But I finished the book with as many unanswered questions as the youth, and no philosopher of my own to turn to.

For example: I understood, intellectually, the rationale behind the whole “we do not scream because we are angry; we tell ourselves we are angry because we want an excuse to scream, and we want an excuse to scream so we can put another person below us” thing. That works in the exact customer service situation the youth describes to the philosopher, in which the youth explains that they could not help screaming at the waiter who spilled soup (and the philosopher explains that the youth actually wanted an excuse to feel superior to the waiter).

But some situations are more complicated than a waiter spilling soup, and sometimes it feels like we’re screaming because we don’t want other people to put us below them. They are not doing their share of the tasks, not treating us like equal individuals, etc. etc. etc.

So, okay. The philosopher at this point might say “If that other person is making a choice to put you below them, then you can also make a choice—the choice to leave that relationship.”

Which is a very hard choice to make, and the philosopher even notes that it’s nearly impossible with family.

The philosopher also notes that it’s very difficult to get someone else to change their behavior. All you can do is change yours—which is a truth I absolutely believe in—and wait to see how they respond.

Of course, in the majority of the situations in which I’ve tried this, the other person does not change. (It also feels super patronizing to do the thing where you tell a perpetually late partner that, since they did not meet you at the previously discussed time, you went ahead without them—because I did it. Once.)

Essentially, the book argues that if you have the courage to set boundaries, pursue your own tasks, treat others as true equals, stop dwelling on the past (because that’s another excuse to try to put yourself above the people who have hurt you), change yourself without trying to change others, and understand that some people will dislike you for living this way, you can live a happy life.

Except you also have to find a community to be a part of. That’s the last step, and you won’t be truly happy without one.

And since the majority of people do not live this way, as the philosopher admits…

Well. Once again, it’s hard.

Luckily, there’s a sequel: The Courage to Be Happy.

Looks like I’ll need to get myself a copy. ❤️