Introducing: The Hamburger Model of Happiness

Let me introduce you to Mr. Tal Ben-Shahar.

He's the author and lecturer who taught two of the largest classes in Harvard University’s history, Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership. In his remarkable book, Happier, Tal Ben Shahar describes how he arrived at a very insightful discovery.


The Story of The Four Hamburgers

“One of the most important squash tournaments of the year was approaching.

I had been training extremely hard and decided to supplement my training with a special diet. While my eating habits had always been quite healthful — a necessary part of my training regimen — I had occasionally allowed myself the “luxury” of junk food.

However, in the four weeks leading up to the tournament, I ate only the leanest fish and chicken, whole-grain carbohydrates, and fresh fruit and vegetables. The reward for my abstinence, I resolved, would be a two-day junk-food binge.

As soon as the tournament was over, I went straight to my favorite hamburger joint. I ordered four hamburgers, and as I walked away from the counter with my prize, I understood how Pavlov’s dogs felt at the sound of the bell.

I sat myself down and hurriedly unwrapped the first portion of my reward. But as I brought the burger closer to my mouth, I stopped. For a whole month I had looked forward to this meal, and now, when it was right in front of me, presented to me on a plastic platter, I did not want it.

I tried to figure out why, and it was then that I came up with the happiness model, otherwise known as the hamburger model.[…] Staring at my untouched meal, I thought of four kinds of hamburgers, each representing a distinct archetype, with each archetype describing a distinct pattern of attitudes and behaviors.”

The Hamburger Model of Happiness

Here’s a fancy representation of the model, as described by Tal Ben-Shahar.

The beauty of this model lies in its simplicity. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Let's talk about each one of these four archetypes in more detail.

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1. The Hedonism Archetype

The Hedonism Archetype

The first archetype in this model is represented by the hedonists.

The analogy, of course, is that of a tasty junk-food burger. Eating this hamburger would yield present benefit, in that you would enjoy it, and future detriment, in that you would feel the consequences of it later. This explains the hedonism archetype in a nutshell.

Hedonists live by the maxim, “Seek pleasure and avoid pain”. They focus on enjoying the present while ignoring the potential negative consequences of their actions. In Tal Ben-Shahar’s words:

“This is the hell that the hedonist mistakes for heaven. Without a long-term purpose, devoid of challenge, life ceases to feel meaningful to us; we cannot find happiness if we exclusively seek pleasure and avoid pain. Yet the ever-present hedonist within each of us — longing for a Garden of Eden of sorts — equates effort with pain and doing nothing with pleasure.”

Without a long-term purpose, devoid of challenge, life ceases to feel meaningful to us. @TalBenShahar

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2. The Rat-Race Archetype

The Rat-Race Archetype

The second archetype in the hamburger model of happiness is represented by the rat-racer. The corresponding analogy is that of a tasteless vegetarian burger made with only the most healthful ingredients.

Eating this burger would yield future benefit, in that you would reap the benefits of feeling good and healthy, and present detriment, in that you would not enjoy eating it.

The rat racer is the complete opposite of the hedonist type. His motto is: “Pain now, pleasure later.” He suffers now for the purpose of some future gain.

I like the way Tal Ben-Shahar describes it:

“The reason why we see so many rat racers around is that our culture reinforces this belief. If we get an A at the end of the semester, we get a gift from our parents; if we meet certain quotas on the job, we get a bonus at the end of the year.

We learn to focus on the next goal rather than on our present experience and chase the ever-elusive future our entire lives. We are not rewarded for enjoying the journey itself but for the successful completion of a journey. Society rewards results, not processes; arrivals, not journeys.

Once we arrive at our destination, once we attain our goal, we mistake the relief that we feel for happiness. The weightier the burden we carried on our journey, the more powerful and pleasant is our experience of relief.

When we mistake these moments of relief for happiness, we reinforce the illusion that simply reaching goals will make us happy. While there certainly is value in relief—it is a pleasant experience and it is real—it should not be mistaken for happiness.”

Society rewards results, not processes; arrivals, not journeys. @TalBenShahar

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The biggest problem with the rat racers is that they can’t enjoy what they’re doing in the present moment. They’re unable to enjoy the process because they believe that only when they’ll reach a certain destination, they will be happy.

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3. The Nihilism Archetype

the nihilism burger

The third archetype in the hamburger model of happiness is represented by the nihilist.

The respective analogy is that of both a tasteless and unhealthful burger. Worst-case scenario… By eating it, you would experience present detriment, in that it tastes bad, and future detriment, in that it is unhealthful.

This archetype describes the person who has “lost the lust for life,” as Tal Ben-Shahar puts it. This is someone who neither enjoys the present moment, nor has a sense of future purpose.

We’ve already seen that the hedonist lives in the false belief that happiness can be obtained by experiencing momentary pleasures that are detached from a future purpose.

In much the same way, the rat racer lives in the false belief that reaching a certain destination will bring him lasting happiness. By contrast, the nihilist lives in the false belief that no matter what one does, one cannot attain happiness.

At this moment, do you see the missing link? Well, that missing link is represented by the last archetype…

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4. The Happiness Archetype

The Happiness Archetype

What about a hamburger that would yield present benefit, in that you would enjoy eating it and future benefit, in that you would feel good and healthy afterwards.

Do you see the benefits of this approach? The missing link was caused by the black-and-white fallacy: it’s either one way OR the other. That’s the type of mindset that leads to faulty thinking most of the time.

The truth, though, is rarely found at one extreme or the other. It almost always is a synthesis of different elements. Not one OR the other, but one AND the other.

In our case, the synthesis comes from putting together elements of the hedonism archetype, and that of the rat racer. By doing so, we could live knowing that the activities that bring us enjoyment in the present will also lead to a fulfilling future. But…

How Exactly Can We Be Happy Now and In The Future?

Of course, that’s the real question. Well, there are a few practical ways you can do that. At least two of them I gave you in these three articles:

For the purposes of this article, let’s see what Mr. Tal Ben-Shahar has to say on this topic.

“While present and future benefit may sometimes conflict — because some situations demand that we forgo one for the other — it is possible to enjoy both for much of the time.

Students who truly love learning, for instance, derive present benefit from the pleasure they take in discovering new ideas and future benefit from the ways in which those ideas will prepare them for their careers.

In romantic relationships, some couples enjoy their time together and help each other grow and develop. Those who work at something they love — be it in business, medicine, or art — can progress in their career while enjoying the journey.

To expect constant happiness, though, is to set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Not everything that we do can provide us both present and future benefit. It is sometimes worthwhile to forgo present benefit for greater future gain, and in every life some mundane work is unavoidable.

Studying for exams, saving for the future, or being an intern and working long hours is often unpleasant but can help us to attain long-term happiness. The key is to keep in mind, even as one forgoes some present gain for the sake of a larger future gain, that the objective is to spend as much time as possible engaged in activities that provide both present and future benefit.

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Nature has given the opportunity of happiness to all, knew they but how to use it.


It’s safe to say at this moment that the archetypes described above are theoretical formulations of types, not of actual people. All of us have, to varying degrees, characteristics of the hedonist, the rat racer, the nihilist, and of the happy person.

Now that you’re armed with this valuable information, the key is to be aware of which archetype is the most prevalent in your personality and start making wiser choices. With better choices, you’ll get better results. And little by little, you’ll see your life improving in the right direction. I wish that for you and much more! ?

Finally, let me leave you with some food for thought from professor Tal Ben Shahar:

“Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.”

Happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak. @TalBenShahar

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Daniel Cerescu

I'm Daniel Cerescu, and I'm the guy behind this blog. Even though most of the material on this website is free, I aim to make this free content better than anyone else’s paid stuff. My mission is to inspire and empower those who refuse to settle for anything less than an extraordinary life to live with passion, lead with purpose, and make their mark on the world.