Harvard professor teaches the pursuit of happiness, to speak at JUF this winter

Happier image

Unlike many university classes, one popular course at Harvard University makes students happy.

The course, called Positive Psychology, taught by professor/author Tal Ben-Shahar, is a booming area of psychology, focusing on the science of what makes people feel good rather than on their pathologies. Positive psychology classes are now offered on more than 200 U.S. college campuses and around the world.

At Harvard, Ben-Shahar's class operates on two levels. First, it's similar to any other psychology course in that it requires reading academic journals, writing papers, and taking exams. But what attracts so many students is the course’s second level. “I always ask the students to apply what they have learned,” he says. “How can they use it to become happier or contribute to other people's happiness?” His purpose in teaching the class is for his students to leave happier than when they began the course.

And happier they do become, according to Ben-Shahar, who will be speaking for the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) twice this winter. Although there is no scientific data yet on the course—next semester researchers will be conducting science projects in class to quantify the happiness level of the students—on an anecdotal basis, the students reported the positive difference the course has made in their lives and encouraged their friends to take the course. Word of mouth did wonders for the class: In two years, the class grew from six students to 855, the largest class on campus.

Teaching happiness seems more important than ever these days. Research, according to Ben-Shahar, shows that people are more depressed today than in the past; suicide rates are higher today than they were several decades ago. He believes people are searching for happiness in the wrong places. In the United States and increasingly in other parts of the globe, there is too much emphasis on quantifiable achievements like grades in early life, and later, prestige and income, says Ben-Shahar. At the same time, there is a de-emphasis on close relationships, like that of family and friends, and pursuing one's passion. He blames higher depression rates on increasing pressure with less support. “We're trying to fit more and more things into less and less time,” explains Ben-Shahar. “There is more pressure, anxiety goes up, stress goes up, and consequently depression goes up. [At the same time] there is an absence of a family support system, an absence of close, intimate relationships. The additional pressure without the buffer today explains the growing level of depression.”

Close relationships are key to happiness. In fact, Ben-Shahar says the number one predictor of happiness is close, intimate relationships, whether they are romantic relationships, family ties, or friendships. He took that to heart and recently relocated with his family—his wife and two sons, ages 3 1/2 and 9 months—back to his hometown of Ramat Gan, Israel, to be closer to their extended family. At the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel, he teaches Positive Psychology, a required course for all psychology majors, but he will return to Harvard later this year to teach the class again.

What propelled Ben-Shahar to teach the Harvard class in the first place began over a decade ago with his own quest to find happiness. A recent college graduate at the time, you would have thought Ben-Shahar had everything going for him. At the young age of 16, he had been named Israel's national squash champion. After his army service in Israel, he attended college at one of the most prestigious schools in the world, Harvard, and then continued to pursue his graduate work at the school. Plus, he had lots of friends. “Everything was going well except for the fact that I wasn't happy,” he explains. He said the feeling was hard to describe—it's not that he was clinically depressed—he was just unhappy.

So Ben-Shahar did something about it, setting out on a journey to find happiness. First, he switched from studying what he thought he was supposed to study—computer science—to academic areas he felt passionate about—psychology and philosophy—and earned his Ph.D. in organizational behavior. And he gave himself “permission to be human,” giving up on perfectionism. One of the reasons, ironically, people are unhappy, according to Ben-Shahar, is that they don't give themselves permission to experience painful emotions. When people reject painful emotions, their pain becomes more potent; when they accept those emotions as part of nature, the pain subsides, he says.

In finding happiness, he also started to recognize a connection between mind and body. In the past, although he was an athlete, he hadn't exercised in his off-season. He discovered, though, that regular exercise can have similar effects to some of the most powerful psychiatric drugs. He took up yoga, too, because he says that meditation changes the structure of the brain, making people more susceptible to positive emotion. There are studies, he says, proving such a strong mind-body correlation that, all other things being equal, people who choose to focus on the positive may live up to 10 years longer than those who don't.

Finally, he began writing in a gratitude journal. In fact, for the past decade, he has written in it every night before going to bed. “At any given moment, we have so many things to be grateful for and yet we take them for granted,” says Ben-Shahar. “When do we start appreciating them? Take our health for instance. [We start appreciating it] when we're ill, when our life is in danger, or when we lose someone dear. We don't need to wait for these tragic, external events. We can remind ourselves constantly to be grateful.”

After blending together all of the ingredients to his happiness recipe, Ben-Shahar gradually grew happier. He was so grateful for his own happiness that he wanted to teach happiness to others, and began offering the positive psychology course at Harvard. Happiness, he asserts, is partially determined by genetics and early childhood experiences, but he believes a person can also learn happiness. A person born with unhappy genes who works at it will be happier than a person who was born with happy genes and rejects happiness in his/her life, according to Ben-Shahar. He figures he is the perfect person to teach the course because he “wasn't born with a happiness spoon in his mouth.”

Ben-Shahar also teaches positive psychology in Judaism through AishCafe, a Jewish Internet learning program. He teaches the scientific angle, while a rabbi discusses what Judaism has to say on the subject. Judaism, Ben-Shahar says, promotes a happy approach to life for reasons including the following: Judaism emphasizes community and family, which is integral to happiness; the religion focuses on the recognition of good, and believes in being thankful for everything and taking nothing for granted; and finally, Shabbat observance. “Something as simple as a day off, says Ben-Shahar. There's research that shows that people who take a day off are actually more productive and creative in the long run.”

In addition to teaching happiness inside the classroom, Ben-Shahar has written books on the subject, including his most recent entitled “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment” (McGraw-Hill, $21.95). The book, which combines scientific research, self-help, advice, and spiritual advice, is a guide to help the reader increase his/her happiness. However, the author cautions the book alone is not meant to cure major depression and anxiety disorders. Ben-Shahar's next book, called “The Permission to be Human,” tackles the topic of perfectionism and coping with self-acceptance.

So what makes one of the foremost experts on happiness happy? “Most importantly, my family, he replies immediately. “My wonderful wife, my wonderful kids.”

Being happy, though, says Ben-Shahar, isn't an end result, but something to work toward one's entire life. “It's a journey,” he says. “Today, I'm happier than I was five years ago. Five years ago, I was happier than I was 10 years ago, and five years from now, I hope to be happier than I am today.”

Tal Ben-Shahar will be speaking to the Chicago-area Jewish community on Thurs., March 6, at the Agency & School Board Event at the Doubletree Hotel in Skokie. For information, call Mindy Bass at (312) 444-2839 or e-mail: MindyBass@juf.org.

Six Tips for Happiness

Advice from Tal Ben-Shahar

1. Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions—such as fear, sadness, or anxiety—as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness.

2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning.

3. Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well-being is determined by what we choose to focus on (the full or the empty part of the glass) and by our interpretation of external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity?

4. Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much.

5. Remember the mind-body connection. What we do— or don't do—with our bodies influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.

6. Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.

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