The Art of Happiness

An Interview with Tal Ben-Shahar

The quest for happiness is one of the oldest and most quixotic tasks human beings have set themselves. It spurs us on to amass great fortunes, paint timeless pictures, and summit Mt. Everest. But happiness often remains, even for the abundantly successful, elusive. Tal Ben-Shahar, a leading positive psychologist, a best-selling author, and a former Israeli squash champion, has been trying to figure out why this is. His theories — which center around the idea that happiness is in many ways a choice, not a condition entered passively — were the subject of what was for many years the most popular class at Harvard University. Here, he explains how and why we can all become, if not perfectly blissful, significantly happier.

Flickr. You might not achieve nirvana, but you can certainly be happier.

Flickr. You might never achieve nirvana, but you can certainly be happier.

Octavian Report: How did you first become interested in positive psychology? What was it that drew you to the discipline?

Tal Ben-Shahar: Initially, what got me interested in the subject of happiness was my own unhappiness. I was doing well as an undergraduate student at Harvard, I was a top athlete, I had a good social life — and I was unhappy. It didn’t make sense to me, because from the outside, everything seemed great, but from the inside it didn’t feel that way. I wanted to overcome this personal challenge that I faced, and that got me to learn about the field.

OR: What are the aims and purpose of positive psychology, who are its intellectual founders, and where do you see it headed in the medium and longer term as a discipline?

Ben-Shahar: Positive psychology focuses on flourishing at the individual and societal levels, on topics such as happiness, self-esteem, optimism, and joy. This is in contrast with the more prevalent focus in psychology on pathology — neurosis, anxiety, and depression.

In addition, positive psychology focuses primarily on what works, whether in individuals, relationships, or organizations. A traditional marriage counselor’s first implicit or explicit question to a couple would be “What is wrong with your relationship?” This is an important question, but it’s not enough. A positive psychologist would first ask, “What is working in your relationship? What are the strengths of each of you, and of you as a couple? What do you admire or appreciate about one another?” After establishing what is working, the counselor would then go on to the next stage: dealing with what is not working. By starting out with what works, there is more likelihood of success. These positive questions should not only be asked when things go wrong. They are potentially preventative in nature, strengthening the relationship so that it can deal with the inevitable hardships that arise over time. The same approach applies to individuals and to organizations. The questions of an organizational behaviorist trained in positive psychology will be along the lines of “What is working in the organization? What has worked? What can we learn from that?” That is a good platform for dealing with challenges.

Some of the founders are Martin Seligman, Barbara Fredrickson, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ellen Langer, and Ed Diener. My hope is that one day the field of positive psychology will be fully integrated within psychology as a broader discipline.

OR: What are the most important lessons positive psychology has to offer as a discipline, and why?

Ben-Shahar: My key lessons are the following.

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. We are a culture obsessed with pleasure; we believe that the mark of a worthy life is the absence of discomfort. When we experience pain, we take it to indicate that something must be wrong with us. In fact, there would be something wrong with us if we didn’t experience sadness or anxiety at times. The paradox is that when we accept our feelings — when we give ourselves the permission to be human and experience painful emotions — we are more likely to open ourselves up to positive emotions.

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. Research shows that an hour or two of a meaningful and pleasurable experience can affect the quality of an entire day, or even a whole week.

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 and by our interpretation of external events. Do we focus on the empty part or the full part of the glass? Do we view failures as catastrophic, or do we see them as learning opportunities?

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. Knowing when to say “no” to others often means saying “yes” to ourselves.

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.

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.

The number one predictor of happiness is the time we spend with people we care about and who care about us.  The most important source of happiness may be the person sitting next to you. Appreciate them, and savor the time you spend together.

OR: In our June issue, we featured an essay by Seneca the Younger nominating time as the most valuable currency. You have your own concept of the “ultimate currency” — could you explain what it is and how you arrived at it?

Ben-Shahar: If we wanted to assess the worth of a business, we would use money as our means of measurement. We would calculate the dollar value of its assets and liabilities, profits and losses. Anything that could not be translated into monetary terms would not increase or decrease the business’ value. In this case — in measuring a company’s worth — money is the ultimate currency.

A human being, like a business, makes profits and suffers losses. For a human being, however, the ultimate currency is not money, nor is it any external measure such as fame, fortune, or power. The ultimate currency for a human being is happiness.

Money and fame are subordinate to happiness and have no intrinsic value. The only reason money and fame may be desirable is that having them, or the thought of having them, could lead to positive emotions or meaning. In themselves, wealth and fame are worthless: there would be no reason to seek fame and fortune if they did not contribute, in some way, toward happiness.

OR: You have warned about the dangers of perfectionism. Where does the desire to excel tip into a more destructive place?

Ben-Shahar: There are two kinds of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive perfectionism, which I call “Optimalism,” is about being responsible, trustworthy, and hardworking. Maladaptive perfectionism is about an intense and irrational fear of failure, rigidity, and defensiveness. The challenge, if one is a perfectionist, is to get rid of the unhealthy, maladaptive perfectionism, and keep the healthy, adaptive perfectionism.

OR: How can people who have suffered setbacks, even tragedy, still be happy? Is it ever not possible?

Ben-Shahar: There are people who do not recover from tragedy and their entire life is marred by the experience. However, in most cases there is the potential to recover from hardship and move on — and even become happy once again. Strong social support, finding meaning and purpose in something, and allowing oneself to express and experience the emotions associated with the tragedy can all help in overcoming it.

“Give yourself permission to be human.”

—Tal Ben-Shahar

OR: Given that money should theoretically provide freedom to pursue one’s own interests, why is there such a low correlation between wealth and happiness?

Ben-Shahar: Money only helps increase happiness to the point where it provides us with our basic needs. Once these are met, additional income doesn’t contribute much. The reason is that happiness depends on things that do not depend on income — like spending quality time with loved ones, being physically active, and appreciating what you have.

OR: You taught, for years, the most popular class at Harvard University. What insights did that provide you into the psychological makeup of the students who in many cases go on to form and lead U.S. elites?

Ben-Shahar: That just like everyone else, they seek intimate relationships and a sense of meaning in life. Just like everyone else, they experience sadness and disappointment.

OR: Why do you think your class was so popular in such an intense environment?

Ben-Shahar: Positive psychology is in high demand in numerous places around the world. It’s not the intense Harvard environment that contributes to its popularity, but rather the human desire to be happier.

OR: Your books quote numerous greats on the subjects of happiness and mindfulness. Who are those two or three ancients we moderns can learn the most from on the subject?

Ben-Shahar: Aristotle, Lao Tzu, and Seneca.

OR: How do you think the proliferation of tablets and smart phones and the Internet is affecting human beings and their ability to be happy?

Ben-Shahar: It depends how they are used. If they are used to get in touch with friends — not just virtually but physically — then they can help. If we get addicted to the Internet, and stay online for hours each day, then it’s problematic. Research suggests that if we want to increase our levels of happiness we need to sometimes disconnect in order to connect. Having 1,000 friends on Facebook is no substitute for that face-to-face meeting with our one best friend. We need to replace FB with BFF.

OR: Do we pay a price for our high-connectivity lives? It’s never been easier to compare oneself to others, a key activity in shoring up perfectionism. What would be your proposed antidote?

Ben-Shahar: To focus on personal development and on cultivating intimate relationships.

OR: To what extent does happiness fuel success, in your opinion? Do the happy succeed more often than the unhappy?

Ben-Shahar: Most people believe that success will lead to well-being.  Their mental model is that success is the cause and happiness is the effect. But most people have it wrong.  We know from a great deal of research that success, at best, leads to a spike in one’s happiness levels, but the spike is temporary, ephemeral. But while success does not lead to well-being, the opposite is the case. Happiness is the cause and success is the effect. This is a very important finding, turning the cause-and-effect relationship around and correcting the misperception that so many people have. The reason for the above is that when we experience positive emotions we are more creative, more motivated, form better relationships, and are physically healthier.

OR: You were a national athletic champion. Your book charts your ambivalence about that, but what lessons does high-level athletic training have to offer someone seeking to be happier?

Ben-Shahar: Sports can be extremely helpful for leading a healthier and happier life. First, they teach you how to lose and fail, and then get up again. Second, they teach you the value of persistence and hard work. Third, they often involve learning to work with other people — especially, but not only, in team sports. Fourth, physical activity is one of the most important components of a happy life.

OR: Which current leaders — be they political, economic, or creative — seem happy to you? Which seem unhappy?

Ben-Shahar: Very few, if any, leaders are happy. Leading others is among the most difficult and unrewarding work. The question a leader needs to ask is not how can I be happy, but rather how can I be happier (than I am currently). Small changes to his/her happiness levels can make a big difference in terms of his/her performance.

OR: You frame both questions of happy v. happier and perfectionism v. optimalism not just in micro terms but in macro as well, pointing out that depression and anxiety seem to find footholds in high-pressure economies. To what extent is the philosophy you advocate not just good for individuals but for the nation-states they inhabit?

Ben-Shahar: Happier people are more productive, creative, and more generous and kind. This is of course good for individuals and for society as a whole.

OR: You cite Victor Frankl’s method of dealing with anxiety — by willfully intensifying it until it dissolves. What lessons, do you think, can investors plagued by headwinds or unexpected events draw from this?

Ben-Shahar: There is some great work done by Professor Alia Crum from Stanford on learning to view stress as beneficial. Businesspeople who view stress in that way can be much better investors, not to mention happier and healthier.

OR: Who are the two or three most fulfilled people you know well, and what allows them to be so?

Ben-Shahar: My daughter’s second-grade teacher, Galit, is fulfilled. She is doing what she loves most, and she’s extraordinarily good at what she does. And my former squash coach, Rami, is fulfilled. He spends much of his time discussing ideas, reading books, and he of course eats healthfully and is physically active.

OR: One subject that is raised but not gone into as deeply as others in your work is religion, a source of consolation for millions. Do you see it having a role in optimalism?

Ben-Shahar: Religious people are generally happier than non-religious people. One of the reasons is that they experience spirituality, which is important for happiness. However, while spirituality can be part of a religious life, it doesn’t have to be. One of the definitions of spirituality is finding a sense of significance in something. An investment banker who finds meaning in her work — who is in it for the right reasons –leads a more spiritual and fulfilling life than a monk who has chosen the monastery for the wrong reasons.

Religious people are happier because they have a community that they are a part of. Of course, it is also possible for non-religious people to be part of a community, but they often have to make more effort to find the people with whom they can connect.

OR: What are the main cultural differences between the two cultures you know best, Israel and the U.S., when it comes to the pursuit of happiness?

Ben-Shahar: In Israel there is more emphasis on relationships — on spending time with family and friends. This is the reason why Israelis are generally happier than North Americans.

OR: Thank you. This has been truly fascinating.