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.