The Art of Happiness

An Interview with Tal Ben-Shahar

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.

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.