Tal Ben-Shahar is an author and lecturer at Harvard University. He currently teaches the largest course at Harvard on "Positive Psychology" and the third largest on "The Psychology of Leadership"--with a total of over 1,400 students.
Tal consults and lectures around the world to executives in multi-national corporation, the general public, and at-risk populations. Topics include happiness, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, mindfulness, and leadership.
An avid sportsman, Tal won the U.S. Intercollegiate and Israeli National squash championships. He obtained his PhD in Organizational Behavior and BA in Philosophy and Psychology from Harvard.
Question: What distinguishes the field of positive psychology?
Tal Ben-Shahar: Positive psychology essentially focuses on what works. So it applies to research; most research in psychology looks at schizophrenia, depression, anxiety; whereas, positive psychology says let's look at the things that work in life. Let's look at love, let's look at happiness, let's look at joy, job satisfaction, and so on. Positive psychology also focuses on what works when it comes to practice. So for instance, a therapist, the first implicit or explicit question that he or she would ask, the client would be what's wrong, what's not working in your life. A positive psychologist would first ask what is working, what is going well in your life and then build on that and then deal with what is not working based on what is working. Same in organizations; a consultant would usually ask what's the problem in your organization, what do we need to improve. A positive psychologist coming in to a company would first ask what is working well in their organization, what are the companies strengths, what are the virtues and then build on that.
Question: Who were the pioneers in the field?
Tal Ben-Shahar: The earliest pioneer of positive psychology was probably Aristotle, who talked about eudaimonia or flourishing. More recently, the first time it was explicitly mentioned in literature was by Abraham Maslow, who in 1954 wrote a chapter on toward a positive psychology. Then the father of positive psychology, more recently, is Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, who in 1998, when he was the president of the American Psychological Association, essentially founded the field, creating a network of scholars that would focus, that would research what works.
Question: Should everyone be seeing a positive psychologist?
Tal Ben-Shahar: I don't think it's realistic that everyone goes to a Positive Psychologist nor do I think it's necessary. I do, however, recommend that all people learn about this field because there is some fascinating research being done in this area that can help people become happier, that can help them improve their relationship, that can aide them in raising healthier, happier, flourishing children.
Question: What has been the most surprising finding in your positive psychology research?
Tal Ben-Shahar: What research has shown recently is that when we focus on people's strengths, when we cultivate their happiness, we're actually indirectly also helping them deal with hardships and difficulties. So it's not necessary to go to dealing with anxiety directly, we can focus on strength and that will indirectly help people deal with anxiety. We don't need to directly go to problematic areas within relationships. It's when we cultivate the positive in a relationship that inavertinely indirectly also the negatives fall by the wayside. So positive psychology helps directly becoming happier and also indirectly in helping us overcome, helping us deal with difficulties and hardships.
Recorded on: September 23, 2009