Big Think Interview with Tal Ben-Shahar
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.
Question: Do you consider your work and your books self-help?
Tal Ben-Shahar: Okay. I most certainly see my books, my writing, my teaching as self-help. Self-help in the traditional sense. Self-help was, to a great extent, about applying yourself, about cultivating character, about working hard toward self-cultivation, toward more success and well-being. And this is what I attempt to do through my teachings.
Question: Do you think self-help is particularly important today?
Tal Ben-Shahar: I believe that taking responsibility for one's life, for one's happiness is critical. It's critical at any time; it's especially important during difficult times and the misunderstanding that many people have about happiness and joy is that it can come somehow from the outside; whereas, more and more research, more and more experiences, suggest that it can only come from within. Another words we need to help ourselves.
Question: Does self-help work deserve any of the stigma associated with it?
Tal Ben-Shahar: Yeah. Many of the self-help books today offer quick fixes so the five steps to happiness, the three things you need to do in order to become the great partner or leader, the one secret of life flourishing and success. This is over promising and under delivering. There is no quick fix or at least I haven't found the quick fix. Improving, growing, flourishing is about hard work. So some of the stigma that is associated with the self-help literature today, some of it, not all, is well deserved.
Question: What do you consider a classic self-help book?
Tal Ben-Shahar: The classic self-help book is by Samuel Smiles, a 19th century British writer who wrote a book called Self-Help. This is about hard work. It's about cultivating your character. More recently, very good self-help books that have been written would be Stephen Covey's, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Marty Seligman's book on Learned Optimism and **** books on mindfulness and so on. And it's mostly today books written by ecodemics who do rigorous research or rely on imperical evidence.
Question: Is happiness the highest accomplishment a human can achieve?
Tal Ben-Shahar: I don't think it's the highest thing that any human can achieve, but I think it's something that we all strive for by virtue of our nature. Whether we want to or not we can call it, run away from pain and pursue pleasure. We can call it a sense of meaning, but all these elements eventually lead up to happiness. We're so constituted that we pursue happiness. It's no coincidence that the founding fathers put the pursuit of happiness as one of the self-evident rights. It's part of our nature.
Question: What about artists who are depressed but create great work?
Tal Ben-Shahar: Yeah? Okay. Because I think it's relevant here. There is certainly place, an important place, for painful emotions. So for example one of the trends today -- one of the quick fixes -- is trying to medicate away every painful emotion that we or our children students may have. I think this hurts individuals. I think it hurts our society as a whole. Painful emotions can lead to important learning, painful emotions can be to grow, failure can lead to important learning and growth. That should be and usually is part of any life and certainly a successful life. In fact, there is a lot of research showing that the most successful people in the world, whether it's scientists or artists are also the people who have failed the most times. It shows that ultimately the happiest people are actually people who allow themselves to experience the full gamits of human emotions, not people who suppress or somehow get rid of painful emotions when these arise. Also painful emotions, at times, lead us to creativity. While there is research showing that we tend to be more creative when we're in a positive mood and we tend to be more passive when in a negative mood. We can also be highly creative and there are many examples of highly creative people who were depressed or anxious and generally unhappy.
Being human is about having the whole range, the full range of emotions.
Question: Is happiness psychology an excuse for governments to ignore citizens’ concerns for material goods?
Tal Ben-Shahar: What psychologists have shown is that material affluence is not correlated with happiness except for in extreme cases. So if a person's basic needs are not met -- food, shelter, basic education -- then that certainly affects their levels of happiness. If someone doesn't have individual freedoms under a dictatorship, then that person's happiness will certainly be influenced. So there are certain things that society can do, mostly by giving freedom, by allowing people to pursue their happiness. You know, the Declaration of Independence doesn't say that we have the right to happiness; it says that we have the right to pursue happiness. And that's a very smart political, as well as psychological, statement.
Question: Do public venues like Facebook and Twitter complicate optimalism?
Tal Ben-Shahar: I think that generally there is a problem with being out there all the time. We also need our bits of solitude. Some people, the introverts, need it more than others, the extroverts. But we all need it and it's important to have a private life by externalising everything that we do and we think about -- I think we're hurting some of our potential for growth. We learn, we grow, we develop when we're reflecting and when we are reflecting without thinking about how this is going to look on Facebook or Twitter or on our blog. So I think there is place for privacy, which we are to some extent losing. Having said that, there is also much benefit with being -- with the social networks. With more in touch with other people; meeting someone you went to school with in third grade, thanks to Facebook. I mean, that's a wonderful thing.
Question: What are the most common barriers to happiness?
Tal Ben-Shahar: What many people think is that the problem lies with having too high expectations, so if we lower our expectations we will not be disappointed, hence we'll be happier. The problem, though, as a lot of research suggests, is not with high expectations versus low expectations. The issue is wrong expectations versus right expectations. Many people have the expectation that getting that next raise or buying that bigger car or getting the promotion will make them happier, where, in fact, it does lead to more happiness, but only for the short-term. There is only a spike in ones base level of well-being. So people who have these expectations that the achievement of the external will make them happier will inevitably be disappointed unhappy.
The issue is having the right expectations. If our expectations are that more time with our family and friends, being more physically active, being more grateful for what we do and what we have; if our expectations are that these things will make us happier, then we have the right expectations and we will in fact become happier.
Question: What can people do each day to be happier?
Tal Ben-Shahar: The first thing to do to become happier, paradoxically, is to accept painful emotions, to accept them as a part of being alive. You know, there are two kinds of people who don't experience painful emotions such as anxiety or disappointment, sadness, envy; two kinds of people who don't experience these painful emotions. They are the psychopaths and the dead. So if we experience painful emotions at time, it's actually a good sign. It means that we're not a psychopath and we're alive. The paradox is that when we give ourselves the permission to be human, the permission to experience the full gamut of human emotion. We open ourselves up to positive emotions as well.
Question: Are there specific things people can do?
Tal Ben-Shahar: Then I think -- yeah. Some specific examples, exactly. The number one predictor of well-being of happiness is time, quality time, we spend with our family, friends, people we care about and who care about us. In our modern world, unfortunately this quality time is erroding. A very good predictor of well-being is what psychologist Tim Kasser calls time affluence. Time affluence is the thing that we have time to sit down and chat with our friends while -- not while being on the phone at the same time or text messaging at the same time, being with that person. This is a better predictor.
Physical exercise contributes a great deal to happiness; in fact, there is research showing that regular exercise, three times a week for 30 to 40 minutes of aerobic exercise, could be jogging or walking or aerobics or dancing, three times a week of 30 to 40 minutes of exercise is equivalent to some of our most powerful psychiatric drugs in dealing with depression or sadness or anxiety. We've become a sedentary culture where we park our car next to our workplace or take the train and we don't walk like our fore parents used to. Thousands of years ago our fore parents walked an average of eight miles a day. How far do we walk today? Well it depends on where we park our car. And we pay a high price for it because we weren't made to be to sedentary. We were made to be physically active.
Question: How can we cultivate gratitude?
Tal Ben-Shahar: There are treasures of happiness all around us and within us. The problem is that we only appreciate them when something terrible happens. Usually when we become sick, we appreciate our health. When we lose someone dear to us, we appreciate our life. And we don't need to wait. If we cultivate the habit of gratitude we can significantly increase our levels of happiness. So, for example, research by Robert **** and Mike McAuliffe shows that people who keep a gratitude journal, who each night before going to sleep write at least five things for which they are grateful, big things or little things, are happier, more optimistic, more successful, more likely to achieve their goals, physically healthier; it actually strengthens our immune system, and are more generous and benevolent toward others. This is an intervention that takes three minutes a day with significant positive ramifications.
Question: What happiness techniques are particularly important in today’s world?
Tal Ben-Shahar: Okay. Sorry. One of the most important things that we can do in our modern world is to simplify, to do less rather than more. The problem is that we try and cram more and more things into less and less time, and we pay a price. We pay a price in terms of the quality of the work that we do. We also pay a price in terms of the quality of relationships that we enjoy. So doing less -- for example, switching our phone off for three hours when we get home, or not responding to every e-mail as it arrives, having what I call e-mail-free zones -- these little things, simplifying our lives even slightly, can make a significant difference to our productivity as well as happiness.
Question: How can you rediscover happiness after a tragedy?
Tal Ben-Shahar: It's very difficult to talk about or think about happiness when one has experienced tragedy. In fact, when people actually break down, when they give themselves the permission to be human whether it's by crying or sharing their emotions with others; when they break down they're actually much more likely to get over their tragedy. Whereas people who said, "Okay. I'm going to pull through this. I'm going to be strong, I'm not going to let these emotions take over me." They're actually people who would struggle for much longer periods of time after the tragedy has occurred.
We need to give our mind, our body, our emotions, a time to heal. That's when the natural healer kicks in, when we let it take its course rather than suppress it.
Question: Can a trauma lead to growth in happiness?
Tal Ben-Shahar: Many people talk about PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, which is quite common whether after 9/11 or people coming back from Afghanistan or Iraq; however, very few people talk about post traumatic growth, which potentially is more common than PTSD.
Post traumatic growth comes about when we give ourselves the permission to be human, when we allow oursevles to experience the emotions. It comes when we interpret or reinterpret the event and look for, actively look for a meaning in what had just happened to us. It comes when we share our experiences, when we open up rather than close down. So it is possible to experience post traumatic growth. It's possible for many more people who have gone through trauma, who have gone through difficult experiences to experience growth as a result. This is the power of positive psychology, of research, because what psychologists know today is what we can do, what we can actively do to experience more growth following hardship.
Question: How do you console those with bad luck that feel a right to be unhappy?
Tal Ben-Shahar: There is actually very interesting research about luck by Richard Wiseman, who is a British psychologist. And what he shows is that there are actually certain characteristics that can be learned and can be taught associated with lucky people. So it's things like being more open to opportunities, little things like trying new things, whether it's walking back home using a different route every day, or varying one's menu. And it's also people who believe in luck who end up having more luck. So he created a luck school, teaching people how to become luckier. And it works.
Question: How would you defend an unsuccessful yet happy person?
Tal Ben-Shahar: Yeah. The ultimate currency is happiness. It's the end toward which all others -- the ultimate currency is happiness. It's the end, in the words of Aristotle, toward which all other goals lead. Why do we want to be successful? Because we believe that it will make us happier. Why do we want more money? Because we believe that it would make us happier. And if working hard at a certain profession or certain area does not make us happier, but it will make us more successful, then why bother? And ideally, what we want to find is something that is personally meaningful to us, something that we experience as pleasurable, and then pursue it. And then we can have the best of both worlds; we can be successful as well as happy. But the key to that is to also enjoy the process, the journey, toward that success, because success in and of itself cannot, will not, make us happier.
Question: Can corporations beneficially employ theories of positive psychology?
Tal Ben-Shahar: What corporations, certainly in the 21st century, need to come to terms with is the fact that happiness pays. Meaning positive emotions actually lead to more creativity, they lead to more motivation; and they lead to more loyalty for the workplace. And in the 21st century an organization that is not creative, that does not have innovation as one of its basic pillars, cannot thrive in the long haul.
Question: What specifically can a corporation do to promote happiness?
Tal Ben-Shahar: The first thing that an organization needs to do is to give space, place, for people to fail. Now, it shouldn't give a blank check to failure, but it needs to identify the area where failure is not traumatic or terrible and give space in these areas, because that's where people learn; that's where people explore. An organization where people are afraid of failing every step of the way will not be an innovative organization. Second, an organization needs to also consider giving people recovery space. It's no coincidence that we get some of our best ideas in the shower. We used to get it in the car, before the cell phone came on the scene. And it's because people have the time to take a step back and to think about certain issues, for ideas to marinate. And this is necessary. That's part of creativity. It's no coincidence that the words creation and recreation are etymologically linked, because we need to recreate if we want to create. Organizations need to encourage their employees to take recovery times, whether it's 15 minutes every 90 minutes or so; whether it's the gym in the middle of the day; whether it's the day or two off, not while being connected to the computer and cell phone; whether it's the vacation, where one is really on vacation, on holiday. And these recovery periods in the long term actually contribute to creativity, productivity, as well as happiness.
Question: What is optimal love?
Tal Ben-Shahar: Optimal love is about continuous growth within the relationship. It's about the partners becoming more intimate. It's about the partners finding more and more meaning in their relationship. It's about developing. It's about ups and downs, with the general trajectory being upward.
Question: What are the most common illusions about love?
Tal Ben-Shahar: One of the major illusions is that healthy love, a healthy relationship, is devoid of conflict, whereas in fact what we see when we study the best relationships is that conflict is part and parcel of a healthy relationship. In fact, when there is no conflict, it's a sign that the partners are suppressing, that they're ignoring things. And it's usually a prescription for failure. At the same time, when we only have conflict, or primarily conflict, that's also a bad sign. What we want to see in relationships is a positive ratio between positive experiences and negative experiences, so to have more love, more joy, more celebration, and at the same time a little bit of fighting and bickering can only help.
Question: How can people endure moments of conflict in relationships?
Tal Ben-Shahar: The psychologist David Schnarch talks about gridlocks within relationships. Gridlocks are points that we get to, and every long-lasting relationship gets to, where we're stuck, where we disagree about certain things that are fundamental to the relationship. And many people view these gridlocks as signaling the end, the necessary end, of a relationship, whereas in fact, as David Schnarch points out, these can very often be the genesis of growth, the beginning of a deeper relationship. So it's important to remind ourselves that very often -- not always, but very often -- gridlocks, fights, conflicts are points for potential growth if we work through them, if we honestly and opening grow through them.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Tal Ben-Shahar: Education, that's our future. This is where I'm putting most of my time into thinking about how we can introduce, whether it's in the public school system or in the private schools, better teaching; how we can cultivate more wellbeing, more of a sense of purpose, because many students are experiencing what Victor Frankl called an existential vacuum, meaninglessness. So how to introduce a sense of purpose, how to introduce more happiness. And these things are of course related. And how to introduce more ambition and more flourishing in the general sense of the word into schools.
Question: Should classes like your Harvard course on happiness be taught to kids?
Tal Ben-Shahar: I think we should introduce a happiness curriculum from kindergarten all the way up to the age of 120. Why? Because happiness is a journey. The earlier we start, the better; however, also if we start at a late stage, we can still teach a lot, we can still learn a lot.
Question: What is the best career advice you've ever received?
Tal Ben Shahar: The best advice that I got was from my philosophy teacher, Ohad Kamin. After graduating from college and feeling very lost, I went to him, and his advice was, Tal, think about the things that you want to do and write them down. Then look at these things and identify the things that you really want to do, and write these down. And from those things, identify the things that you really, really want to do, and then go ahead and do it. You know, life is short. We don't have that much time. And it's too short to do what we feel that we have to do; it's barely long enough to do what we want to do.
Question: What is the worst mistake you've made in your career?
Tal Ben-Shahar: It's very difficult for me to answer this question about worst mistake, especially after having written a book about the importance of mistakes. So I can only think of best mistakes that I've made; you know, mistakes that I've learned from. And it could be mistakes in terms of taking on too many things, saying yes to too many things instead of simplifying my life. It could be the mistakes of doing things that were for the sake of getting accolades as opposed to things that were self-determined, that came from within, things that have been really -- that I was passionate about. Or the mistakes of not being nice enough to people in authority, and I've very often paid a price for that.
Question: What is the importance of failure?
Tal Ben-Shahar: One of the mantras that I repeat over and over again to myself, to my students, is learn to fail or fail to learn. One of the things that I tell my students about halfway through the class -- when it's too late to drop the class and they've already gotten to know me a little bit better -- I tell them that I wish them that they fail more, and I truly, sincerely mean it, because it's only through failure that we can learn -- no, it's not true. It's through failure that we can enjoy deep learning. It's through failure that we become more resilient and stronger. And if you look at the life of any successful person, they've always had major as well as minor failures.
Question: Have any historical figures exemplified the concept of failing well?
Tal Ben-Shahar: Sure. Thomas Edison patented 1,093 inventions, more than any other scientist inventor in history. He's also the scientist, as far as we know, who has failed the most times. When Edison was working on a battery, one of his inventions, an interviewer came over and said to him in the interview, "Edison, you have failed a thousand times; give it up." To which Edison responded, "I haven't failed a thousand times; I've succeeded a thousand times. I've succeeded in showing what doesn't work." Edison also famously said, "I failed my way to success."
Recorded on: September 23, 2009
A conversation with the author of "The Pursuit of Perfect" and "Happier."
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