In the face of tragedy, lack of success, or plain bad luck, those promoting happiness can be frankly annoying. Tal Ben Shahar told Big Think that true happiness is only possible by feeling true pain and that luck can actually be taught.
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.
Recorded on: September 23, 2009