Happiness: The Opiate of the People?

Question: Is happiness the highest accomplishment a human can achieve?

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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.

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Question: What about artists who are depressed but create great work?

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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.

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Being human is about having the whole range, the full range of emotions.

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Question: Is happiness psychology an excuse for governments to ignore citizens’ concerns for material goods?

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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.

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Recorded on:  September 23, 2009

Sure happiness is great, but what about groundbreaking yet tortured artists and unhappy but principled workaholic reformers? And is the theory of positive psychology fodder for governments to make citizens responsible for their own happiness despite material deficiencies? Tal Ben Shahar, author of Happier, takes on these arguments.

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