In Defense of Self-Help
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: 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.
Recorded on: September 23, 2009
Tal Ben Shahar is widely respected academic, but he is also a proud self-help guru. He told Big Think the problem with most books labeled "self-help" these days, defined what true self-help is, and recommended some classics of the genre.
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