Tal Ben-Shahar, seated, getting a haircut from his stylist Avi Peretz. Tal Ben-Shahar, seated, getting a haircut from his stylist Avi Peretz. Tal Ben-Shahar, seated, getting a haircut from his stylist Avi Peretz. (Photo: Naomi Redel)

The life-changing lessons a Harvard psychologist learned from his barber

Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught one of the university's most popular courses, finds the best counseling comes with a cut.

New York Times bestselling author Tal Ben-Shahar likes to keep his hair closely cropped. Perhaps his affinity for low-cut locks is simply this: His barber gives great advice.

The barber in question is Avi Peretz, whose shop is just north of the Mediterranean metropolis of Tel Aviv. Ben-Shahar, a native Israeli who now lives in New York, travels back to the country often – not just to visit family and friends, but apparently for the great haircut and life lessons, too. "The first lesson that I learned from my barber is that you can learn lessons from your barber," Ben-Shahar wryly notes. The barber's sage wisdom and the conversations that ensued are compiled in a new book by Ben-Shahar called "Short Cuts to Happiness: Life-Changing Lessons from My Barber."

Ben-Shahar's books have been translated into more than 25 languages. Ben-Shahar's books have been translated into more than 25 languages. (Photo: Courtesy The Experiment)

"For the past 30 years, I've been an academic," Ben-Shahar said. "I've delved into academic journals and ancient texts and modern research. And here, I went to my barber and I realized that I was actually feeling great after a haircut – and great not just because he made me look better, but because he made me feel better."

And Ben-Shahar should know. He's an expert in feeling better. His seminar in positive psychology was one of the most popular classes ever taught at Harvard. More students signed up for his class than introductory economics. "I guess more people want to be happy than want to be rich," explained the professor, who now teaches happiness courses online to the general public.

One of the many lessons Ben-Shahar learned from his barber was the importance of cultivating relationships. "When we came into his salon, the phones were off. He encouraged us to be engaged with one another."

Despite decades of studying scientific research, Ben-Shahar (left) believes that sometimes the most cogent advice is right in front of you – or behind you, in the case of his barber, Avi Peretz (right). Despite decades of studying scientific research, Ben-Shahar (left) believes that sometimes the most cogent advice is right in front of you – or behind you, in the case of his barber, Avi Peretz (right).

And it's those relationships that can lead to a high quality of life. "The number one predictor of happiness is quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us," Ben-Shahar told us. "There's a lot of research on national level happiness, and the results are actually quite interesting and somewhat surprising. The happiest countries in the world are countries like Denmark and Costa Rica and Colombia and Israel and Australia. Why these countries and not others? The one reason why these are the happiest countries in the world is the focus on relationships."

Ben-Shahar pointed out, for example, that 93% of Danes are members of groups. "I find it fascinating," he said. "It could be members of their church or of their sailing club or golf. It doesn't matter. But they are active members of social clubs. In other words, real relationships."

Another trick he learned from his barber is of the bovine variety. "So my barber says every time someone cuts him off, he imagines that instead of an SUV cutting him off, a cow just cut him off. So that's his mental gymnastics. I have actually started using it and it's good because you start laughing when you do it. Your mind can't hold two contradictory emotions at the same time – amusement and anger don't go hand-in-hand."

The book tour has introduced the popular professor to even wider audiences, like when he recently appeared on "Armchair Expert," hosted by actor Dax Shepard. It's one of the most popular podcasts on the iTunes charts.

We'd like to think they got the idea from us, as we had Ben-Shahar on our own podcast more than a year ago, before the new book was released. At least, that's what makes us feel happy. That, and going to the barber.

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The life-changing lessons a Harvard psychologist learned from his barber
Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught one of the university's most popular courses, finds the best counseling comes with a cut.