Episode 13: Tal Ben-Shahar, professor of Harvard's most popular course

His classes on positive psychology and happiness packed in more than 1,000 students.

The guest: Tal Ben-Shahar, the professor of happiness, is famous for teaching the most popular course in the history of Harvard. It was called "Positive Psychology" and in it he teaches the secret to living a happy life. It's no wonder that at its peak, close to 1,000 students would pack into his lecture hall twice a week to hear his words of wisdom. He has since gone on to write several bestselling books including "Happier" and "The Pursuit of Perfection" and now travels the world giving seminars on leadership, happiness and gratitude. "Expressing gratitude on a regular basis – writing what you're grateful for before going to bed, can help us become not just happier and more optimistic, but also more generous, kinder toward others, and interestingly, physically healthier," Ben-Shahar told us.

The gist: On today's episode, Tal reveals several ways that we can teach ourselves to be happy in our everyday life. Plus, find out why he quit playing squash to become a professor, and hear about the happiness project he's working on that's open to everyone, not just students at Harvard.

Further reading:

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Tal Ben-Shahar is the author of several books about happiness. Tal Ben-Shahar is the author of several books about happiness. (Photo: Courtesy)



Benyamin: On this episode of Our Friend From Israel:

Speaker 2: Tal Ben-Shahar is part professor, part motivational speaker, delivering spirited lectures in a course called positive psychology.

Tal: People want to learn how to be happy.

Speaker 4: We're told this is the most popular class at the Cambridge Ivy League ...

Speaker 5: ... the most popular class at Harvard University is on how to live a happy and fulfilling life.

Speaker 6: Tal Ben-Shahar is famous for teaching a class called positive psychology, the most popular course in the history of Harvard. In it, he teaches the secret to living a happy life. It's no wonder that at its peak, close to 1,000 students would pack into his lecture hall twice a week to hear his words of wisdom.

Tal: Positive psychology's not just about "Let's all feel good." It's about focusing on what works in helping our most difficult challenges.

Speaker 6: An expert in happiness, Tal has written several best-selling books and frequently appears on television to talk about his research.

Speaker 7: Tal Ben-Shahar.

Speaker 8: More students have signed up for your class than introductory economics. Why do you think it is so popular and important?

Tal: I guess more people want to be happy than want to be rich.

Speaker 9: When they leave, are they happier?

Tal: The reason why the class is popular is because the students are telling their friends, their roommates, "I'm actually better off as a result of this class."

Benyamin: On today's episode, Tal reveals several ways that we can teach ourselves to be happy in our everyday life. Plus, find out why he quit playing squash to become a professor, and hear about the happiness project he's working on that's open to everyone, not just students at Harvard. Stay tuned.

Benyamin: Welcome to Our Friend From Israel, a podcast brought to you by FromTheGrapevine.com. I'm your host, Benyamin Cohen, and each week we'll have a conversation with an intriguing Israeli. They'll come from all walks of life. Actors, artists, athletes, academics, archeologists, and other newsmakers. In today's episode, we chat with the professor of happiness, Tal Ben-Shahar.

Tal: Yes, I know. Be there.

Benyamin: Today we are joined by professor Tal Ben-Shahar. Welcome to the show.

Tal: Thank you, great to be here.

Benyamin: Thank you so much for joining us today. So one thing people who may have heard about you, one thing they may have heard is that you created the most popular course in Harvard's history. How did that come about? Was it always that popular, from day one?

Tal: The way it came about, it actually started as a small seminar, where I had eight students. Two of them dropped out, which left with six and a broken ego, I must admit. The following year the class grew, and by the third year it became the largest course at Harvard with close to 900 students. And the reason why it became bigger over time was word of mouth. You know, students were telling their friends, their roommates, that this is a class that actually changed their lives for the better. And I must say, this is what I was thinking about when I created this class. So I thought about, what class would I have wanted to take when I was an undergraduate at Harvard? What lessons would I have wanted to learn?

Tal: So I took the research from psychology as a field, and from positive psychology in particular, which was a new and emerging field, and created a class, which helped students find more happiness, whether while they were in college or, hopefully, for the rest of their lives.

Benyamin: How did you grade all that homework for 1,000 students?

Tal: Well, so here was the thing. If the students weren't happy, they failed. No, I'm just kidding. The way we graded was just like any other class. So I had teaching assistants who were working with the students in small sections, as well as grading their papers and grading their final exams. So in that respect it was just like any other class in the psychology department. The focus was happiness, personal, interpersonal, organizational, and even national level happiness.

Benyamin: I'm glad you brought that up. So for those people who don't know, can you explain what is positive psychology?

Tal: Sure. So positive psychology is simply the science of happiness. It's about applying the scientific method, doing research, whether it's basic research in the lab or research in a school or a company or a family, looking at the conditions that would lead to a happier life. So what practices, what mindsets would lead people to be happier and also be more resilient? Meaning also to be able to better deal with difficult experiences.

Benyamin: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And how does positive psychology differ from other forms of psychology? Does it ignore things like depression and things like that?

Tal: What positive psychology does is basically begin with a different set of questions. If you think about it, if you go to a therapist today, the first question that she's likely to ask is "What's wrong, or what's not going well in your life? Why are you here? What do we need to work on?" If you go with your partner to a couples counselor, the first question he's likely to ask is "What's not working in your relationship? What's not going well?" Or an organizational psychologist, "What's not working in the company? What are the weaknesses of the team, of you as a manager?"

Tal: Positive psychology, on the other hand, comes with a different set of questions. It starts with "What is working?" So a positive psychologist who's a therapist would begin by asking "What's working in your life? What's going well?" A couples counselor would ask "What's working in your relationship? You wouldn't be here if nothing was working." And finally, a psychologist coming into an organization would ask "What are the strengths of the team, of the organization? What's working in the company?" So positive psychology begins with the question of what is working. And more and more research over the last few decades has shown that when you start with this set of questions, and here is an important point, you don't ignore the "What is not working" kind of questions, but at the same time, you don't ignore the "What is working" kind of questions.

Tal: When you ask these questions, you actually are more likely to fulfill the potential, whether it's of the individual, of the relationship, or of the organization. So positive psychology essentially extends, doesn't negate, but extends the scope of traditional psychology from only asking, or primarily focusing on things that are not working, to also focusing on the things that are working.

Benyamin: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And in what ways does it differ from like self-help?

Tal: Yeah, so it differs from self-help in a very simple and important way. And that is that it relies on research. You know, there's been a lot of writing, literally thousands of books coming out each year, in the self-help domain. And what these books very often offer is the five steps to happiness, or the three things you need to do to lead a full and fulfilling life, or the secret of happiness. And what positive psychology comes and says is "You know, there is no secret, there are no five easy steps. But there are actual practices and things that you can do that will, in the long term, increase your levels of happiness." Maybe not radically transform your life, as some of the self-help literature promises, but can certainly shift the needle and increase levels of well-being, even by a little bit.

Tal: And the interesting thing is that what we see from research is that even if you do increase levels of well-being by a little bit, the results are quite remarkable. Remarkable in terms of your overall experience of life, but also in terms of things like creativity or things like relationships. These two things and other things improve drastically when you increase levels of well-being even by a little bit. So happiness is a real leverage point. You increase it, you improve it, you help a person become happier, and you see results across the board.

Benyamin: Were the kids at Harvard, were they kind of just students looking for a free therapy session?

Tal: Well, you know, aren't we all, right? Many of these students, obviously, who get into Harvard, are high achievers. Many of them were not very happy students in elementary school or high school, but they were consistently told "Don't worry about it, it's okay that you're feeling the stress now. It's okay that you are unhappy now. If you get into Harvard or a top college, then your worries will be over because then you'll be able to relax, rest, then you've made it." Now, they get into Harvard and initially they are under the impression that they've made it and they are, of course, very happy. But fast forward a month into school, three months into school, and they face the illusion. What is the illusion? The illusion that when you get, when you achieve a certain goal, that is the answer to unhappiness, and that is the cause of happiness. It's not.

Tal: So they're faced with the illusion and they don't know what to do and they are lost. And I know that this is what I faced when I got into Harvard, because I wasn't a particularly happy student before, but I thought "If I make it into my top choice college, then I'll be happy." It didn't happen. And you know, the difference between sadness and depression is that depression is sadness without hope.

Benyamin: Hm.

Tal: For many years, you know, you live with the hope that once you make it, once you get there, then you'll be happy. But then you get there and you realize that there is no there there. And you've not just become unhappy, but you've also lost hope. And by the way, this is not just what happens when people get into Harvard, it happens when people achieve a sought-after goal in general. You know, why, for example, do you find ... you find this over the last, well, over the last decades, I guess, longer than decades. But certainly over the last few years we've heard many cases of very successful people who have become drug addicts, alcoholics, who have taken their lives.

Tal: Just recently we had a few suicides of very successful high achievers. Why is that? Well, the reason is, as I said, for a long time these people may have not been happy, but they had hope. What was their hope? Their hope was that when they make it, when they become famous, when they become rich, when they can have any man or woman that they want, then they'll be happy. And they get there, and once again, they realize that there is no there there. So initially, when they get their fame and they make their initial million or millions, they are happy, or at least they think they're happy. But then three months go by, they go back to where they were before, with one big difference. There's no hope now any more.

Tal: The difference between sadness and depression is that depression is sadness without hope. And then they enter, they experience depression or another painful state, and what do they do? They realize that the answer can't come from reality, because they've done everything that everyone told them to do. They have become incredibly successful. They've done everything they were told to do, they're still not happy, so they look for answers outside of reality. How do you get out of reality? Drugs, alcohol, or the ultimate exit, which is suicide.

Benyamin: But you raise an interesting point here I never thought about. So there's an irony that is an inherent paradox, that the more rich and successful you are, that in theory, the more potential for depression. Because you've reached the ... you grow up thinking the grass is greener on the other side, that things, once I reach this level of success, everything will be great. And here is a group of people who have reached that level of success, and so when they're still unhappy it's probably, they're more likely, you're saying, to fall into a depression.

Tal: They're more likely to fall into hopelessness, and as the father of positive psychology, Marty Seligman has demonstrated in his research, hopelessness is very closely associated with depression. So yes.

Benyamin: That's fascinating. When we return, Tal answers the question "Can you teach people to be happy?"

Tal: But yeah, there are things that people can actually do to become happier.

Benyamin: Tal reveals the three things you can do to enhance your quality of life after the break.

Benyamin: If you're enjoying this episode about happiness, you'll also want to check out our recent interview with classical pianist Michael Pasikov. After surviving cancer, he lost the use of his right hand. What could have been the end of his career, Michael instead saw it as an opportunity.

Michael Pasikov: So if you get depressed over what's happening, it's like you're wasting the day. I look at it as a growth opportunity to learn more about music than I ever would have done had it not happened.

Benyamin: Hear Michael's incredible and inspiring story at OurFriendFromIsrael.com, where you'll find a complete archive of all of our episodes. And now, back to today's podcast with professor Tal Ben-Shahar.

Benyamin: So can you teach people how to be happy?

Tal: Yeah, so this is the nice thing about the science about happiness, that you can actually teach people to become happier. There are relatively simple, straightforward techniques to understand, not necessarily to implement, because implementing requires more than just the understanding. But yeah, there are things that people can actually do to become happier. And things that we know because we know through the research, whether it's measuring people's happiness through questionnaires or through observation, or through brain scans. So we have a better understanding today. I wouldn't say a great understanding, but a better understanding today of what a happy brain looks like and what we can do to actually, quite literally, transform, i.e., change the form of the brain.

Benyamin: Right. Now, you've written several books about happiness. So are there things that we can do in our daily lives to become happier?

Tal: There are a few things. One thing, and I'll start with the most important one, and that is cultivate relationships. The number one predictor of happiness is quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. So this is on the individual level, this is also on the national level. So there's a lot of research on national level happiness, and the results are actually quite interesting and somewhat surprising. So the happiest countries in the world are not the United States or Germany or the UK or Singapore or South Korea. They're actually quite low down, most of them. The happiest countries in the world are countries like Denmark and Costa Rica and Colombia and Israel and Australia.

Tal: Why these countries and not others? They're not the wealthiest countries in the world. Some of the happiest countries in the world have their fair share of challenges. And so why are these the happiest countries in the world? There's one reason that was identified, and this is research done by the likes of Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman and Sonya Dubanerski and Ed Diener. The one reason why these are the happiest countries in the world is focus on relationships.

Tal: Take, for example, Denmark. Denmark, you know that 93% of Danes are members of social clubs? Yeah, I find it fascinating. 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, relationships, real relationships, and I'll say a few words about that in a minute, is a priority. Or take Israel. You know, I was bitten by the startup bug in Israel, and so I started a company. And my partner was British, and he came to Israel many times where we did work together. And he said to me after a few visits, he said "You know, you guys, you're always partying." And I said "What do you mean?" He said "I don't know, you know, Thursday night you go out with friends. Friday night you're at your family's. Saturday you meet friends in the afternoon. So you're always partying." And I never thought about it, but he's right. There are a lot of social interactions in Israel and in all those countries who are among the happiest in the world.

Benyamin: So when you say relationships, it doesn't have to be family relationships, it can be any kind of social ...

Tal: No, no, no. Any kind of close, intimate relationships. It could be a romantic relationship, it could be friends, it could be close relationships at work. It actually doesn't matter, but you need those relationships. Now, it's very important that those relationships are real, meaning they're not virtual. Unfortunately, 1,000 friends on Facebook are no substitute for that one BFF. You need those face-to-face interactions that are so important. In fact, you have this research by NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who shows that the more hours we spend on social media, emphasis on social media, the lonelier we become. So in many ways, social media is making us anti-social, and we must spend more time in face-to-face interactions, the old-fashioned way.

Benyamin: Right.

Tal: So that's one determinant of happiness, and arguably the most important one. You know, some other things to increase levels of happiness, physical exercise. You know, the mind-body connection. So critical, there's research showing that regular physical exercise ... and when I say regular, it can be three times a week for 30 minutes each time. It could be walking briskly, it could be jogging, swimming, playing basketball. It really doesn't matter. Dancing, great form of exercise, of course. So three times a week, 30 minutes, is equivalent in terms of its impact on our psychological well-being, to our most powerful psychiatric medication. In fact, it works in the exact same way, releasing norepinephrines, serotonin, dopamine, you know, the feel-good chemicals in the brain. So regular physical exercise, critical for mental health.

Tal: Now, I'm not saying it's a substitute for medication. You know, some people need the medication just to get up, get out of bed in the morning, let alone exercise. But what I'm saying, and what the research is saying, is that we need to start treating physical exercise as a very powerful, major psychological intervention. And unfortunately, again, I go back to social media or to screens in general. Kids, as well as adults, are spending far less time outside exercising or moving and much more time indoors just sitting or moving their fingers. And unfortunately, moving our fingers, that doesn't count as physical exercise.

Benyamin: Right.

Tal: So physical exercise is a second one. Another very important component of happiness is gratitude. And today there's a lot of research showing just how important expressing gratitude is. For example, Robert Emmons and Mike McCullough, they're both from UC Davis, have shown that expressing gratitude on a regular basis, i.e., writing what you're grateful for before going to bed, can help us become not just happier and more optimistic, but also more generous, kinder toward others, and interestingly, physically healthier. So it actually makes our immune system stronger.

Benyamin: It kind of forces you to have a "glass is half full" outlook on life when you realize ... like when you're focusing on these happy things, when you're saying "Oh, I'm so grateful that I have a wonderful relationship, I'm so grateful I have a beautiful home, I'm grateful I have a nice job." It kind of makes you appreciate things, is that what you're saying?

Tal: Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying, that's exactly what the research is saying. And the issue is that we very often fail to appreciate those things that are inside us and all around us. And when do we begin to appreciate them? We very often begin to appreciate them when we lose them or when there's the threat of them being taken away. You know, there's interesting research by Irvin Yalom, who was a professor at Stanford. His research was, his research subjects were terminally ill patients. I mean, these are people who were basically just told that they're about to die. And one of the sentences that he very often hears from these individuals is the following. They say "For the first time in a very long time I truly feel that I'm alive." Why? Because they truly appreciate what they have. And unfortunately it took a tragedy or a very tragic situation to get them to once again appreciate what has always been there, like their friends or partner, or food, or home, or whatever it is.

Tal: And the thing is, we don't need to wait. We don't need to wait for something tragic to happen for us to appreciate what's inside us and all around us. You know, my favorite word in English is the word "appreciate." I love that word. And if you think about it, it has two meanings. So the first meaning of the word "appreciate" is, as we were talking about now, to say thank you. And as I mentioned, in just about every religious tradition, philosophical tradition, gratitude is central. So being grateful is important, appreciating is important. But the second meaning of the word "appreciate" is to grow in value. So you know, money appreciates in the bank, or the economy appreciates. And the two meanings of the word "appreciate" are intimately connected. Why? Because when you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.

Tal: When you appreciate the good in your life, when you express gratitude on a regular basis, when you don't take for granted what you have, you actually get more good in your life. Unfortunately, the opposite is also the case. When you do not appreciate the good, when you take it for granted, the good depreciates. And what we see, and again, there's so much research on it today. What we see is that so much of human potential depreciates, we lose it, because we fail to appreciate what we have. We fail to appreciate the good. You know, this takes me back to the essence of the field of positive psychology, when I said "What questions do you ask?" Do you ask "What is wrong, what's not going well in your life?" Or do you ask "What's working, what's going well in your relationship?" In other words, do you appreciate the things that are working? Because when you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.

Tal: And not to diminish the value of learning from problems and focusing on things that are not going well, and trying to improve them. At the same time, not ignoring what is going well, what is working, and remembering to appreciate those things so that they appreciate.

Benyamin: I know we're living in troubled times, the world is changing so fast, and there's lots of turmoil across the world. How important is it for people to have resilience?

Tal: So resilience is extremely important. You know, the psychologist Nathaniel Branden calls resilience, or equates it with the immune system of consciousness. And if you think about it, what is an immune system? An immune system doesn't mean we don't get sick. It simply means we get sick less often, and when we do, we recover more promptly. The same with resilience, which is the psychological immune system. It means that ... it doesn't mean that we don't get sad or upset or anxious or distraught. It just means that we get all these things less often, and when we do, we recover more promptly. And recovery is critical because, as you say, these are trying times. And there have been trying times before, and there are some people who live in areas, in places, in a reality which is much more difficult than the one we experience in the US or in much of the world. But resilience is important for everyone, because what resilience does is it helps us overcome.

Benyamin: I was listening to one of your talks online, and you had a great line when you were talking about resilience, and you said "The best self-help books are biographies."

Tal: Yeah, I'm a big believer in biographies. If you think about it, they're not just the best-selling books in history, they're also the most important ones. Why? Because what biographies teach you is not the five steps to happiness or the three steps to overcome every difficulty you may ever have. But rather, they depict the real, emphasis on real, picture of what a good life is, or what a good life can be. 'Cause you can also learn the other negative, not just the positive. And in biographies you see ... good biographies, that is, you see the whole picture. You see their struggles and overcoming struggles. You see their difficulties and how they deal with difficulties. You see their triumphs and what it took to triumph. So you get the full picture.

Tal: Again, going back to the very fundamentals of positive psychology, it's about asking the "What is working" kind of questions. Essentially what it's doing is it extends your perspective to see the whole reality. And when I mean whole, the whole reality, it's to look at things that are not going well, the problems, the issues, and the things that are going well. You see a fuller picture. And this is what good biographies provide. They provide the full, or a fuller picture of reality. And with that, the tools to overcome difficulties and hardships.

Benyamin: Do you have a favorite biography of the past, I don't know, 10 or 15 years?

Tal: Yeah, so I have many biographies that I like. So one which is not well known enough is called "The Marva Collins Way." And she's a schoolteacher in Chicago who transformed her life and the life of her students through all the right values, which is hard work, kindness, dedication, self-reliance, generosity. So that's a wonderful autobiography. But other biographies, I recently read the new Da Vinci biography, which is really wonderful. And it's about what it takes to be a ... what it really takes to be a genius. And it's not what most people think. It's not just being born that way. So this is certainly a book that I highly recommend.

Tal: By the same author, Walter Isaacson ...

Benyamin: Isaacson.

Tal: Also the Steve Jobs biography, which is great. Ed Gilbert biography on Winston Churchill, also biographies about the founding fathers, they're always great. Anita Roddick, "Business as Unusual." She's the founder of The Body Shop. Great, great autobiography.

Benyamin: You've given us a lot to read.

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Benyamin: And now back to today's interview with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar.

Benyamin: Did you always know that you wanted to go into positive psychology when you were growing up?

Tal: Oh, no, not at all. Yeah, so I grew up in Israel, I was born in [Hamet-Gan 00:31:42], which is a small city just outside Tel Aviv. That's not saying much, because basically the whole of Israel is just outside Tel Aviv. So I grew up there and had an amazing childhood, became very interested in playing squash when my family was on a relocation. My father was relocated through his work in South Africa. That's also where my accent is from.

Benyamin: Oh, I was trying to figure that out.

Tal: Yeah, I don't have an Israeli accent, at least most of the time. But sometimes, yes. So we went to South Africa, spent five years there. I picked up squash, and that, in many ways, squash defined my childhood. So growing up, my dream was to play professionally, which I did for a couple of years. And then came to college here at the age of 22, went to Harvard. And I started Harvard thinking about, or majoring in computer science. My father's an engineer, my mom's a microbiologist, I was always inclined towards the sciences, mathematics. So that's what I started doing. This was back in the very early '90s.

Tal: During my sophomore year, I found myself doing very well academically, I was doing very well in squash. I played on the varsity team. Doing pretty well socially, and yet being very unhappy. And that's when it dawned on me that "Houston, I have a problem." Why? Because until then I always had a good excuse for why I wasn't happy. You know, I was in the military. You can basically generate an excuse for not being happy in the military on a daily basis. But then I came to Harvard, you know, I was in a wonderful place, wonderful classes, great people, and miserable. And then it dawned on me that the problem is not external. It's not about the external environment, the problem is internal.

Tal: And I decided, one very cold Boston morning I went to my academic advisor and told her that I'm switching majors. And she said "What to?" And I said "Well, I'm leaving computer science and moving over to philosophy and psychology." And she asked me why, and I said "'Cause I have two questions. The first question is why aren't I happy? And the second question is how can I become happier?" And basically, that defined the trajectory of my life from then on, the last 25 years.

Benyamin: All right, so the big question is are you happy now?

Tal: Yeah, so you know, it's an important question, but I must admit it's a question that I don't have an answer to. And let me explain. You see, I don't think happiness is a binary either-or. In other words, I don't think there is a point before which you're unhappy, after which you become happy. In other words, it's not binary. What I do think is that happiness resides on a continuum. In other words, I can certainly say that I'm a lot happier today than I was 25 years ago when I embarked on this journey. And I certainly hope that five years from now I'll be happier than I am today. So happiness is a lifelong journey, and the objective is to become happier.

Tal: Now, which by the way, why I called my first book "Happier." I didn't call it "Happiness." Because it is a lifelong journey. And when I say become happier, I don't mean experience a constant high. I mean going through the ups and downs, the vicissitudes of life, as we all do, and if you think about ups and downs, hopefully the ups and downs being around a higher and higher base level. But there are still ups and downs, you know, today I still experience difficult emotional experiences, and in fact, I often tell my students and myself that there are only two kinds of people who do not experience painful emotions such as anger or sadness or disappointment or envy or anxiety. There are only two kinds of people who do not experience these painful emotions. The two kinds are the psychopaths, and the second kind of person who does not experience painful emotions is dead.

Tal: So if you experience painful emotions, it's actually a good sign. It means you are not a psychopath and you're alive. So it's a good place to start, being a non-psychopath and alive. So there are still ups and downs, and there will always be ups and downs.

Benyamin: Sure.

Tal: The challenge is, of course, to raise the base level around which these ups and downs occur.

Benyamin: And so you're also doing a lot of consulting now, and speaking around the world helping people achieve happiness? Is that what you're doing now?

Tal: Yes, so we're actually, we're living in New York at the moment, but we spent until recently, 10 years back in Israel. Once again, in a city just outside Tel Aviv, this time [El Amata Shoan 00:37:17], and I was bitten by the startup bug while there. So over the years I've created a few startups, and my latest startup, the idea for it came actually when I was on a flight, transatlantic flight, and you know those states where you're very tired but too uncomfortable to fall asleep on a plane?

Benyamin: Sure.

Tal: I think most travelers know this state. So I was in one of those states, and suddenly in that particular state, a question came to mind. And the question was the following, was how is it that there is a field of studies for history and education and geography and medicine and law and physics and economics and psychology, and yet there is no field of studies for happiness? Even though in every, again, philosophical system, in every religion, in every culture, happiness is a goal, is an objective, very often the highest goal and objective. And yet there is no field of studies that focuses on happiness. Yeah, there is positive psychology, which is the field that I studied, but that's just the psychology of happiness. What about the philosophy of happiness? What about what theologians had to say about happiness? What about the economics of happiness, and the neuroscience of happiness, and the biology of happiness, and the list goes on.

Tal: So what I resolved to do that moment, when I was on that transatlantic flight, was to help create a field of studies, or rather an interdisciplinary field of studies, that focuses on happiness. Which is exactly what I've been doing for the past few years, and just very recently launched the Happiness Studies Academy. And the Happiness Studies Academy offers online courses in happiness studies. Courses that look specifically at how we can learn from the different fields, of course including psychology, but not only philosophy, neuroscience, and literature, and film, how we can learn from all these fields. And not just what we can learn from 21st century research, but also from what the ancient sages from the different cultures have to teach us about happiness. Whether it's from the Torah, from the Bible, or from Lao Tzu and Confucius, or from Aristotle and Plato. So looking at what the philosophers and historians and economists and psychologists have to teach us about the good life. So I synthesize these different thinkers, the different research, the different eras, and put it together into a certificate program in happiness studies.

Benyamin: Fascinating. So if people want to find out more about the Happiness Studies Academy, where can they find out more about that?

Tal: Yeah, so the website is HappinessStudies.academy, and there they can find out about all the courses that we have available. Or they can just go on my website, which is TalBenShahar.com.

Benyamin: The way I like to end all my interviews, is there a question I did not ask you that I should have asked you?

Tal: Well, the question could be, since questions are so important, what questions can we ask ourselves to become happier?

Benyamin: Okay.

Tal: And the answer to this question would be questions such as, "What am I grateful for? What do I appreciate?" Or questions such as "What are my values? What is deeply important to me? What can I do to increase my levels of happiness by 3%?" So these are the kinds of questions that we can ask, and just by asking them, they can expand our reality and actually make us, help us become happier.

Benyamin: It's a beautiful, beautiful thought and a beautiful place to end today's conversation. Tal, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today. It's been educational and enlightening at the same time.

Tal: Thank you, it's been my pleasure, and thank you very much for the opportunity to share my ideas.

Benyamin: Our Friend From Israel is a production of FromTheGrapevine.com. Extra notes and a transcript of today's episode can be found at OurFriendFromIsrael.com. Want behind-the-scenes access to the show? Join the Our Friend From Israel Facebook group. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or your favorite podcast app. Feel free to leave us a review there. When you do, it helps others discover Our Friend From Israel. Our show is produced by Paul Kasko. Editorial help from Jamie Bender. Our head engineer is Everett Adams. Our theme music is by Haim Mazar, a Hollywood film composer who grew up in Israel. You can visit our website at OurFriendFromIsrael.com to find more episodes of the show. And if you have an idea for a future guest that we should interview, send me an email at [email protected]

Benyamin: I'm your host, Benyamin Cohen, and until next time, we hope you have a great week.


Photos and SlideshowsPhotos and Slideshows
Episode 13: Tal Ben-Shahar, professor of Harvard's most popular course
His classes on positive psychology and happiness packed in more than 1,000 students.