Pre-weekend Cafe: Are We Happy? — Harvard Popular Course ¨Positive Psychology¨

Surprisingly, last year the most popular elective course in Harvard University was ¨Positive Psychology¨, surpassing ¨The Introduction of Economic¨, the previous winner in all the years before.


During the two classes every week, Ben-Shahar has never filled the students with much sucessful stories; however, he tries to simply guide stuents to  become happier and enrich their lives.

Although there are parents and the press in the classroom, Ben-Shahar still considers himself shy and introvert. He graduated as a doctor from Harvard University but his outstanding academic success has not given him a long-lasting happiness. Therefore he started to pay more attention to the inner and get interested in psychology.

How can you explain the demand for positive psychology at Harvard and on other college campuses?

If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? In the United States, rates of depression are ten times higher today than they were in the 1960s, and the average age for the onset of depression is 14.5, compared to 29.5 in 1960s. Other countries are following in the footsteps of the United States. In 1957, 52% in Britain said that they were very happy, compared to 36% in 2005—despite the fact that the British have tripled their wealth over the last half century.

Ben-Shahar strongly believes that happiness is the only criteria to evaluate one´s life and is destination of all life goals. ¨ We measure the worth of a day or a week according to how productive we were and how much we got done. We are accumulating material wealth, while we are nearing bankruptcy in the currency that truly matters. Just as a business can go bankrupt, so can the emotion of human being. To remain solvent, a business needs to make profi ts; that is, its income has to exceed its expenses. In thinking about our lives, it may be helpful to think of positive experiences as income and negative ones as expenses. When our positive experiences outweigh our negative ones, we have made a profi t in the ultimate currency. Long-term depression may be seen as a sort of emotional bankruptcy—the duration and intensity of negative experiences (losses) overwhelm the positive ones (income). An entire society can face the prospect of bankruptcy—a great depression—if the percentage of individual bankruptcies continuously rises.¨

For everyone, who does not plan on applying to Harvard in the near future, below are 10 Happiness Tips from Harvard’s very-sought-after lecturer Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar:

1. Become conscious of things that make you happy

There is a great little technique to do this. Take a piece of paper and complete the following sentence: “To bring 5% more happiness into my life…

Think of experiences, not things. It is not a million dollars that will make you happy. It is the opportunity to spend more time with your family, to travel around the world, to gain financial stability. But Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, suggest that we start with the smaller blessings.
If you feel that you have run out of ideas, here are some examples.

2. Combine pleasure and meaning

Aristotle had a great concept called “golden mean”. He believed that we should look for a desirable middle between two extremes. This makes a lot of sense, but when it comes to making everyday life choices, we often forget to follow his sage advice.

Let’s take food for example…

We either go for things that bring us instant gratification, but make us feel guilty afterwards (like cheesy fries with ranch dressing, in my case). Or we throw ourselves into another extreme and decide to take on a diet and only eat healthy low-calorie, low-fat and low-satisfaction foods.

What Ben-Shahar suggests is that we do not have to choose one extreme or the other. We can find something that is both tasty (satisfying) and healthy (meaningful) in the long run. He says:

“Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness, therefore, is not about making it to the peak of the mountain, nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain: happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.”

3. Do not make happiness your ultimate goal

You will not be happy if you do something or have something, because happiness is not the end state. It is something that we continuously have to work towards for as long as we live. Ben- Shahar is convinced that we can be happier each day, instead of putting our happiness in the hands of other people or looking for it in outside events and material things.

4. Create rituals

Is there such thing as a happiness ritual? The Harvard University professor believes there is. For him it is keeping a gratitude journal and listing five things of which he feels grateful before he goes to bed. Your happiness ritual might not require keeping a journal. Maybe you love taking a long stroll after dinner, or singing in the shower, or meditating for 15 minutes.

5. Imagine being 110 years old

Looking back at your life what advice would you give to your younger self? What is the most important lesson of all? What trivial, negative, superficial things are not worth your time and effort? When you look at your everyday life from this perspective many things fall into place.

6. Simplify your life

Commit to decreasing the busy-ness in your life by liberating more time for goals or activities that increase your happiness. Ask yourself, what you can give up or say “no” to? Free your mind from emotional clutter. Simplify your daily routines.

Do not live with an overwhelming sense that you are running out of time. Doing so makes it impossible to enjoy or dedicate yourself fully to any activities that make you happy.

7. Remember about the mind-body connection

Do you notice when you are feeling well and energetic? Most people don’t. They take their health for granted. But when something in our body goes out of order, the thought of not feeling well becomes too persistent to be ignored. We think about it. We talk about it. We feel that it affects our mood, our attitude and our interaction with people.

So if you want to keep your mind positive and your spirits up, start with getting an adequate amount of sleep, paying attention to your diet and getting regular exercise. Take care of your body!

8. Embrace your emotions

Not just positive emotions as joy or enthusiasm, but emotions like anger, fear, anxiety or sadness. Do not try to deny or run from them. Expecting to be happy all the time is unrealistic and ultimately impossible.
Ben-Shahar is also convinced that doing so will only lead to disappointment and greater unhappiness.

9. Start with your attitude

Extreme scenarios aside, our happiness is mostly determined by what we choose to focus on and how we decide to interpret external events. If we focus on something that angers, annoys or frustrates us, we will feed this emotion and subconsciously look for other triggers that will make us even angrier and even more frustrated.

The fastest way to break this negativity cycle is to direct your thoughts somewhere else and make your mind look for a positive lesson in every situation.

10. Make happiness your ultimate currency

It is happiness, not money, connections or social status that should be the currency by which our life ought to be measured. If our days feel meaningless and empty, the question we should ask ourselves is – What are we trading our happiness for? The answer to this holds the key to our life satisfaction and self-development.

Edited by Simeng Zhang


The Team

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