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16 Oct, 2020

How to Cultivate Happiness

Tal Ben-Shahar is an author and lecturer, whose classes on Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership were among the most popular courses in Harvard University's history. He is also a New York Times bestseller and Co-Founder of the Happiness Studies Academy. Here he outlines the positive psychology approach, the definition of happiness and 7 steps we can take to cultivate happiness.


Can you outline what positive psychology is and what drew you to the discipline?

Up until recently, the topic of happiness--of enhancing the quality of our lives--has been dominated by pop-psychology. In many of the self-help seminars and books that are currently being offered, there's a lot of fun and charisma, and relatively little substance. They promise five quick steps to happiness, the three secrets of success, and four ways to find your perfect lover. These are usually empty promises, and over the years people have become cynical about self-help. On the other side, we have academia, with writing and research that is substantive, but that does not find its way into most households. As I see it, the role of positive psychology—and of what we teach at the Happiness Studies Academy—is to bridge between the ivory tower and main street, between the rigor of academe and the fun of the self-help movement. In short, positive psychology is the science of happiness.

Initially, what got me interested in studying happiness was my own unhappiness. I was doing well as an undergraduate student at Harvard, I was a top athlete, I had a good social life—and I was unhappy. It was then that I realised that the internal matters more to one's levels of wellbeing than the external, and it was then that I got into psychology. After studying positive psychology, and benefiting from it, I wanted to share what I learned with others.

How would you define ‘happiness’?

There are many definitions of happiness. The definition that I found most useful draws on the words of Helen Keller who wrote: “To me the only definition of happiness is wholeness.” Inspired by Keller, I define happiness as the experience of wholeperson wellbeing, or in short, the experience of wholebeing. Beyond this definition, there is a need to further break down the term wholebeing by looking at the wellbeing of individuals, groups, and society across the five elements that together constitute the whole person. These five elements are: Spiritual wellbeing, Physical wellbeing, Intellectual wellbeing, Relational wellbeing, and finally Emotional wellbeing. Taking the first letter of each element we get the acronym SPIRE.

It is important to keep in mind that the definition which I present is based on much reflection and research, and yet at the same time is not the ultimate or only definition. The pursuit of happiness is deeply intimate and personal, and I strongly urge each person to take the time to figure out what happiness means for them and then experiment with different ways of pursuing it. Mahatma Gandhi titled his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.” We would all do well to follow Gandhi’s footsteps and experiment with happiness.

Are there universal pillars of happiness? What really makes people happy?

There are general principles that are universal, and in this respect, people are by and large the same. However, these universal principles manifest themselves differently in each person, in which respect we are all different. For example, we all want meaning in our life, but we get a sense of meaning from different things. We all need relationships for happiness, but how many, what kind, and with whom, that differs. The differences are among individuals, and also among cultures. And yet, there are many more similarities—whether between Chinese and American, European and African—then there are differences.

What are the most important lessons positive psychology has to offer as a discipline? In that, can we learn how to be happy? Are there steps we can take to cultivate happiness?

Here are seven lessons:

  1. Lesson 1: Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions—such as fear, envy, sadness, or anxiety—as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, pleasurable or painful, leads to frustration and unhappiness. We are a culture obsessed with pleasure and believe that the mark of a worthy life is the absence of discomfort; and when we experience pain, we take it to indicate that something must be wrong with us. In fact, there is something wrong with us if we don't experience sadness or anxiety at times—which are human emotions. The paradox is that when we accept our feelings—when we give ourselves the permission to be human and experience painful emotions—we are more likely to open ourselves up to pleasurable emotions.
  2. Lesson 2: Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning. Research shows that an hour or two of a meaningful and pleasurable experience can affect the quality of an entire day, or even a whole week.
  3. Lesson 3: Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of wellbeing is determined by what we choose to focus on and by our interpretation of external events. For example, do we focus on the empty part of the full part of the glass? Do we view failures as catastrophic, or do we see them as learning opportunities?
  4. Lesson 4: Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much. Knowing when to say 'no' to others often means saying 'yes' to ourselves.
  5. Lesson 5: Remember the mind-body connection. What we do -- or don't do -- with our bodies influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.
  6. Lesson 6: Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savour the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.
  7. Lesson 7: Prioritise relationships. The number one predictor of happiness is the time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. The most important source of happiness may be the person sitting next to you. Appreciate them, savour the time you spend together.

How do we cultivate happiness in particularly unhappy times such as the pandemic? There is an expectation that we should be happy all the time, but can this in fact be a barrier to happiness? And are there positives in embracing being ‘unhappy’ sometimes?

The first thing to do when the going gets tough is to give ourselves the permission to be human, to embrace whatever emotion comes up no matter how unpleasant or unwanted. Rather than rejecting fear or frustration, anxiety or anger, it is better to allow these to take their natural course. So how do we express rather than suppress our emotions? We can journal, write, about whatever it is that we are feeling. We can also open up, talk, to people we trust. And of course, giving ourselves the permission to be human can be about unlocking our floodgates and crying, rather than holding back the tears.

Expressing gratitude can help us through difficult times. Oprah first, and later much research, told us that cultivating our appreciative muscles makes us happier as well as healthier. So, spend 2 minutes, as you wake up or just before you go to bed, writing down those things for which you’re grateful. And the important thing to keep in mind is that we can always, always find something to be grateful for, even in the midst of hardship. Whether your list includes major items or minor ones, the benefits we derive from this practice can be substantial. For when we appreciate the good, the good appreciates.

It is an unfortunate fact that one of the first things to fall by the wayside in stressful times is our inclination to move. After all, who wants to add the discomfort of vigorous movement to the discomfort associated with the Coronavirus panic? The fact, though, is that there is no more important time to exercise than now. Go to the gym, take a 30-minute walk outside, or if you’re quarantined at home, engage in one of the many High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) practices available online. Exercise does not just make us physically tougher, it significantly contributes to our psychological toughness.

Relationships are potentially the number one predictor of both physical and mental health. Spending quality time with people you care about and who care about you is always important; it is especially important during stressful times. And while the lure of computer screens with their real-time updates and other virtual sirens may be stronger than that of real people, they cannot provide the psychological and physiological benefits of face-to-face interactions. Whenever possible, therefore, disconnect (from technology) in order to connect (to people). And if for some reason actual get-togethers are not possible—being quarantined or too far away—then virtual get-togethers will do.

One of the best ways to deal with the depressing and demoralising impact of the constant barrage of bad news is distraction. Distraction is not synonymous with denial. We are not burying our head in the sand when, once in a while, we think about something other than the threats of COVID-19. In fact, constantly thinking about the virus, because that’s what everyone is talking about, is unhealthy and unhelpful. So, what can you do? There are countless options. Watching your favourite TV series, listening to music you love, spending time on your hobby, or playing games with your family and friends—these can all constitute a healthy form of distraction.

Shakespeare wrote that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” While the British playwright may have taken the idea of reframing too far, we do have a great deal of control over how we interpret—and therefore experience—a situation. What are the potential upsides of the current situation? Spending extra time with loved ones? Appreciating life more rather than taking it for granted? Focusing on exercise and healthy eating? Reframing does not imply that you should, or even can, rejoice now. Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but you can choose to make the best of things that happen.


You can find Tal at: Happiness Studies Academy: https://www.happinessstudies.a... Certificate in Happiness Studies: https://www.happinessstudies.a...cihs/ & his website:

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