Harvard classrooms are standing-room only for popular Israeli professor

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar offers his students what every person is struggling to find - the key to happiness.

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar 88 (photo credit: )
Dr Tal Ben-Shahar 88
(photo credit: )
Most university professors don't have students lining up outside their lectures hoping to find an extra space. But most professors haven't tapped an emotional and intellectual connection with his students like Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar has. Even his colleagues consider him the "rock star" of positive psychology - the discipline he teaches. In essence, Ben-Shahar offers his students what every person is struggling to find - the key to happiness. The 35-year-old Israeli psychologist lectures to a staggering one fifth of the student body at Harvard University. His class, Positive Psychology, is the largest ever in the history of the Psychology Department at Harvard, with an enrollment of 850 students. Ben-Shahar's other class - the Psychology of Leadership - boasts 550 students and is the third most popular class at the university. His classes are so popular that Harvard was forced to move his lectures to Memorial Hall in Sanders Theatre, their largest lecture hall. The Harvard catalogue describes the Positive Psychology course this way: "Psychology 1504 focuses on the psychological aspects of a fulfilling and flourishing life. Topics include happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality, and humor." Unofficially, it is called the "how to get happy" course, and it's touched a nerve in the student body at Harvard. How did a former soldier in the IDF anti-aircraft unit and an Israeli national squash champion come to study and teach Positive Psychology? "I spent close to 30 years of my life unhappily successful. I was the Israeli national squash champion, completed my undergraduate degree at Harvard, studied at Cambridge, and was doing well financially," Ben-Shahar told ISRAEL21c. "More than titles and degrees, though, I desperately wanted to be happy, or at least happier than I had been. I realized that external success would not, could not, make me happier - that happiness was mostly contingent on my state of mind, rather than my status or the state of my bank account. And it was then that I turned to psychology for some of the answers." An expert on Israeli history and debating the conflict in the Middle East. Ben-Shahar graduated from Harvard, studied at Cambridge University in England, and was named a Graduate Fellow at the Harvard Center for Ethics and the Professions. He studied with one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement, Dr. Phillip Stone. Stone then turned over his classes to his former student after Ben-Shahar received his PhD. Ben-Shahar believes that there is a strong mind-body connection. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health. There are three questions that he recommends that people ask themselves: - What provides me a sense of purpose (what gives me meaning)? - What do I enjoy doing (what affords me pleasure)? - What am I good at (what are my strengths)? "The challenge is then to find activities that fulfill these three criteria - of meaning, pleasure, and strengths," he explains. He stresses that not only are people happier when choosing our work according to these criteria, they are also more successful in the long run - able to sustain long periods of effort and focus with relative ease. One of the basic tenets of Positive Psychology is to simplify. "Life is short, and many of us tend to clutter our lives with things that we do not really want to do. We are too busy trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. We compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much. All of us need to remember saying 'no' to others often means saying 'yes' to ourselves. The price we pay for doing too much is too high - it comes in the form of unhappiness, stress, and physical health," says Ben-Shahar. He teaches that gratefulness is highly correlated with happiness. Because people are numbed by habit, they tend to take the good things in life for granted. This is why we so quickly return to our base levels of happiness after we receive a raise or get a new car. We adapt and no longer notice the wonderful things in our lives. People who regularly express and experience genuine gratitude for what they have - their family, a meal, their home, their work, their wealth, and so on - are happier, healthier, and more successful in the long run. Students have picked up on Ben-Shahar's message - in a big way. According to the course evaluation guide, 99% of the students would recommend the course to their fellow students. 23% said it changed their life. Israel21c