The secret to happiness

Is the Israeli psyche ready to cast off its doom and gloom?

tal ben shahar 88 (photo credit: )
tal ben shahar 88
(photo credit: )
Clinical psychologist Dr. Moshe Talmon has spent the last 30 years asking people what's wrong - with their lives, their minds, their marriages, their careers and anything and everything else one could possibly complain about. He spent his days in his Tel Aviv practice analyzing depression, anxiety, stress, anger, fear and schizophrenia, and then one day he realized his job was taking a heavy toll on his own mental health. "My work as a psychologist was centered around what's bad about people's lives," he says, "and I felt I needed to do something to balance it. I needed to concentrate more on being content and happy." That's when he discovered that psychologists in the US had been sharing the same frustration and had already come up with a solution - positive psychology, a revolutionary scientific approach that asks "what's going right" rather than "what's going wrong." Clinical psychology as a field had always generally focused on the negative, on what's wrong and how to fix it. Practitioners had patients examine their faults and delve deeply into traumatizing memories in order to mend their broken spirits. But the idea behind positive psychology is that in order to eliminate the negative, one must first accentuate the positive. The idea was launched in 1996, when Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania was elected president of the American Psychological Association in a landslide vote. His aim as a psychologist was to merge practice with science, and as president his mission became exploring what he calls the area "north of zero." "The field of psychology was only half-baked," Seligman said in a 1999 speech. "We had baked the part about mental illness; we had baked the part about repair of damage. The other side's unbaked, the side of strength, the side of what we're good at." That side became the study of positive psychology, of positive emotions, positive character traits and positive institutions, building upon what had been learned about the dark side of the mind to promote prevention and mental health. The seeds for the field had been planted in the late 1980s, when University of Illinois Prof. Dr. Edward Diener began to study subjective well-being by defining, measuring and determining the causes of life satisfaction, studies that have been illuminated by Seligman's work. "It's not enough to take people from minus five to zero," says Harvard's positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar. "It's not enough to just get rid of depression. It may be a prerequisite, but there's another step afterward, and that's where positive psychology comes in." The discipline focuses on cultivating positive emotions and traits like strength, optimism and self-esteem with the goal of "not only going from zero to five, but becoming more resilient and strengthening the psychological immune system," he explains recently in a busy Jerusalem cafe. Now, the professor has left his cushy position at Harvard to return home, citing family, friends and Zionism as his reasons. Hoping to jump-start positive thinking here, Ben-Shahar's plans include teaching positive psychology classes in local institutions. POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY has caught on quickly and is already being studied in dozens of universities around the world. At Harvard, the class has become the most popular at the Ivy League institution, with 850 students filling the lecture hall every semester to hear Ben-Shahar teach what has been nicknamed "the course on happiness." "It was fantastic," says Alia Crum, 23, a recent Harvard graduate who signed up for the class after it was recommended by friends. "In a place like Harvard you wouldn't expect a class on happiness, but you can have all the intelligence in the world and if you don't have a good sense of self-awareness, you won't get anywhere." The class taught her to define her values and create a mission statement for life, but what made it so spectacular, she says, was its charismatic and articulate teacher. Israeli born and raised, Ben-Shahar attended Harvard as a computer science major. Popular, champion of the squash team and excelling in his studies, he was nonetheless unhappy and couldn't figure out why. So like any student searching for the meaning of life, he switched his majors to philosophy and psychology, and slowly became happier as he realized he had found his calling. "Initially I had wanted to make myself happier," he says, "but when I realized I actually was, I wanted to use what I had learned to make others happier." He returned to Harvard for graduate school and studied positive psychology with Philip Stone, one of its founders. When he graduated, Ben-Shahar took over Stone's class, which he designed to be both an academic study and a practical application for students' lives. Crum says Ben-Shahar's course actually changed her life, and as a graduate student at Yale studying clinical psychology, she says she wouldn't be where she is today without him. "It's a class on life," she says. "People love it because it's relevant, it's useful, it's practical." The class, like the field, deals with fostering joy, satisfaction, motivation, love, compassion, surprise, hope, calm and generosity, rather than scrutinizing the negative emotions upon which psychopathology has been constructed. In a clinical setting, that translates into focusing treatment on the part of the glass that is half full, says Talmon, who has transformed his practice to utilize the approach. "That therapeutic hour with the patient is now much more therapeutic," he says. "The patients realize that what they can change in their lives is drawn from their strength, their resilience, their positive relationships. It's basically realizing that what can make us happy comes from what we already have." EVERYBODY WANTS to be happy, and statistics show that when asked, most people say they are. But happiness isn't a one-time achievement, explains Ben-Shahar, it's a lifetime pursuit, and the question "are you happy," while well-meaning, is not helpful. "People always ask me if I'm happy," he says in his signature relaxed tone. "It's a difficult question to answer because it suggests a binary approach - that we are either happy, or we're not. But happiness is not the end of a process, it is a process. I constantly work on becoming happier. So the more helpful question to ask is how can I become happier?" How, indeed; it's the million dollar question that every human being would like the answer to, and through rigorous empirical research, positive psychology is starting to provide some answers. The first step is analyzing the happiest period of your life, says Ben-Shahar, asking yourself when did I flourish, when did I thrive, and then analyzing that time and figuring out what it was you were doing that made you feel so fulfilled. "People always analyze the bad things that happen and take for granted the positive, and if we don't appreciate the positive, it will wither and die," he warns. The No. 1 predictor of well-being is interpersonal relationships, he continues. People who have deep, intimate connections, whether with friends, family or spouses, show higher degrees of happiness. A 2002 study by Diener and Seligman found that "the most salient characteristics shared by the 10 percent of students with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were the strong ties to family and friends and commitment to spending time with them." "Word needs to be spread," says Diener. "It is important to work on social skills, close interpersonal ties and social support in order to be happy." Positive psychologists also talk a lot about the mind-body connection. Regular exercise, defined by Ben-Shahar as 30 minutes three times a week, is vital and has an impact similar to that of the most powerful psychiatric drugs on our well-being. Meditating or doing yoga for even 15 minutes a day can actually change the structure of the brain, he explains, shifting activity to the left prefrontal cortex, proven for years to have high activity in happier people. "We don't have much time for physical activity or for family and friends in our modern world," Ben-Shahar points out. "Most of us sit in front of computer screens all day, and that's one of the reasons why depression levels today are so high." Worldwide depression levels are in fact 10 times higher than they were in the 1960s, and a study completed in 2005 found that 75% of Israeli schoolchildren reported having feelings of anxiety. A 2004 study found that 29.5% of Israelis agreed with the statement "I feel depressed and gloomy," with 29% also reporting they felt anxious and stressed. And these numbers, say researchers, have only increased after last summer's war in Lebanon. But the 2004 study also noted that a sense of social support and optimism about the future of the State of Israel significantly contributed to traumatic stress resilience and less traumatic stress-related symptoms. SO IN A war-ravaged country like Israel, positive psychology couldn't be more necessary. "In an often difficult reality, such as the one we live in in Israel, it's important to get out of the rut of only complaining, only kvetching about what's wrong with our country," says Ben-Shahar. Positive thinking, he says, is critical to make our society more successful and prosperous. "When you only focus on things that don't work, you create a reality that doesn't work, whereas if you concentrate on what is working, you can strengthen it and make it more resilient," he says, drawing a parallel to difficulties in a marriage. Fortunately for Israelis, one of the keys to becoming happier lies in their own religious tradition, because religious people, notes Ben-Shahar, are generally happier than non-religious people. They believe in God and therefore have hope and feel there is meaning and purpose to their lives, all of which are positive emotions. Along with a greater sense of community, religious Jews also have more social encounters in synagogue and during Shabbat meals with family and friends. Keeping Shabbat as a day of rest once a week and actually not doing any work is an anomaly in today's capitalistically driven society, and significantly contributes to one's well-being and effectiveness. Furthermore, one of the most prominent features of Judaism is thanking God, which is done from the moment one wakes and then throughout the day, after eating, after going to the bathroom and until one goes to sleep. A hundred prayers a day are said blessing God, and this constant show of gratitude has psychological benefits in that it obliges one to focus on the positive. "There is an exercise I recommend that my students do every night before going to bed," says Ben-Shahar. "Write down at least five things you are thankful for." Taking out a little notebook from his briefcase, he flips through the worn pages until he reaches the one he used the night before, which reveals a scribbled list including God, his wife, his son and seeing his infant daughter smile for the first time. "I do it every night," he adds. "People who regularly express gratitude are more optimistic, more successful and happier." And in speaking with him, and his students agree, it is clear that Ben-Shahar exemplifies the principles he teaches and exudes a sense of completion. Positive psychology can be applied and integrated into every institution - whether it be a marriage or a school - most of which fail to nurture the wellsprings of happiness. "In the past, when we failed, as fail we must, there was spiritual furniture we could fall back on for consolation - our relationship to God, our patriotism, extended families, community, and systematically in the two generations in which depression has increased so drastically, we've seen a waning of all these spiritual furnitures," Seligman said in a discussion on the Australian ABC radio network. (Ironically, the father of positive psychology responded in a less than positive manner to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article, citing as a precondition that this journalist first read the books he authored.) But the point he makes is that positive psychology is universally invaluable today, a sensitive time in which modern technology is replacing the things that truly matter and make us happy. "Positive psychology is extremely important for a simple reason," says Talmon. "To make life worth living, people should understand what really makes them happier and what makes them happier beyond the immediate pleasure of eating good food or having good sex." "Happiness is much more than the American dream of a large house, a boat and a fancy car," says Jonathan Doochin, one of Ben-Shahar's former students at Harvard. "It is enjoying every day and making sure one surrounds himself with the things that are meaningful. Positive psychology cuts away the fa ade of the societally idealized version of happiness through a fact-based approach to what actually drives people to be happy in life." BUT DOES IT really work? Or is it just like the hundreds, if not thousands, of self-help books promising to make you happy by the time you turn the last page? "Positive psychology is not a Pollyanna, happy-go-lucky, everything's wonderful approach," explains Ben-Shahar. "It's tied to reality. It relies on science." This is unlike the self-help movement, he continues, which is only partially based on research and is mostly based on ideas - albeit interesting ones - that haven't always been tested using the scientific method. Despite lacking a deep academic grounding, the self-help movement and programs along the lines of Landmark Education dominated the market of making people happier and more effective until 1998 and the birth of positive psychology. The movement had charisma and accessibility, but very often, says Ben-Shahar, "it over-promised and under-delivered" because it didn't have the rigorous, empirical foundation of academic research. "The average academic journal isn't read by many people," he says. "Positive psychology creates a bridge between the ivory tower and the main street, bridging academia and the self-help movement." So while it's not easy to make people happier, it's certainly possible - or, more accurately, he says, it's possible to help people learn how to make themselves happier. While most Israeli experts in the field of psychology remain unaware of the relatively new approach, and those who do know about it seem thrilled it's coming to Israel, the US media has on occasion condemned it as a cultish program or a load of happy hoo-ha, and even Ben-Shahar's colleagues at Harvard have expressed disregard. "He did get a lot of anguish from other professors," says Crum. "And there's a tendency for people to poke fun because it seems trite or superficial. Its almost like it's too practical for people to handle." But anyone who doesn't believe it should just try it for themselves, says Dr. Danny Brom, director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma at Herzog Hospital. Even for people who are already happy, there are still numerous obstacles to contend with that threaten their levels of happiness. "A majority of people say they're happy," he admits. "But if you ask them if they're also anxious, stressed and depressed sometimes, they'll say yes." Brom has recently begun using the positive psychology principles of emotional resilience in his clinical work, and says it's high time positive psychology arrived in the academic arena here. "Psychologists have realized that focusing only on the bad things is not really helpful," he says, noting that in a society under continuous stress like Israel, it is even more important to employ the resilience approach to help people remain functional. "In times of severe stress and threats, individual therapy that focuses on the problems isn't the treatment of choice, because during a crisis you need to survive," he says, referring to this summer's war in Lebanon as a prime example. "The whole community up North needed to be worked with [during last summer's war], and these approaches work on the large scale. The positive psychology approach helps people maintain hope, an optimistic outlook for the future, a physical balance and allows people to deal with everything that's happening." In contrast, he comments that in Palestinian society, there is not a lot of resilience work being done and depression levels are very, very high. In these populations living under a perpetual emotional strain, he says, there is a serious danger of losing hope completely. Talmon echoes Brom's analysis and says the approach will catch on quickly here because of its extreme necessity. "Much of the Israeli existence is geared toward very catastrophic scenarios," he says. "With the security threat, the existential threat and a culture based on the Holocaust and persecution, life here is geared more toward preparing for the worst rather than hoping for the best." BEN-SHAHAR IS determined to change that victimized consciousness, and, says Talmon, "he's going to make a big difference here." In less than two months, Ben-Shahar's new book, Happier, will be released here, and next year, he will begin teaching at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, with plans to eventually make the IDC "a world-class positive psychology center that will offer classes for students, educators and leaders." "We have a problem with leadership in this country, and in fact all over the world," says Ben-Shahar. "Israelis are too apologetic. We don't need to apologize for surviving. We have so many virtues, we have achieved so much with so little as a people, and we need to be proud of it and not focus on how we are the victims, on how downtrodden we are or how bad we are. Too many Israelis have put on the distorted lens of the UN or the EU or the Arabs, instead of seeing us for what we truly are. We need to stand up proudly, demand what is ours and stop apologizing. That's what I would like to see from Israel and the Jews." As one of the founders of the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership, which works to promote a fair understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict and develop leaders to counter the ideological assault on Israel, Ben-Shahar strives to bring about positive change - in both well-being and hasbara - through positive leadership. "Positive psychology and hasbara are very intimately connected," he says. "What I do is try to protect the self-evident values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As I see it, my work in hasbara is about life and liberty, and my work in positive psychology is about the pursuit of happiness. Without life and liberty, we can't pursue happiness." As a lecturer at Harvard, Ben-Shahar authored numerous articles attacking Islamic fundamentalism and jihad in addition to his studies on positive psychology. People would often Google his name, he recalls, and assume there were two different Tal Ben-Shahars at the university. "They couldn't reconcile the two ideas, because positive psychology is all about smiles and well-being, which seems to be the polar opposite of war," he says. "But really, they're just two sides of the same coin. We first have to secure our life and our liberty and only then can we pursue happiness. And that's what I want to do - educate the future leaders of the world, and make the world happier." Ben-Shahar's six lessons on happiness 1. Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions - such as fear, sadness or anxiety - as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, 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. 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 positive emotions. 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. 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 well-being 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 or the full part of the glass? Do we view failures as catastrophic, or do we see them as a learning opportunities? 4. Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze 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. 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. Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.