October 31, 2012

Q&A, Tal Ben-Shahar, positive psychology expert

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In researching our October trend report, “Health & Happiness: Hand in Hand,” we spoke with positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar, who teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel and consults and lectures around the world. Ben-Shahar, who previously taught popular Harvard University courses on positive psychology and the psychology of leadership, is the author of several books on happiness. The latest is Choose the Life You Want: 101 Ways to Create Your Own Road to Happiness. Over email, he explained his perspective on the connection between health and happiness, our changing definition of happiness and why mind and body are becoming more closely linked.

Is positive psychology more about happiness or health?  

This is like asking “Is a human being more about the mind or the body?” The answer is, of course, both, because they are interconnected. Positive psychology is about human flourishing, which includes both mind and body.

How would you define happiness?

I define happiness as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning.” A happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving his or her life as purposeful. The definition does not pertain to a single moment but to a generalized aggregate of one’s experiences: A person can endure emotional pain at times and still be happy overall. Another important element to keep in mind is that happiness is not about fleeting pleasure but about an enduring sense of meaning that couches positive emotions.

And how would you define health?

Health is both the absence of illness as well as about optimal living—i.e., the best possible physical well-being given the constraints of reality.

Do you see a connection between health and happiness?  

Yes, of course. There is a lot of research showing how happiness contributes to physical health—even to longevity. At the same time, when we neglect our physical needs—poor nutrition, lack of exercise and sleep—we pay a high price in terms of our happiness.

Do you think perceptions of happiness have shifted in the last decade?

Up until recently, the topic of happiness—of enhancing the quality of our lives—has been dominated by pop psychology. In many self-help seminars and books currently offered, there’s a lot of fun and charisma but 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, so 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 is to bridge between the ivory tower and Main Street, between the rigor of academe and the fun of the self-help movement. This is what people are looking for today—a science of well-being that offers interventions that work.

Do you think happiness is becoming more prescriptive?

Very much so. When a person’s basic needs—for food, shelter and security—have been met, he or she becomes more concerned with higher needs, like fulfillment. Abraham Maslow and Clayton Alderfer both discussed this idea, in the context of a needs hierarchy. And as more and more people in the modern world have their basic needs met, they’re looking for prescriptions in those areas that are higher on the hierarchy.

Do you think happiness is more important to people now than it was five years ago?

There has been a shift in people’s focus because they realize they’ve been chasing the wrong goals—turning away from material wealth to spiritual wealth. As more people are financially secure, they turn their attention toward the intangibles, like happiness. As long as people are not financially secure, they live under the illusion that money—financial security—will make them happier. When reality shows them that that is not the case, they turn elsewhere.

Are people redefining happiness differently than they did five or so years ago?

People are looking for more than mere pleasure, immediate gratification—they are looking for meaning beyond the pleasure. More and more people are realizing that there is more to happiness than pleasure—that gratifying our senses can only lead to a temporary high. Given the inevitable challenges of life, in order to sustain happiness, we need a deeper sense of meaning. In other words, we need to feel that our life matters, that we have a purpose in our life.

Do you think happiness is genetic or malleable?

On average, about 50 percent of our happiness is determined by our genes, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research. However, while there is some genetic component to our happiness—some people are born with a happy disposition while others are not—our genes define a range rather than a set point. A natural-born grouch may not be able to transform him or herself into a Pollyanna, but we all can become significantly happier. And most people fall far short of their happiness potential.

How do you see the connection between health and happiness changing over the next five years?

More and more people will realize that we cannot separate mind from body and that, in order to lead a healthier life, we need to take care of ourselves psychologically and, in order to become happier, we need to take care of our bodies. Mind and body are one.

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