October 31, 2012

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

Posted by: in North America

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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New Trend Report: The Future of Payments & Currency

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Things to Watch

  • Snapcash
    November 19, 2014 | 4:54 pm


    Disruption in the payments sphere is opening the way for social media brands to act as intermediaries between consumers and their money, as we note in our report on payments and currency. Facebook is said to be planning a P2P payments feature for Messenger, South Korea’s KakaoTalk announced a PayPal-like service in September, and Line is creating a mobile service that will let users make on- and offline purchases. Now, Snapchat is partnering with Square to enable payments between users, as explained in this video’s energetic retro musical number.

    After users (U.S. only and 18-plus only) enter debit card info, they simply send a cash amount within a text. While Snapchat’s recent data breaches may give some users pause, the P2P payments space is a smart place to be as young consumers get accustomed to services like Venmo that make it easy and even fun to pay friends. —Marian Berelowitz

  • Payment in a heartbeat
    November 11, 2014 | 5:26 pm

    Nymi-paywith

    Our recent report on the future of payments and currency spotlights the rise of biometric payments—using a unique physical characteristic to authenticate transactions—which promise to greatly improve security and help remove friction. So far we’ve seen systems that rely on fingerprints (e.g., Apple Pay) and the palm’s unique vein payment (see Quixter). Now, the startup Bionym is exploring ways to harness its Nymi wristband, which uses the wearer’s unique cardiac rhythm as authentication, for payments.

    Bionym is linking with MasterCard and the Royal Bank of Canada for a test in which an NFC chip in the wristband enables contactless payments. The company, which is looking to license its technology into other wearables, recently raised $14 million in a Series A funding round and has racked up 10,000 preorders for the Nymi. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Nymi

  • Vegetable co-stars
    November 4, 2014 | 6:31 pm

    veggies_4

    “Vegetable co-stars” is one of our 100 Things to Watch in 2014—the idea that veggies are gaining a higher profile on restaurant menus—and more star chefs are indeed embracing this trend. José Andrés and his ThinkFood restaurant group plan to open Beefsteak (as in tomatoes), a vegetable-focused fast casual eatery in Washington, D.C., next year. The Washington Post also points to chef Roy Choi’s new greenhouse-like Commissary in L.A., which says it serves “good food and drink based around plants as the foundation.”

    “Chefs around the country, and the globe, are pushing meat from the center of the plate—and sometimes off it altogether,” notes The Wall Street Journal, citing examples like Alain Ducasse revamping his menu at the posh Plaza Athénée in Paris. Catering to a growing group of diners looking to eat less meat, vegetable-heavy dishes also offer new opportunities for creativity. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Plaza Athénée

  • Xiaomi zooms ahead
    October 30, 2014 | 4:44 pm

    Xiaomi, which we included on our 100 Things to Watch in 2014 list, is now the world’s third-largest smartphone maker, according to IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker. The young company has seen triple-digit year-over-year growth in smartphone shipments, per IDC, surging ahead of both LG and Lenovo. Often described as the “Apple of China,” Xiaomi released its first phone just three years ago; its latest, Mi4, is an iPhone clone that runs on a modified version of Android.

    The company is expanding beyond China into India and Singapore, and planning to enter a slew of other growth markets, including Russia, Turkey, Brazil and Mexico. For more on whether Chinese brands can succeed on the world stage, see our report Remaking “Made in China.”Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Xiaomi

     

  • Money & messaging apps
    October 23, 2014 | 11:13 am

    LINE_icon02

    Given the primary function of mobile messaging apps and their technical capabilities, money transfer and payments are an alluring proposition, as outlined in our new report on payments and currency. Snapchat filed two trademarks in July that indicate a potential move into peer-to-peer payments. The recently announced Line Pay will let Line users make purchases through their Line accounts, send funds to each other, and split costs using a “Dutch Pay” feature. Line Pay will launch in Japan and, as Tech in Asia reports, serve as “an entrance to new industries” thanks to integration with the new Line Taxi service and Line Wow, for food delivery. In South Korea, KakaoTalk launched the PayPal-like Kakao Pay in September, and a remittance service, Bank Wallet Kakao, is in the works. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Line

  • The #TimsDark Experiment
    October 14, 2014 | 3:46 pm

    To entice customers into tasting its new dark roast, Canadian fast food chain Tim Hortons, with the help of JWT Canada, created a surprise immersive experience. A store in Quebec was wrapped in material that blocked all light from the outdoors. Patrons entered warily and, once inside, heard a staff member (who was wearing night vision goggles) guiding them through the dark. At the counter, customers were handed a cup of the dark roast—the brand’s first new blend in 50 years—with the darkness heightening their sense of taste. When the lights came on, the patrons saw they were on camera.

    The #TimsDark Experiment has garnered YouTube views and some press attention, and shows how creatively imagined immersive experiences—one of our 10 Trends for 2014—can encourage consumers to engage with a brand.

  • Bitcoin bank Circle
    October 7, 2014 | 4:40 pm

    Circle

    In late September, the startup Circle launched a web app that effectively functions as a bitcoin bank. Using a debit card or bank account, users transfer funds to Circle, which converts the money to bitcoin at no fee. Circle also insures this money at no cost. The company aims to make bitcoin more accessible via consumer-friendly design and is aiming to take on traditional banks and companies like PayPal, as The Guardian reports. Next up: Android and iOS Circle apps.

    Circle co-founder Jeremy Allaire gave a keynote at the Inside Bitcoins conference in April, citing the need for a “killer app” to bring bitcoin into the mainstream. Now Circle seems to be taking the lead, and others are sure to follow. —Nick Ayala

    Image credit: Circle

  • High-tech tasting
    October 2, 2014 | 6:00 pm

    Nanosensor

    Thailand got a lot of buzz this week with an innovative idea: a taste-tester robot, or electronic tongue, that’s programmed to distinguish authentic Thai dishes from wanna-be’s. Artificial tongues aren’t new but have been evolving. Most recently, Danish researchers developed a nanosensor that mimics “what happens in your mouth when you drink wine,” enabling winemakers to control astringency very early on. In Spain, researchers created a beer-tasting robot that can distinguish between varieties of brew.

    Meanwhile, advanced technology can also create recipes: IBM has touted how Watson, its “cognitive computing system,” can analyze the components of ingredients to come up with novel ideas for dishes; find a few of them here. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Aarhus Universitet

  • Marriage gets marginalized
    September 25, 2014 | 5:00 pm

    One of our 10 Trends for 2012 was Marriage Optional: More people around the world are living together or remaining solo instead of marrying. Pew reports this week that 1 in 5 Americans age 25 and up have never married, a fundamental shift since 1960, when only about 1 in 10 could say the same. Millennials are especially ambivalent: Two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed by Pew agree that “society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children” vs. 53 percent of the next generation up (age 30 to 49).

    Europe is seeing a similar move away from marriage, driven by “austerity, generational crisis and apathy towards the institution,” notes The Guardian. It says weddings are at historical lows in some nations; last year Italy recorded the fewest since World War I. For a look at how changing marriage patterns are affecting families, see our report Meet the New Family. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: JD Hancock

     

  • Room-sharing service Breather
    September 16, 2014 | 3:30 pm

    Breather

    Described as the “Zipcar for rooms,” Breather is an app that enables access to “beautiful, practical spaces” that can be rented anywhere from 30 minutes to a whole day. While sharing-economy players like LiquidSpace and PivotDesk offer work and meeting spaces, Breather positions its rooms as homey spots that can serve a range of purposes (though not, the founder assures, seedy ones). Rooms include the basics—a desk, a couch, Wi-Fi—as well as some fun touches like a candy jar. Lockitron technology lets users unlock doors with their mobile phones. Breather is available in New York, Montreal and San Francisco, and recently raised $6.5 million in venture capital, citing plans to “own every major market in America.” —Hallie Steiner

    Image credit: Breather

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