March 24, 2023

Meet Tal Ben-Shahar, the best-selling Israeli author on a mission to help us enjoy life more
BY Nadine Matyas
Happiness is all about our habits (Photo: Getty Images)

How can you have a happier new year? It’s a question that many of us will be pondering as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah — and Israeli psychologist Dr Tal Ben-Shahar is on a mission to show the world how it can be done.

Ben-Shahar stumbled into the forum of happiness after needing to find answers to his own life-questions as a Harvard undergraduate studying computer science when he was just 21. The biggest problem for him was understanding why he was not happy, given all his accomplishments to date. He had finished serving in the Israeli army, he had been a national Israeli squash champion, he was captain of the Harvard squash team, he was thriving socially and academically. He was living the life but he was not feeling it. He asked himself two questions: “Why aren’t I happy,” and “how can I be happier”?

It was then that it dawned upon him that it was the internal, rather than the external, that mattered more to one’s wellbeing.

The realisation prompted him to drop out of his computer-science course and switch to philosophy and psychology.

It was the beginning of his journey into positive psychology, delving deep into the depths of mastering how to attain happiness – or experience joy. Up until that point he had rarely read a serious book, being more of a computer geek. But as soon as he changed the course of his career, he became curious about the thinkers of the past and present, East and West, synthesising the philosophies into his worldview.

It culminated in his PhD in organisational behaviour at Harvard. Now he is renowned for having taught one of Harvard’s most popular courses in its history — on positive psychology — and has written many bestselling books on the subject, the latest being Happier, No Matter What, Cultivating Hope, Resilience, and Purpose in Hard Times.
His conclusion, following decades of research, is that happiness is accessible to all of us if we know how to cultivate it. And these skills, he says, should go hand in hand with building resilience to weather expected and unexpected challenges, to creating the wholesome balance required for the journey of life.

The starting point is accepting that ups and downs are all part of a “full and fulfilling life”, he tells me. “If we learn to accept and embrace it all as part of the human condition then we are in a much better place to experience joy, love and satisfaction.”

The foundation of stable and lasting happiness, he says, rests on five elements to create a “whole being”, a model he calls Spire, which stands for: Spiritual— living mindfully and with purpose; Physical —taking care of our bodies through exercise, nutrition, rest and recovery; Intellectual— being curious and engaging in deep learning; Relationship —spending quality time with people we care about and who care about us and Emotional— embracing painful emotions and cultivating pleasure, gratitude love and joy.

“All of them are important for happiness but we don’t need to focus on all of them all of the time. In fact, it would be near impossible to do so,” he points out. “But at different times, either throughout the day or throughout the week, we need to spend at least some time cultivating all five.”

The idea is to master habits that become as automatic to us as brushing our teeth. Otherwise, we fall back on self-discipline or willpower, which often fails. To make them lasting habits where neural pathways are formed, there are three Rs of change —first reminders, then repetition and finally rituals.

He quotes the poet John Dryden: “‘We first make our habits and then our habits make us.’ So, we need to identify one or two healthy habits that we want to introduce in our lives,” says Ben-Shahar. “It is very difficult to create a habit, so we shouldn’t take up too many at the same time because we end up doing nothing.” Instead, it’s all about “small and gradual change”.

“Many of the choices that we have in life are rhetorical choices — we know the answer,” he opines. “Yet, somehow, we just don’t internalise them or simply forget to institute them in our daily practice, thereby taking good things and good people in life for granted.” Some habits such as meditation or a quick run can take a matter of minutes, but make a significant positive impact on our day.” He recommends also having regular prompts, which could include wearing a bracelet or a sign on the wall reminding us to be the best version of ourselves.

The habits are personal to the culture and taste of each person. Curiosity could be listening to a daily podcast, attending a lecture, or visiting a museum. As for spirituality, this might covers categories from religion to meditation, and is about finding meaning, a sense of purpose, in life. Or it could be simply the ritual of a Shabbat meal where a strong bond between family members is established and where they go around the table expressing gratitude. This is one of Ben-Shahar’s personal examples of a spiritual experience, which has become an important element of family life for his wife and three teenage children who divide their time between New Jersey and Ramat HaSharon in Israel. It’s largely achieved by creating a technology-free zone so there are no negative distractions.

Creating good habits can sometimes mean discarding bad ones — such as creating boundaries around the use of technology.

He is particularly concerned about the potentially destructive nature of smartphones on young people, causing addiction and depression, while detracting from meaningful connections. Many parents use technology as a babysitting device, he says, instead of teaching their children to cultivate their own happiness.

“It does a lot of harm for children to be on the screen all day at the expense of face-to-face contact, at the expense of even being bored. We don’t learn how to be bored. We need the sensation to keep us awake instead of learning to generate excitement from within.”
By contrast, Ben-Shahar, 51, has fond memories of childhood in Ramat Gan, playing outdoors for hours on end.

“Every day between 2pm and 4pm was siesta, and at 4pm someone would shout, ‘Tal, football’ or ‘tag’, and then around 8pm would be dinner. Our home was open and friends would come in and out. A lot of maturing took place riding our bikes or playing football. I think it was a much healthier life than today where children usually meet online.”

Perhaps his healthy outlook on cultivating joy also has to do with the fact that he was brought up in Israel, which rates highly on national levels of happiness. This is attributed to the country’s emphasis on relationships and social interaction, which is central to its core existence.

“The whole idea that ‘Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh’ [all of Israel are responsible for each other] means people get together, bond and support each other. Knowing you have somewhere to turn to when the going gets tough, is a social safety net.”

Ben-Shahar finds it remarkable that given the many years of scientific data around well-being available today, children learn little about how to best achieve happiness at school. The subject is therefore left in the hands of parents. But many claim to be seeking happiness for their children, but are actually steering them towards goals and perceived success.

“Most people have the misperception of believing that success will lead to well-being. Their mental model is that success causes happiness. In actual fact happiness causes creativity and motivation.”

Another misconception is the “arrival fallacy,” that achieving the goal will create happiness. “But it is temporary and they go back to where they are before.”

Instead, he believes it’s about finding the synthesis between relinquishing goals in the future while focusing on the here and now.

His focus on well-being is about integrating good practice in our lives to generate an overall feeling of optimal well-being. This in turn helps to strengthen our psychological immune system, helping us establish a greater level of resistance — or resilience — to cope with the emotionally and physically tougher moments in life. Learning to embrace these emotions, while taking necessary action, are an important part of happiness, he asserts. We also have to be kind to ourselves and a favourite mantra of his is that we have the “permission to be human”.

In fact, he believes that in times of stress our response can actually lead to post-traumatic growth, turning post-traumatic stress disorder into growth. Again, Israel is a good example of this, he says, because the country excels at community support.

He refers to the concept of anti-fragility, coined by the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whereby you don’t just withstand shock, but actually “emerge stronger” from a crisis. But first one needs to acknowledge that this is even possible.

“If my expectation is that it’s possible to get stronger, I am likely to do so. Having the concept in mind is critical because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a possibility.”
The science of happiness is based upon addressing all human experiences. If it is on a continuum of, say, minus five to plus five, with zero being neutral, then bouncing back from a minus is arguably even more beneficial to our wellbeing than just seeking happiness per se. So it is not just about finding happiness, but learning to be happier.

Ultimately, we can grow from our experiences gained in hard times. Covid, for example, created a “great awakening,” with people looking for meaning and purpose more than ever before, he says. He cites the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi’s words: “Be grateful for whoever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Alongside this learning process, he recommends adopting other habits that help us deal with bad experiences, while also strengthening our resolve.

These include daily physical exercise and meaningful connections with people we care about and who care about us.

This is because giving and receiving generosity and kindness are powerful ways of enhancing wellbeing, moving us to a state that is neither selfish nor self-less, but “self-full”.
He also recommends bursts of positive distractions— listening to music, dancing, whatever takes your fancy — as a way of turning around a bad day. It can change a downward spiral into an upward one and then prompt innovative thinking that can lead to better solutions to the current predicament.

He is also an advocate of talking or writing about an adverse experience, as an antidote to the dangers of spending too long replaying a problem in our heads.

Interestingly, many of the students at his Happiness Studies Academy are doctors who wonder why they were not taught about well-being in medical school, given how straightforward and impactful it can be. The science of happiness, he concedes, is not a panacea, and doesn’t replace scenarios in which professional help is needed. But it goes a long way to complementing it in many situations.

Psychotherapists and psychiatrists would, he believes, often benefit from introducing some of the findings that come from this science to their patients. For example, they could promote regular physical exercise for the feel-good chemicals released in the brain.

His personal mission to acquire happiness continues. It is not because he has not yet found it, but rather because it is a lifelong journey. How he improves his own life and works on his own happiness is not necessarily through new ideas, but rather by going back to basics and following the same positive habits, be they exercise, meditation, journaling or gratitude.

He is a big fan of gratitude, associated with emotional wellbeing, a ritual he has been practising every night since hearing about it from Oprah Winfrey in 1999.

“The first words uttered in the morning as Jews are expressions of gratitude —‘Modeh ani’ [grateful I am]” observes Ben-Shahar. “The sentence structure of saying ‘grateful’ first instead of ‘I am’ is unusual. The first word is about appreciation and gratitude rather than ‘I’. There is great wisdom in this.”

The benefits of regular gratitude are many, he says, helping our happiness, resilience and physical health. It can generate kindness and generosity in people. Happiness is contagious, so when we increase our own well-being, we are also helping others.
“We’re all interconnected in this web of empathy,” he says.

The more absorbed and mindful we are, the better the effect of creating a positive chain reaction in our lives, enabling us to become the best version of ourselves.

“We are the co-creators of our reality,” says the happiness guru. “To make the most of our life, we must choose to choose happiness.”

Wishing you a happier new year.

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