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Can You Learn to be Happy?

(Note: Typically I write my own blog articles but I just had to share this article, written by someone whom I respect and learn from, Tal Ben-Sahar, PhD—enjoy his article! I base much of my coaching approach on his work, and Dr. Seligman’s work, in positive psychology. Joan Tabb, M.A.)

Recent scientific studies and scholarly research have reached some startling conclusions about what makes people happy. To help understand how you can use this information, we spoke to Harvard lecturer and best-selling author Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD. Each semester, more than 800 Harvard students register for his life-changing class on positive psychology. Students explore the question How can we help ourselves and others to become happier? The students read academic journal articles, test ideas, share personal stories and, by the end of the year, emerge with a clearer understanding of what psychology can teach us about leading happier, more fulfilling lives.
Is a person just “born happy” or “born unhappy”?

There is a genetic component to happiness. Some people are born with a happier disposition than others or with personality traits that are strong predictors of happiness, such as being sociable, active, stable and calm.
However, that doesn’t mean how happy we feel is out of our control. Our genes define a range, not a set point. “Grumpy” may not be able to cultivate the same view of life that “Happy” enjoys. A natural-born whiner may not be able to transform himself/herself into a Pollyanna. But we all can become significantly happier. Most people fall far short of their happiness potential. Your research suggests that money and success matter little in terms of happiness. Yet wouldn’t most people be happier if they won $5 million or a Nobel Prize?

This is a concept that my students and our society in general struggle with. Happiness largely depends on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. It depends on what we choose to focus on (the full or the empty part of the glass) and on our interpretation of external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity?

One of the most common barriers to happiness is the false expectation that one thing — a promotion at work, a prize, a revelation—will bring us eternal bliss. As soon as you achieve your goal, the “what’s next” syndrome kicks in, leaving you as unfulfilled as before.

Let me tell you a personal story. When I was 16 years old, I won the Israeli National Squash Championship. I always believed that winning the title would make me happy and alleviate the emptiness I felt so much of the time. Winning the championship was necessary for fulfillment. Fulfillment was necessary for happiness. That was the logic I operated under. After a night of celebration, I retired to my room to savor that feeling of supreme happiness. But my feelings of emptiness returned. I sat around trying to convince myself that perhaps substituting a new goal—winning the World Championship—would finally lead me to happiness. What I came to realize was that a major victory can contribute to our well-being, but at best, it forms a small part of the mosaic of a happy life. The fairy-tale notion of happiness—that something will carry us to the happily ever after— inevitably leads to disappointment. A happy life is rarely shaped by some extraordinary life-changing event. Rather, it is shaped incrementally, experience by experience, moment by moment.

So what does make us happy?

We must first accept that this is it! All there is to life is the day-to-day, the ordinary, the details of the mosaic. We are living a happy life when we derive pleasure and meaning while spending time with our loved ones or learning something new. The more our days are filled with these experiences, the happier we become. The other significant component of happiness is that helping oneself and helping others are inextricably intertwined. The more we help others, the happier we become… and the happier we become, the more inclined we are to help others. Our nature is such that there are few more satisfying acts than sharing with others, than feeling that we contributed to the lives of others.

What else can people do to be happy?

There are several things you can start right away…Simplify. We are 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. Introduce rituals into your life that are motivated by deeply held values. Think about what rituals would make you happier. It could be watching two movies a month or going on a date with your spouse every Tuesday. People are resistant to the idea of introducing ritualistic behavior in their lives because they think it will detract from spontaneity. But if you don’t ritualize activities you cherish, you often don’t get to them. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, rather than taking them for granted. One of the best ways to do this is by keeping a daily gratitude journal. Each night, before you go to sleep, write down at least five things that made or make you happy. These can be little or big—from a meal you enjoyed to a meaningful conversation you had with a friend, from a project at work, to God.

What if a person is going through a really hard time in his life—for example, he dislikes his job, but there’s nothing he can do about it right away. How can that person be happier?

We all must endure periods, sometimes extended ones, in which much of what we do affords us minimal satisfaction. During those times, it’s important to see these periods with a broader perspective and find ways to imbue them with meaning. In a fascinating study of hospital janitors, one group experienced their work as boring and meaningless, but the other group perceived the same work as engaging and meaningful because they crafted their work in creative ways. They interacted more with nurses and patients, and they saw their work not merely as removing the garbage and washing dirty linen but contributing to the patients’ well-being and the smooth functioning of the hospital.

When changing your perception isn’t feasible or effective, I find that one or two happy experiences during an otherwise uninspiring period can transform our general state. These brief but transforming experiences, which I call “happiness boosters” provide us with meaning and pleasure. For example, I met a partner in a top consulting firm. Now in his 50s, he no longer enjoys consulting, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to leave his profession or give up the lifestyle that he and his family have grown accustomed to. He was able to reduce his workload enough to spend two evenings each week with his family. He also plays tennis twice a week and reads for three hours. He joined the board of his former high school, where he feels he can contribute in a meaningful way to the next generation. In an ideal world, he would be spending his working hours doing something he is passionate about, but he is still happier than he has been in a long time.

Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, is one of Harvard University’s most popular lecturers. For the past 10 years, he has taught personal and organizational excellence, leadership, ethics and self-esteem. His best-selling book, Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (McGraw-Hill), has been translated into more than 20 languages.

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