Best-Selling Author Spotlights ‘Science’ of Happiness

A Harvard lecturer addressed Upper Schoolers in Baker Theater, on Thursday, Nov. 21, and described a pandemic of stress and unhappiness worldwide.
But the solution, he said, isn’t less stress.

Instead, he said, common-sense solutions lie in what he described as the “five pillars” of a happier, healthier life: Giving ourselves “permission to be human,” finding more time to recover from hectic modern chores, embracing failure, cultivating genuine face-to-face relationships, and practicing deliberate gratitude.

Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught the most popular course at Harvard University on “Positive Psychology” and the university’s third most popular course on “The Psychology of Leadership,” presented his lecture “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness,” and spoke to parents at Baker Theater later in the evening.

“The foundation of happiness is first allowing in unhappiness,” Ben-Shahar said. “I cannot over-emphasize this point.”

Ben-Shahar told students that the best advice he ever received was from a pediatrician just hours after his oldest son was born. The doctor said that, in the coming months, he and his wife would experience every single kind of emotion to the extreme — from extreme joy to extreme frustration, from extreme love to extreme anxiety.

“It’s fine,” the doctor said. “It’s natural.”

Ben-Shahar took the advice to heart.

“I allowed the emotion to flow through me,” Ben-Shahar told Brunswick students. “They left, just as they came. You see, because there is a paradox at play here.”

Suppressing painful emotions makes them stronger, Ben-Shahar said, and also blocks pleasing ones, because all emotion flows from the same place.

“If I don’t give myself permission to experience envy,” he said, “I’m also blocking love.”

Social media contributes to the problem, he said, by spreading the perception that everyone is “doing great.” When we exclusively post our own happy moments, we’re adding to the problem.

“When I do this, I’m contributing to this great deception that is responsible for the great depression we’re seeing,” he said. “We pay a very high price for suppressing painful emotions.”

“Think about fear,” he said. “Courage is not about not having fear. Courage is about having fear and going ahead, anyway.”

Later in the day, Ben-Shahar delivered similar messages to parents, with some added advice centered on the unique role they face as they raise children in the 21st century.

Don’t deprive kids of the opportunity to deal with hardship, he said, because humans need resistance to get stronger, just like our muscles get stronger when we lift weights.

Hardship is central, he said, because today we are living in a world where we are in a “trap of luxury.”

Ben-Shahar also offered some marriage advice at his evening talk, and recommended that parents speak to their children about expressing gratitude, meditation, physical fitness, good sleep habits, and other rituals they should do consistently for well-being.

Sports are one of the best antidotes for the screen addiction we are seeing today, he told parents.

Ben-Shahar concluded his morning remarks to students by noting that the pillars are essentially common sense — and he implored his listeners to intentionally practice them to increase both their own well-being and the well-being of those around them.

“What I’m asking you today is to make common sense more common,” he said. “Apply it in your life. Do it. Ritualize it on a regular basis.”

“Happiness, well-being, is contagious,” he said. “If you increase your own level of well-being, you increase the well-being of those around you. You are making the world a better, happier, healthier place. Isn’t this what life is all about?”

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