In today’s age of social media, it is pretty easy to get drowned in different opinions, caught in deep divisions, and bombarded by countless voices with conflicting perspectives. These external factors make it way difficult to pursue a more fulfilling and happier living. In this episode, Whitney Lauritsen sits down with Tal Ben-Shahar of the Happiness Studies Academy to talk about what it takes to become truly happy in a world with so much negativity and struggles. Tal shares his history and relationship with happiness, discussing how we can go beyond the myth of not enough, society’s destructive anti-aging mindset, and the negative impact of advertising and consumerism. He also talks about the importance of stories on lifelong learning, the 3Rs of change to counter human’s nature to forget, and his thoughts on artificial intelligence.
Listen to the podcast here
Me-Search: The Journey To Happier Living With Tal Ben-Shahar
I don’t know if I’ve been quite this excited which doesn’t feel like quite the right word, but I’ve been anticipating the conversation with our guest, Tal, because he wrote a book that had and still has a big impact on my life called The Pursuit Of Perfect. I imagine that I’ve referenced this book in the past. I listened to it in August or September 2020 when I did my first big road trip across the country, which has now become an annual adventure.
I was listening to it with my friend Leanne. The two of us were in complete awe of what we were hearing through this book. I can’t speak for her, but for myself because I have felt like a recovering perfectionist. I feel like I’m still in recovery all these years later. Maybe I always will be. I had a different place to start with you, Tal. I would love to know, do you still consider yourself a recovering perfectionist? I believe you use that term in the book. I would like to know, does it still resonate with you, and do you ever fully recover from being a perfectionist?
Thank you for this question and for having me here. The simple answer is yes. The reason is that it’s like any form of addiction. It never goes away. It doesn’t go away completely. It gets weaker, less dominant less oppressive, or pervasive, but it’s still always there. There’s a wonderful work by Karen Horney, who was a student and a prodigy of Freud. She broke away from him at some point.
Karen Horney writes about neuroses and she considers perfectionism to be a neurosis. She says neurosis never really goes away. They weaken and become less dominant, but they’re always there. Therefore, we need to be vigilant so that they don’t overtake us. I end the book by saying, “My name is Tal and I’m a perfectionist, and this is something that I will always be dealing with.” I said, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing because that in and of itself is keeping me vigilant and hopefully more humble about the human condition in general and about my personal abilities in particular.”
Thank you for sharing that. It’s refreshing because one thing I spend a lot of time catching myself in is the fixing mentality. Something you bring up in that book about how a lot of us, perhaps, were conditioned. I’m not quite sure why we do this, but a desire to try to fix ourselves. I was thinking about before we started the show why I’ve been drawn to your work. I thought, “I like personal development and then I stopped to reflect on that. Why do I like reading personal development books so much? Why do I like learning about psychology?”
I’m very curious about it. It ignites something in me but then I wonder, “Am I trying to become perfect? Am I trying to fix things? Am I trying to improve all the time?” I feel a bit conflicted about that. I’m curious how you identify. Do you find yourself on a quest for knowledge? You reference many great researchers, psychologists, and people who work in these fields. You must have spent a lot of time studying it, but what is your relationship toward learning and improving?
This is a great question and my mind is racing. I will bring this question back to a theory that I feel very comfortable with and can help me answer any better. Back in 1995 when I was still a student, I read a wonderful book called Built To Last. That book became a huge bestseller, then was and still is by many considered to be a landmark in the field of organizational studies. It looked at the organizations and the companies that have been most successful that were built to last.
It was published in ‘94. It was companies like Disney, Sony, and General Electric. It asks, “What’s unique about these companies? What are the distinguishing characteristics of these companies? They were visionaries and they focused on purpose and the things that we often talk about.” There were, at that time, two Stanford professors, Collins and Porras. They say the following, “These companies rather than succumbing to the tyranny of the or, they embrace the genius of the and.” I love that. Rather than either/or, they go for the and.
They gave an example. For instance, there are companies that say, “We’re all about empowering our employees and delegation.” There are companies, either the way they present themselves or de facto in practice, that are all about micromanagement, a dictatorship-like organization. It’s either empowering and delegation or all the power is controlled at the time of dictatorship. The great companies embrace the genius of the and. They empower and delegate. Yet there are times when micromanagement is necessary and when failure is not an option. They are able to synthesize these two seeming opposites, these two extremes.
Another example is closer to my field of positive psychology. I’m going to look at the full part of the glass, all positive, grateful for everything, the pink-colored glasses, or I’m a pessimist. I look at the empty part of the glass because I want to be realistic. The genius of the and is there’s a time and a place for both. I’d like to take this model because as you were talking this came up for me in terms of the answer. Do I want to fix myself and improve? The answer is yes.
When people ask me, “Are you happy?” My response to that is, “I can’t answer this question because I don’t think that happiness is a binary 0-1 thing.” I can certainly say that I’m happier now than I was many years ago when I started off. At the same time, I hope to be happier five years from now than I am now which is why I also called in my book Happier, rather than Happiness or Happy.
I want to improve and five years from now, I want to be in a different place where less of a perfectionist and more of an optimist, less anxious, calmer, and happier. This is one part. I always want to improve and get better. At the same time, and this is the other side of the and, it’s also extremely important to appreciate, be grateful, look back, and give yourself a pat on the back, “Well done. You’ve gone through these experiences. You have grown. You have done well. It’s okay to breathe deeply and relax.
We’re always thinking, “I need to improve, get better, and fix this,” and we’re always living in the future. At the same time, being content, accepting, and embracing everything all the time also falls short of us fulfilling our potential and being too charmed by nature because our nature is such that we can and ought to enjoy the present that we aren’t and can’t celebrate in the appreciate and be grateful. Our nature dictates that we want to improve and in order to fulfill our potential for happiness, we need to improve. Except, embrace, be grateful, try to fix improve, and grow.
That word binary is such a great summary of this. I feel like we live in a time of a lot of black-and-white thinking yet there are many gray areas and overlaps. We don’t need to take sides. I find myself often in that conflict of, “I like being in the gray area, but I feel like I live in a world that wants me to choose this or that.”
It doesn’t feel to me that the world has a lot of room. At least the experience that I’ve had for the and. I’m curious, do you experience a lot of and in your life? Your answer could be an and, maybe you experienced both the or and the and. Do you see the world pushing us towards a black-and-white, this or that, binary divided? There’s much division in the world, for example. It feels like it’s so much pressure to take a side or a stance and there’s not a lot of room for people to express humanity within the gray areas.
I feel and see it. It’s also documented the fact that there is a lot more schism split. They’re much more extremes in our society whether we’re talking politically or ideologically, even within the field of psychology or philosophical discussions. We see a lot more people going to the extreme and they’re very reasons for it. The main reason is probably social media because of the way that algorithms around it are created. If I’m on one side of the political spectrum, social media will know. The algorithm will very quickly figure out what I’m interested in, and what my position is and then it will feed that further.
I like to get ideas or dissensions from my belief whereas if I’m on the other side, similarly, I will get reinforcement. Articles written by like-minded and like-hearted individuals. That will reinforce me where I am. We know from a lot of research on negotiation that it’s important to put yourself in the other person’s position because what happens then?
First of all, you’re more open and you’re more likely to attain a higher level of thinking in the form of a synthesis. Hegel, the German philosopher says how progress is created. He says, “There’s always a thesis and an antithesis. Growth comes when there is a synthesis.” That applies on a national level. It applies when we look at history. He was a historian and a philosopher. It also applies to me as an individual. This is also how science is the work of Kuhn, showing that you need an antithesis to your thesis in order to attain a higher level of understanding development and we’re missing that.
Let’s say I do get to this synthesis. That’s simply become a new thesis and then there is an antithesis to that and that leads to further growth. When we see and experience the world as black and white and the black or the white is then reinforced, we’re not getting the pushback that we need. I’m thinking now about one of my favorite essays ever written. It’s by the person many considered the Father of North American Philosophy and that is Ralph Waldo Emerson.When we see the world as black and white, we're not getting the pushback that we need. Click To Tweet
He has a beautiful essay on friendship. In the essay, he writes the following. He says, “In a friend, I’m not looking for a mush of concessions, a person who will agree with everything that I say. Rather, what I’m looking for in a friend is a beautiful enemy. Someone who will challenge me. Who will help me in my apprenticeship to the truth.” A beautiful enemy and we need them in person. We also need the articles, text, and challenge to my belief system so that I can grow and even more importantly so that we as a society can grow.
I don’t think I’ve heard that. It doesn’t sound familiar, but it resonates. It’s interesting because there are many opportunities when we can listen to somebody that feels like their opposite. They’re opposing. I read a great book on this called The Righteous Mind. It was very helpful in understanding our own righteousness and the history around that and navigating times when we might fall into a debate and we’re feeling like we don’t understand someone that is different than us.
A big challenge that I’m feeling at the state of things is a bit of a closed-minded experience of other people and then I have an opportunity to think, “Where am I close-minded? If they don’t seem to have an open mind, how can I at least have an open mind about how they’re showing up in the world? What can we learn from our enemies?” It feels appealing as long as it doesn’t feel like a danger to our safety.
That’s why Emerson added the adjective, beautiful enemy. It is someone who is only on your side in terms of the desire to grow or that you grow and that he grows too.
That’s appealing that from personal experience I’ve had friendships or relationships ending with people because it it felt like we came to a disagreement, we had a fight. Yearning for somebody to say, “We might not agree. We might be going through a hard time, but let’s work through this. Let’s stay friends. Let’s use this to grow.” I haven’t experienced a lot of the beautiful enemy. I would like to. I don’t quite know how you find those people. Do you? How do you find a beautiful enemy versus just an enemy?
That’s such an important question for all of our relationships whether it’s a parent-child relationship, romantic partners, friends, or colleagues. It’s important to establish the relationship, explicitly or implicitly as one where we care and at the same time, we’re authentic. Being authentic means we’ll disagree. In every relationship past the honeymoon phase, there is disagreement. When I talk about the honeymoon phase, in romantic relationships or when it comes to children when they get to their terrible twos or certainly when they get to their teen years, or after 2 or 3 years working together in the same office, there will be inevitably disagreements.
We see things differently and that’s a wonderful thing if we see each other as supporting one another rather than as threatening to one another. You disagree with me. Is it a threat or a potential opportunity for growth? We’re talking here and staying around the environment of our conversation. It’s easier said than done. When you’re with a person in a romantic relationship and you’re hearing criticism or disapproval in their voice and sometimes it’s real, it’s easier to respond to it with equanimity and acceptance. This is the case in most situations. Theory is easier than practice, though the theory is important because it can give us a compass of what we aspire to and strive for.
That was something I was curious about for you because you’ve been studying happiness for so long and teaching it. From my perspective, your life has been fairly devoted to happiness. There are a lot of theories that perhaps oversimplify it like acceptance and being present. Maybe those two elements of life could bring us all much more happiness but it’s a theory versus the practice. It’s a lot harder and with everything that you’ve immersed yourself in, does happiness come easily to you?
When some people need me, they would say something like, “I’ve read your book,” or some would take it even further and say, “Your book is next to my bed.” They didn’t necessarily read it but it’s there. I always say, “Are you applying it?” We have a double standard and I’ve come across this double standard almost consistently throughout my career. On the one hand, we think that reading a book on happiness or attending a workshop on well-being is enough and should make us happier, but would anyone have this approach towards another skill that they want to acquire in their lives?
Let’s say, I want to learn how to play the piano, “I read the book on piano playing. I have the book with the score right next to my bed right now,” or would you say the same about playing tennis? “I read the book. Been there, done that.” No. Maybe you read the book and that can be helpful, but then you would get on the court and practice that backhand over and over again. You may hire a coach to help you with that backhand. You would go back to that coach and work on that backhand again and again.
Even Djokovic or Serena Williams. They still work on their backhands in order to improve it even when they are world number one because we can always improve and be happier, not happy. We can always improve. We can always grow and this is the approach that I would like people to take towards happiness, acceptance, or presence. Even Matthieu Ricard who is one of the best-known meditators in the world has meditated tens of thousands of hours in his life. He still working on it. He didn’t say, “After 10,000 hours, now I’m an expert. I no longer need to meditate anymore.” He continues to practice daily. It’s the same with happiness.We can always improve and grow. This is the approach everyone should take towards happiness, acceptance, or presence. Click To Tweet
That makes me wonder why there is almost a myth, at least in American society, the one that I’ve grown up in. I noticed over and over again that, “If you get to this point, you’ll feel happy or fulfilled.” It’s like, “Do this then that. If this, then that,” and yet, most of us aren’t even experiencing that. Anyone who’s had great success in life, however they define it, tends to want to keep practicing and want more. It might have come up when I was listening to the Short Cuts to Happiness book, which I was reading or listening to in the car. I feel like there was something around that idea. There’s the striving of getting more.
It’s Avi, your former barber. It’s a beautiful book. It’s a great audiobook. I was telling Tal who was who hasn’t even listened to it himself yet that I enjoyed it. It’s nice and short. It filled me with so much joy, all these stories and takeaways from your barber. I believe he was talking about being happy with what you have. It sounds great in theory, but why do you think it’s hard for us to be happy with what we have? Is it influenced by society’s pressure to always have more and keep striving? Part of that makes sense, based on what you said that there are so many great benefits to growing as human beings.
However, we also need to find a way to feel satisfied with it. Otherwise, will we ever experience happiness? In your research, essentially, why do you think we’re at that place in society of the pressure to be more, never good enough and we have to earn our worthiness? How did that develop? Is there a way out or is that where we’re at as human beings?
One of the ideas that, in many ways, form the backbone of my teaching is the importance of stories. For a long time, scientists and physicists have been looking for the unifying theory of the existence of the universe. Einstein looked for that one formula that would explain everything. Max Planck and Marie Curie looked for this formula for the unifying theory. They never found it. Probably we never will. It could be above our pay grade as human beings.
However, in psychology, there is a unifying theory. The unifying theory of psychology is stories. If you think about it, everywhere you look in the field of psychology, you find stories as a central theme or more than that. For example, what’s therapy about? Therapy is about us going into a session, telling our story, and feeling so much better as a result. If you think about the psychology of leadership or of organizations, the greatest leaders, what do they do? They tell stories.
If you look at cognitive psychology, what would we remember best? Not statistics, not theories, but we remember stories. We are wired for stories. Look at cultural psychology. How is culture transmitted from generation to generation? It’s through our collective stories. Everywhere you look, you find stories. When you ask a question, such as, “How can we as a society expect to be happier?” The second question that you asked is, “Why can’t we just be happy?” The answer to these two questions is because of the stories that we are told.
We expect to be able to be happy because these are the stories that we are told in the self-help literature by and large. Here are the five steps and if you do them, you’ll be as happy as I am now. To quote one of the most important and brilliant self-help writers, Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich, “Think about it then you’ll grow rich.” If it applies to wealth why shouldn’t apply to happiness? Think it’d be happy. Here is the secret to happiness. Attract it into your life. The Law of Attraction has gained so much traction.
All these ideas draw on some fundamental natural human truths but they’re only partial truths. It’s important what we think whether we imagine ourselves as successful or as failures. It matters a great deal. It makes it more likely to be successful and attract success into our lives when we imagine ourselves successful, but there’s a lot more that goes with it. Just thinking about wealth or happiness is not enough. Just going through the five steps is not enough.
More than that, going through the five steps may get us to a higher plane but that higher plane is part of our potential. We can always climb higher and higher. It’s a lifelong journey. It’s not a binary 0-1, but the stories that we hear and the movies that we watch. They very much in print implant the stories that we carry. What do the movies tell us? “You go through hardship, difficulties, trials, and tribulations then after 1 hour and 37 minutes, you’re ready to live happily ever after.”
That’s a story. As you pointed out in your question, it’s a myth. It’s leading us astray because when my life story plays out in a very different way than the 1 hour and 37 minutes story, then I begin to feel inadequate. If after going through these five steps, following them to the letter, I’m not as happy or successful, however I define it as the author or the exemplars in that book, then I feel inadequate, which is part of the reason why the number of self-help books is growing exponentially. Depression and anxiety are rising at an astounding rate.
We see that on social media, all these little steps, sound bites, and quotes to make it seem easy. Through the process of making something seem easy, those who don’t find it easy think they must be doing it wrong or something’s wrong with them if it’s working for someone else all the time.
Here is the thing with me. It’s not easy for anyone. The people who claim that it is easy are not looking in the long term because they themselves have struggled and, if they live long enough, will struggle because that’s part of the human condition. By suggesting that it even can be easy, that contributes to what I call the Great Deception which is largely responsible for The Great Depression.
I do want to talk about the second question that you raise and that is, “Why can’t we just be happy? Why do we make it unnecessarily difficult for ourselves at times?” Part of it, not all of it, is because of the advertising campaigns that are all around us because what do they look for? They want us to buy the next thing. Their suggestion implicit sometimes explicit, is that what we have and who we are is not enough.
We get into what Nathaniel Branden, one of my mentors, talked about as the Nothing Is Enough syndrome. You don’t have the right watch yet and you don’t smell quite as you need to smell yet. You don’t have the car, house, or partner that you can have. The problem is that even when you have that car, house, or partner, that’s not enough. Maybe it’s enough for a day or a year, and then you need to go to the next one because the myth that we have been sold and brainwashed around is that nothing is good enough. When we say nothing, that includes ourselves.
That reminds me of something else that stood out in the book Short Cut To Happiness which resonates with me in the phase of life that I’m in. I’ve been thinking a lot about ageism. In the book, I love the section around emphasizing our relationships with people who are older, especially aging people, whether that’s family members or anyone older. That resonates with me because I’ve felt especially through social media and advertising, that there’s much focus on youth. It’s praising the youth or trying to make yourself look or act younger.
There’s not a lot of focus on the benefits of age. The older I get that starts to strike me as very odd. It seems like I’m being punished for something that can’t help. Isn’t it a gift to grow older and have more life? Why are we pressured to try to act as if we’re not the age that we are? There’s much messaging around youth as being incredibly positive and something to strive for but we can’t strive to be any younger.
Another story is that you peek at whether it’s 20 or 30, and then it’s all downhill from there. That’s a story that is especially pronounced now more so than ever. Probably, to a great extent has to do with what is advertised or sold to us. First of all, look at the title of this story. The headline is anti-aging. I wrote a chapter about this in my first book, Happier which I called the chapter The Pro Aging Movement because there are many upsides to aging certainly in the context of happiness.
What we see in happiness and I’m describing an average here, but this is a study that was done across the world. We generally see the U-shape of happiness. Meaning that we experience a certain level of happiness in our twenties and then it goes down. It’s different for every person but on average, when we’re in our late 40s or early 50s, it starts to go up and it goes up radically. We become happier as we age, controlling for severe illnesses and physical pain.
Generally, we get happier as we age and there are a few reasons for this. The main reason and what statisticians would say accounts for most of the variants in explaining this U-shaped phenomenon is the fact that we become more accepting of ourselves, and others, more open and more embracing towards our experiences and the world. Yet the story that we are quite bombarded with is that trying to avoid aging as much as possible. Hence, the anti-aging movement.
We pay a price for it. Becca Levy who is a professor at Yale University, showed that people who have a positive perspective and positive orientation around aging are a lot happier as well as healthier as a result of it. The story we tell ourselves is responsible for the reality that we live in. We live better and longer when we have a more positive perspective of age.We live better when we live longer and have a more positive perspective of age. Click To Tweet
That’s good to know. I’m working on that but it’s hard. Sometimes it feels like I am swimming upstream, against the current of all this messaging. Especially as a woman, there’s much pressure to look young and perfect. In The Pursuit Of Perfect, you mentioned how women, in particular, have a lot of that pressure. To go in a different direction than all of that is hard when your close friends or family members might be pushing these messages, reiterating them, and echoing these things.
I often find myself going, “I’m seeing the research. I’ve read all these books. I believe and this resonates with me,” but yet there’s the cultural narrative of all these stories that you’re mentioning that creates that friction. I’m curious how you navigate that because it sounds like it’s something you can relate to. You have so much knowledge. You have research. You know the data. How do you personally operate in the world that pushes these narratives that we’ve been discussing?
First of all, it’s hard and challenging. What you’re describing is part of the world we live in. If you hear these voices from society or sometimes from people you care about and who care about you. This has an effect on us. It’s not possible to remain impervious to these external voices. What we can do is counter them with healthier voices, whether internal or external. The key is to counter. In the same way that neurosis never goes away, these voices never will go away.
What we can do is lower the volume, while increasing the volume on the counter. If I may, I’d like to introduce a model that I came up with. These are things that I’ve been thinking about for years but it became very clear and relatively simple to explain for me. That is what I’ve come to call the Three Rs of Change. It applies to every change process whether I’m trying to change that voice in my head telling me I’m not good enough, I’m not young or beautiful enough, or whether it’s changing a habit of exercising regularly or eating more healthfully and so on.
It applies both to mindset as well as to behavior. What are the Three Rs of Change? Let me start with a question or an example. A question for you and this is a question that I can ask anyone, and I suspect I’ll get the same answer. Tell me do you prefer to take the good things in your life, the people who you love, for granted, or do you want to appreciate them?
Rhetorical question, I don’t think anyone would say, “No. I’ve appreciated my loved ones way too much. Now it’s time for taking them for granted.” We all want to appreciate our loved ones, things, or ourselves for that matter. Yet most people, most of the time, take the good things or their loved ones in their lives for granted. All this until something happens whether it’s a tragedy or something comes up to remind us that we need to appreciate. In general, when there is a status quo, we take the good things in our lives for granted, despite the fact that we know that we ought to. We should. We want to appreciate them.
Why? Is it because we’re bad people or we’re inconsiderate? Not at all. It’s because of a simple aspect element of our nature, which is that we forget. We simply cannot keep too much information in our conscious mind at the same time and we forget because other things take its place. Instead of appreciation, I’m thinking of a project that I need to submit at work and that’s okay.
What do we need in order to counter the forgetfulness? We need reminders. We need to create reminders in our lives. These reminders can come in different shapes and forms. They can come, for example, in the form of a screensaver that reminds me of the word appreciate or it can be a picture on my wall of my grandmother who always reminds me to look at the full part, rather than empty parts of the glass, or it could be my phone reminding me every three hours to express gratitude or at night before I go to bed to do my gratitude exercise.
It can be wearing a bracelet and that bracelet for me at this particular time is associated with being grateful and appreciating. The same can be done for trying to bring more kindness to my life. Rhetorical question, do you want to be kind or harsh and inconsiderate? We want to be kind and yet often we forget. We need those reminders in whatever shape or form. That’s the first R of the three Rs process.
The second R, it’s not enough to Remind ourselves once or twice. Going back to the double standard that I spoke about earlier, it’s not enough to go through the tennis courts and the coach tells you, “You need to have your racket up and meet the ball in front of your front leg.” They will remind you to do it again and again. Repetition is the second R which is critical for bringing about lasting change because it’s only through repetition that we get to the third R. That is Rituals.
What are rituals? In modern terminology, rituals are deeply embedded, neural pathways associated with a particular mindset or behavior. Let’s take a very simple example that we’re all hopefully familiar with which is brushing our teeth every day. It started off with reminders, usually, mom or dad, “Have you brushed your teeth?” We do it over and over again. Repetition is the second R. Now, I don’t need my mom to tell me to brush my teeth.
It’s a ritual because there is a normal pathway. It might literally be in my brain associated with brushing my teeth that leads to the fact that I feel uncomfortable leaving the home or getting into bed no matter how tired I am without doing it. You wake up Serena Williams in the middle of the night and you throw a tennis ball at her at 100 miles an hour. If she has a racket, she’ll hit it. She doesn’t need to think about it. Her neural pathway is automatic. It’s a habit. Why? Her dad King Richard reminded her how she needed to hit that ball over and over again, repetitively until it became a ritual and a habit.
John Dryden, a British philosopher, a few hundred years ago, wrote, “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” In order to create those habits, we need reminders and repetition and then it becomes ritual, which is a synonym for habits. Going back to your question. This was a long way to getting there. We have these voices all around us. We need to counter them with alternative voices that are ritualized, that are deeply embedded as neural pathways.
If society tells us the story, “Aging is bad. You need to do everything that you can to maintain youth in the way you look and act. Aging is synonymous with deterioration,” that’s a very powerful voice that we hear over and over again. We have internalized it. It’s a neural pathway that when I see a new wrinkle under my eyes, I immediately think, “I’m getting closer to the end. How terrible and awful I’m aging?” Instead, I have so much more laughter and smiles left in me. I can’t wait to make them even more pronounced and real, creating an alternative message and alternative story, but we need to tell, retell, reinforce, and repeat it so that it’s ritualized.
One way to repeat it is also to surround ourselves with cheerleaders, choir, and people who have similar use. Research by Christakis, a professor at Yale, shows that people who hang out with happy people tend to be happier because, no big surprise here, our environment affects us. People who hang out with smokers are more likely to smoke. People who hang out with people who need a healthy lifestyle are more likely to lead that lifestyle because our environment does matter.
We need to look for supportive environments in terms of messages, practices, and behaviors. At the same time, I don’t think we should put ourselves in a sterile environment where only positive messages find us. We can also be responsible for generating positive messages even when we are in a less supportive and less helpful environment. We need to rely on ourselves. Emerson’s self-reliance and as much as possible, we need to find an environment that supports us.
Speaking of environments, I’m enjoying this conversation so much and thinking about how wonderful must be to be in a class with you. You teach all different structures, programs, degrees, and classes. You’ve been teaching for so long. You mentioned to me that one of the things you like the most when you are teaching at Harvard University is being in the cafeteria and having conversations. I’m curious, “Did you structure your teaching around those conversations, the lessons, and questions that you’re hearing from people?” There’s so much to cover. You mentioned philosophy. We have all different elements of history, research, and psychology. There’s much data and opinions around happiness. How are you influenced by other people and how does that drive the structure of your classes?
One of the tools and techniques in the field of psychology, specifically positive psychology, is identifying our strengths because it’s important to identify our weaknesses and improve them. At the same time, it’s no less important to focus on what your strengths are and what your passions are. My passion and strength is the love of learning. I’m very curious. I love to learn whether it’s through reading, attending lectures and workshops, and most of all, through conversations.
My students know it. Whether it was when I was at Harvard or Centenary and the Happiness Studies Academy, what I love more than anything is having conversations with students where we share. When I address my students and write to them, I always sign off not as your teacher or your professor. I always sign it off as your fellow journeyer because that’s what I am.
First of all, I’m on the same journey towards becoming happier and it is a lifelong journey. Second, we’re on this journey together because we’re constantly learning from one another. This idea of a dialogue is exactly where synthesis resides. This is what a dialogue is all about. It’s about presenting your thesis encountering antithesis and together emerging with synthesis. That’s what a journey looks like with a trajectory upward. It’s not a smooth upward trajectory. There are many ups and downs, but overall, the general direction is toward improvement and growth. At least for me, I have not found another place that creates this journey more than a conversation or a dialogue.You journey through life with other people. You are constantly learning from one another. Click To Tweet
I couldn’t agree more. With the show, the driving force is to have those dialogues. One thing I was thinking about earlier when you were talking is especially in the past few years, I don’t know if it was driven by the pandemic but it might have been a coincidence. It was in early 2020 before the pandemic started or at least was established in March, I was contemplating the next phase of my life and what that meant for me professionally and personally, and noticing that a lot of things didn’t feel in alignment. They didn’t feel as fulfilling.
I’ve spent the last few years reflecting on my identity, what I want, and what brings me fulfillment. One thing that shifted a lot is I don’t have defined goals as much as I used to. It’s come up a lot. I’ve been asked frequently, “What are your goals?” I always pause. One thing that keeps coming to mind is my goal is to feel happy and fulfilled. I find it interesting that most people aren’t expecting that answer. I don’t know if their reactions are confused because maybe it sounds too simple to feel happy and fulfilled.
As you’ve talked about, happiness is not that simple. It’s simple in theory, but it’s a daily practice. To me what greater goal is there than to feel happy and fulfilled? Yet, as we’ve talked about it, there’s much focus on goals being some measurement of success. That doesn’t align with me anymore. I’m like you. I’m curious. I want to learn. If I can learn something new every day, I’ve often thought, “If I could learn for a living which in a way is a big part of my living, maybe not as directly, but if I can read for a living, maybe that’s the career I want to pursue.”
It looks like you are learning for a living. When you have conversations and dialogues with different people, this is a wonderful way to learn and explore, but I have a question for you. Comes Sunday night, the beginning of the week for you or whenever it is and you look forward to the week, do you have a few commitments for that week?
Yes and no. I don’t have a very traditionally structured life. Even Sundays don’t feel like they used to when I worked in a more traditional 9:00 to 5:00 type of job. What I think you might be asking is are the commitments driving my fulfillment?
I’m asking that. I’m curious about that.
It is interesting as I have a lot of anxiety around things on my schedule. I try to keep it fluid because I feel happier when I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule. I like having something to look forward to but there’s tension there.
How about these conversations? You have them with me and with other people. Do you have a certain quota that you need to meet once a week, a month, or whatever?
I do. That quota feels like pressure. However, there’s a shift between looking at it like a metric, the quota, the number, but when I enter into that dialogue, there’s a flow state where I feel that sense of fulfillment. What I’ve noticed is it’s almost like my brain forgets what that’s like until I meet it again. I’m reflecting on a lot of that. It’s almost like I have anxiety around something on my schedule, but then, when I start doing it, I’m glad that I’m doing this. The brain is interesting in that way.
I love that. I love how you describe it. If I can elaborate on it from the context of science, essentially when it comes to well-being or happiness, there are two schools of thought. One school of thought is mostly associated with the West though not exclusively. One school of thought says, “Happiness is about the attainment of a goal. It’s about achievement. You’ll be happy when you get to that peak of that mountain or conquer that stronghold. When you get this house, car, and partner in life.” It’s all about the future. This is what we call or we describe as the rat race mentality. When you achieve that goal, then you’ll be happy.
There is a lot of research and we don’t need research for that because we all have personal examples of that but that’s not enough. If it were enough, then the very wealthy or successful people, athletes, or famous people in the world would be ecstatic because they have achieved those milestones and goals, yet many of them, as we know, are not happy. They’re depressed, anxious, and miserable. Partially, because they believed that they would be happy when they achieved that goal and they were let down.
This is what I have come to call the arrival fallacy. The arrival fallacy is the false belief that when you achieve a certain goal, then you’ll be happy. At the end of the 1 hour and 37 minutes, you will live happily ever after. It’s wrong and it’s a belief that leads to a great deal of unhappiness and one of the myths that we were sold. That’s one extreme. One school of thought is about the goal, milestone, and peak of the mountain.
On the other extreme we have is all about the present moment. It’s all about the here and now. Those goals don’t make us happy. Look at all the examples. Look at your life. You need to go to the other extreme and learn to be present, be in the here and now. That’s more associated with the East and the West. I’m a very broad generalization here, but there’s also a problem with that. The problem is human nature. Our nature is such that we also care about the future or the outcome.
We have a thesis and antithesis. The question is, “What’s the synthesis?” The synthesis is not the only one but can be looking at and appreciating goals as means rather than ends. In other words, it’s not the goal that will make me happy. It’s not the achievement of that milestone that is the answer to my well-being. However, it is the means toward that end. In what way, if I have a goal and an outcome that I strive for, that potentially can liberate me to enjoy the journey? In other words, to enjoy the present. I’ll give you a personal example and then turn to your example.If you have an outcome that you strive for, it can potentially liberate you. Always enjoy the present. Click To Tweet
A personal example is, let’s say, I have a book that I want to write. I’ve committed to my publisher that on July 1, 2024, that book will be ready for publication. I work back and I say, “In order to get that book, I need to work on it 5 days a week for 3 hours every day, 3 or 6 times a week, or whatever.” I have a very clear goal. Now that I have that goal, I can let go because when I wake up in the morning, I know that I’m going to sit down in front of my computer and write. It is something that I love to do, which is meaningful and enjoyable to me, which is my passion and strength. All these things are important. However, it’s the end goal that liberates me to wake up in the morning and say, “I know what I want to do. I want to read, write, or talk to people about it.”
This goal, in a sense, focuses me instead of me waking up in the morning and saying, “Maybe I’ll just stay in bed, watch a movie, binge on that series, or maybe exercise now rather than in the afternoon.” I’m very clear about what I’m going to do every morning. It’s my best time to write. This is right for me. It doesn’t mean that it’s right for everyone to have this schedule. Regardless, that schedule is a product of what I’m striving and aiming for. The goal is no longer important. The bane of my existence is there and I am going to get there through divide and conquer by doing something every day. I know what I’m going to do now and tomorrow.
It’s when I liberate myself with that end goal that I’m in a much better place to experience what you talked about as flow or, “My brain forgets.” What does it mean when your brain forgets? It means that you’re in the present moment. It’s very clear when we started this conversation, we were going to be talking for 60 minutes or so. That was a clear goal. Having that clear goal is not the end. It’s a means towards the end. What’s the end? Flow, forgetting, being in the present and enjoying the conversation, writing, interaction, or whatever it is that we’re doing. Goals are means towards the end, which is the present moment. It’s the destination that liberates us to enjoy the journey.
I have been enjoying this journey so much that I feel like there’s so much more to explore with you and yet, because of our time commitment, I would love to choose one last thing to discuss with you, which is something you and I talked about, and I’m very curious to hear your thoughts on. It’s a big subject. I’m also curious how you can broach something big in the time remaining. You talked a lot about stories and mentioned things like movies. It ties into this subject of artificial intelligence in an interesting way because as of the time we’re doing this in July 2023, a big movie came out called Oppenheimer.
I saw this interview with Christopher Nolan, the director. He is one of my favorite directors of all time. I have not seen Oppenheimer yet. I believe it was done in an interview on the show, The View, and one of the women asked him about the parallels between Oppenheimer’s history and AI, and how Oppenheimer is the story around human beings discovering something very dangerous and something that can end the world and the responsibility that comes with that.
I would encourage the readers to watch Christopher Nolan’s answer about where we’re at right now in 2023 with artificial intelligence, which to some people feels very dangerous. Some people are afraid that it’s going to impact humanity in a lot of negative ways. I remember you saying, you have a lot of thoughts. You reflect a lot on artificial intelligence as do I. I would love to know your brief answer and your thoughts. Do you see parallels between Oppenheimer and the people that are creating the AI technology?
First of all, I did not make the overlap. I’m very familiar with the history of the atomic bomb and The Manhattan Project. I think about it a lot as one of the defining moments for good and ill of humanity. The story is still writing itself. Now that you mention it, I do see parallels because AI is a force that has been unleashed. While perhaps it has the potential to save humanity, it certainly has the potential to create a lot of harm for humanity.
I want to focus on one aspect of it. Let’s say we had ChatGPT or AI capabilities many years ago. It was many years ago when I started to write my first book Happier. I would write to ChatGPT the following, “Please write me a 200-page book on happiness. In the book, I would like you to draw on the latest research in the science of well-being and psychology. I would also like you to incorporate Greek, Chinese, and African philosophers as you create this book. Please, if you don’t mind, if you could write it in the voice of Mary Ann Evans, AKA George Eliot who is my favorite author.”
I would have pressed enter then and 30 seconds or maybe a couple of minutes later, there would be a 200-page book written on the topic of happiness incorporating the latest research in psychology, neuroscience, biology, you name it, as well as the thoughts of philosophers in the voice of Mary Ann Evans. I probably would have had to go over it and modify some stuff, maybe incorporate a bit of my stuff, but very quickly in no time, I would have had a book and it would probably be quite a good book on happiness. That’s wonderful.
In fact, it took me ten years to write my first book between 1996 to 2006. My question is, even if the book would have been as good or better if it was given to AI in 1996, where would I be in 2006? A lot of what I became is a result of the struggles, failures, mistakes, triumphs, victories, disappointments, and blessings that I experienced during those ten years.
Life is not the outcome. Life is a process and a journey. My concern with AI is that it will prevent many of us from going through important invaluable journeys. It will get us to the destination too quickly to easily. We learn, grow, develop, and become as a result of the journey, process, hardships, and struggles. If you go to the gym, you lift weights and all the weights are set on zero, you will not grow stronger, bigger, and healthier.Artificial intelligence may prevent humans from going through invaluable journeys. It may get you to your destination too quickly that you cannot grow, develop, or learn from the struggles in the process. Click To Tweet
You need resistance, time, hardship, and effort. As human beings, we will do ourselves a great disservice if we circumvent the hardships, difficulties, and journey. That’s my biggest concern in the realm of psychology. Will we continue to struggle or will the AI revolution serve us things too easily, zero resistance, and prevent us from enjoying the fruits of hardships and challenges?
You did a beautiful job summarizing your thoughts in such a short period of time, which is a bit ironic to try to condense something big in a short period of time. There are a lot of parallels between what you did and what you were saying. It is food for thought but important and I hadn’t thought about it quite the way that you described. I get very excited about new developments, but then I’ll enter a phase of questioning them and watching other people embark upon them. That’s where we start to feel like, “Now that the excitement is wearing off, I’m noticing some things that don’t sit so well with me.”
It’s a very interesting time. Some people have compared AI to the development of the iPhone. What was life like before we had these devices in our pockets? How much has changed since 2007 when the iPhone came out? How commonplace is it for people to be looking down, the danger of disconnection, and the parallels between the loneliness epidemic and depression? We have these amazing tools on our hands but at what cost? That is the question.
The comparison to the iPhone or tools, in general, is an app one because tools can be used for good or ill. It’s like electricity. Is electricity good or bad? It depends. What do you use it for? Do you use it to electrocute an innocent person? Very bad. Do you use it for life support? Very good. It’s the same with smartphones and AI. Do we use it or abuse it? Do we grow through it as a result of it or are we abused by it? It’s not an easy question. The jury is still out, certainly on AI. It’s still out on smartphones. Interesting times.
I suppose my final question is with all these new tools on our hands, how do we navigate our own happiness amongst things? Like the atomic bomb, sometimes it is a button away from destruction. How do each of us find and tune into our inner compass of happiness with all these different opinions, divisions, and voices we’ve talked about? There’s a lot there. If you had a simple answer to that question, where do we begin?
In all our courses that are part of the Happiness Studies Academy, where they were talking a twelve-part series, a year-long certificate program, or a Master’s degree in Happiness Studies. What I encourage my fellow journeyers to do, in addition to learning about the research, which is great, experimenting, and trying out the tools and techniques, is to engage in me-search.
In other words, look outside, ask for opinions, ask for ideas, and spend a lot of time looking inside. The me-search, self-reflection, or personal examination is no less important, if not more important, than the external exploration. The right balance is not 50/50 necessarily. It’s different for you than it is for me. If we find the right balance for us between the external and, the genius of the and, internal, that is when we can best identify what is right for us.
Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography is titled My Experiments With Truth, not My Finding Truth or The Ultimate Truth. This captures a very important truth in and of itself that life is about experimentation. It’s about trying, trial and error. It’s about allowing ourselves to journey along as we try, experiment, fail, get up, succeed, and then try again.
I couldn’t think of a better way to wrap up this wonderful journey with you. It has brought me that present flow state. I felt in awe of your words of wisdom, these questions are coming up for me. It has felt like that balance you described of listening to you, but the journey that I’ve been on internally while listening has been wonderful.
There’s a lot to process and integrate after this conversation. I’m very grateful for that. It’s been such a joy to spend time with you after reading your books. I still have many more to read. I learned you have ten total as of July 2023. There’s so much to dig into. I’m also incredibly curious about taking your classes. I was looking at the Master’s degree and thinking, “I could see myself doing this. Talk about a journey.” It’s over 1,000 hours.
It’s a two-year-long program.
That’s quite an immersion.
It is an immersion which I must say being a fellow journeyer, rather than their teacher, joining it tremendously.
It must be wonderful to witness the journey of each of the students. How they start and where they evolve to. For anyone who’s enjoyed this journey and is curious about continuing the journey with you, if they’re curious about where to go next, what book would you say is a good starting place? Is it Happier? That’s your first book. Did you go in order?
Not necessarily. I would start with the latest one. The latest one has the same first name but a different last name. It’s called Happier, No Matter What, and I wrote it during the pandemic when most of us were struggling. I thought, “What is the field of happiness that has to contribute to our well-being in difficult times?” That’s when I wrote that. I would start with that and then I peak your interest then work yourself back.
That’s on my reading list to read next. Although, I started with Happier then The Pursuit Of Perfect. I read, almost in its entirety, Short Cuts To Happiness. They’re all lovely. I felt comforted, especially from Short Cuts. Even if you’re looking for a moment of feeling uplifted and getting in more connection with yourself, these books can be a wonderful Journey that we’ve experienced with you.
Thank you so much for all the work that you do and your commitment to helping people find their happiness, feel happier, explore, and learn. It’s been an absolute delight. I’m curious about your opinions on AI. I hope you talk about that. I could spend a whole episode exploring that with you. I hope you do it somewhere. Thank you so much for this wonderful journey and dialogue. Thank you to the readers for coming along with us.
Thank you. This was a real flow experience for me, and I’m grateful.
- The Pursuit Of Perfect
- Built To Last
- Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on friendship
- The Righteous Mind
- Short Cuts To Happiness
- Think and Grow Rich
- Happiness Studies Academy
- Christopher Nolan interview on The View
- My Experiments With Truth
- Happier, No Matter What
About Tal Ben-Shahar
> Tal Ben-Shahar is an author and lecturer. He taught two of the largest classes in Harvard University’s history, “Positive Psychology” and “The Psychology of Leadership.” His books have been translated into more than thirty languages, and have appeared on best-seller lists around the world. His latest books are “Happiness Studies” and “Happier, No Matter What.”
Tal consults and lectures to executives in multinational corporations, the general public, and at-risk populations. The topics he lectures on include leadership, education, ethics, politics, happiness, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, and mindfulness. He is the co-founder and chief learning officer of The Happiness Studies Academy and Potentialife. In 2022 Tal designed and launched the world’s first Master’s Degree in Happiness Studies in collaboration with Centenary University.
An avid sportsman, Tal won the U.S. Intercollegiate and Israeli National squash championships. He obtained his PhD in Organizational Behavior and BA in Philosophy and Psychology from Harvard.
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