‘Prof. Happiness’ returns to Israel

Positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar taught the most popular course at Harvard, but decided he’d be happiest back home.

The Israeli who introduced and taught the most popular course at Harvard University “The Science of Happiness,” has come back to Israel after 15 years abroad. Turns out, he is happiest in his homeland.

“The main reason is family,” says Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar. Now he’s teaching the same course at IDC-Herzliya, a private Israeli university.

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Born in 1970 in the Tel Aviv area, Ben-Shahar left for the United States after completing his military service in 1992. He earned a PhD at Harvard, worked for two years in Singapore as an organizational behaviorist for an Israeli company, and studied education for a year in England. He toured the world playing professional squash, winning both the US Intercollegiate and Israeli National squash championships.

ISRAEL21c spoke with him at the press preview of Israel Inside: How a Small Nation Makes a Big Difference, a documentary that examines Israel through Ben-Shahar’s eyes as he returns home with his interior decorator wife, Tami, and their three young children. ISRAEL21c had an advisory role in the film, which will be shown in major US cities and on the Public Broadcasting Station this spring before being translated into other languages.

“When I came back, I realized the time and distance away enabled me to see Israel in a whole new light,” he explains in the film. “The Israel I came back to was not the Israel I left. … Israel had not only joined the 21st century; in many ways it was now leading the way.”

Ben-Shahar lectures on leadership, education, ethics, happiness, self-esteem, resilience, goal-setting and mindfulness. He wrote the international best-sellers Happier and Being Happy, which have been translated into 25 languages. Recently he co-wrote two children’s books in Hebrew about real people who applied the principles of positive psychology to cope with difficulties; and co-founded an organization dedicated to spreading positive psychology.

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Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar specializes in the science of happiness. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Online University
Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar specializes in the science of happiness. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Online University
Ben-Shahar is now teaching the course he pioneered at Harvard to students in Israel’s IDC-Herzliya. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Online University
Ben-Shahar is now teaching the course he pioneered at Harvard to students in Israel’s IDC-Herzliya. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Online University
Ben-Shahar sharing happy times with two of his three children at home in Ramat HaSharon. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Online University
Ben-Shahar sharing happy times with two of his three children at home in Ramat HaSharon. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Online University


ISRAEL21c: A recent Gallup survey ranked Israel seventh out of 124 countries based on the happiness level of residents. Why do you think 63 percent of Israeli respondents said they were happy — more than in the US or UK?

Ben-Shahar: It’s because of our focus on relationships. Friends and family are very high up on our value scale, and quality time with them is given a priority. Time we spend with people we care about and who care about us is the number one predictor of happiness.

I21c: Can you trace the origin of your interest in positive psychology?

Ben-Shahar: I was doing well as an undergraduate student at Harvard, I was a top athlete, I had a good social life — and I was unhappy. I wanted to overcome this personal challenge, and I explored the writings of the great thinkers from the past — the likes of Confucius, Lao Tzu, Aristotle, and Plato — as well as contemporary researchers. These works helped me become happier, and then I wanted to share what I’d learned with others.

I21c: How would you define happiness?
Ben-Shahar: Happiness is the overall experience of pleasure and meaning. A happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving 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. To lead a happy life, we need to experience, as much as possible, the combination of both meaning and pleasure. If I find my work meaningful but not pleasurable, I will not be happy doing it and will ultimately burn out. If I find what I do pleasurable but it has little meaning for me, I will quickly lose interest.

I21c: You are now a professor at IDC-Herzliya. How is this different than your experience at Harvard?
Ben-Shahar: I’ve been teaching positive psychology and organizational behavior for 20 years. Never have I encountered such high levels of proactivity as I have with my Israeli students. It’s as if there is no barrier between theory and practice.

Tal Ben-Shahar’s seven steps to happiness
1 Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness. We are a culture obsessed with pleasure and believe that the mark of a worthy life is the absence of discomfort. When we experience pain, we take it to indicate that something must be wrong with us. In fact, there is something wrong with us if we don’t experience sadness or anxiety at times. When we give ourselves permission to experience painful emotions, we are more likely to open ourselves up to positive emotions.

2 Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning. Research shows that an hour or two of a meaningful and pleasurable experience can affect the quality of an entire day, or even a whole week.

3 Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well-being is determined by what we choose to focus on and by our interpretation of external events. Do we focus on the empty part of the full part of the glass? Do we view failures as catastrophic, or do we see them as learning opportunities?

4 Simplify! We are generally too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much. Knowing when to say “no” to others often means saying “yes” to ourselves.

5 Remember the mind-body connection. What we do — or don’t do — with our bodies influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.

6 Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.

7 The number one predictor of happiness is the time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. The most important source of happiness may be the person sitting next to you. Appreciate them; savor the time you spend together.

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About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.