In this article, I’m absolutely thrilled to be interviewing Tal Ben-Shahar, a true pioneer in the field of positive psychology.
I’ve long been fascinated by his work on happiness, self-esteem, and personal growth, and have found his insights truly transformative.
In this exclusive interview, we’ll delve into Tal’s personal journey, explore the key principles of positive psychology, and discuss the impact of his groundbreaking work.
Tal Ben-Shahar Interview
1. Can you tell us about your background and how you became passionate about positive psychology and its applications for personal growth and well-being?
Initially, what got me interested in studying happiness was my own unhappiness.
I was doing well as an undergraduate student at Harvard, I was a top athlete, I had a well-paying job and good professional prospects—and I was unhappy.
It was then that I realized that the internal matters more to one’s levels of wellbeing than the external, and it was then that I got into psychology.
After studying positive psychology, and benefiting from it, I wanted to share what I learned with others.
2. Happiness has been a central theme of your work and career. Do you believe that happiness is a goal to be attained or do you subscribe to Viktor Frankl’s assertion that “it cannot be pursued; it must ensue”?
There is research suggesting that those who value the pursuit of happiness, for whom happiness is important, are more likely to be lonely—a characteristic that is closely linked to depression and…unhappiness.
So do we need to lie to ourselves, and tell ourselves that actually, happiness is not important to us, even though we know of all the benefits thereof?
Is self-deception the way to go? Or is neglecting happiness, ignoring its importance, the best option?
Neither option—of self-deception or neglect—is the answer.
The resolution of the paradox lies in the need to pursue happiness indirectly—in other words, to pursue those things that would lead to happiness.
In the 1800s, British philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.”
What could that object other than their own happiness be?
Pursue meaning, cultivate relationships, exercise on a regular basis, express gratitude, and so on.
💬 “Happiness, not money or prestige, should be regarded as the ultimate currency—the currency by which we take measure of our lives.”
3. You have defined happiness as ‘the overall feeling of pleasure and meaning’. How can we strike the often delicate balance between the pleasure of immediate gratification and the meaning derived from deeper purpose?
We all need to find that balance for ourselves, through experimentation, trial and error.
It is important to keep in mind that the definition which I present is based on much reflection and research, and yet at the same time is not the ultimate or only definition.
The pursuit of happiness is deeply intimate and personal, and I strongly urge each person to take the time to figure out what happiness means for them, and then experiment with different ways of pursuing it.
Mahatma Gandhi titled his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.”
We would all do well to follow Gandhi’s footsteps and experiment with happiness.
4. Your book “Choose the Life You Want” highlights the power of choice in shaping our lives. Can you offer any guidance on how to make more aligned decisions and life choices that contribute to our happiness?
The key is to take time.
In our fast-paced, crazy-busy world people do not take time to think about the choices they make, and as a result they react to life rather than create the life they want.
💬 “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
5. Can you give our readers an insight into your daily routine and how this contributes to your own wellbeing?
I start the day with a ten-minute meditation session and end it with a two-minute gratitude session.
Three times a week, at least, I exercise, and on alternate days I do yoga.
Other than that, I work every morning—writing or creating curriculum—and spend a lot of time with my family.
When I’m with family and friends, the phone or any other technology is off.
6. Your Harvard Thesis was titled, ‘Restoring Self Esteem’s Self Esteem.’ Can you tell us more about the role of self-esteem in happiness?
Most people believe that to raise self-esteem—and through that happiness—we need to receive more positive reinforcement and be validated.
However, research shows that what many teachers, parents, and managers do by giving positive feedback is make the other more dependent and not necessarily happier or more motivated.
Self-esteem does not come from standing in front of the mirror and telling oneself how beautiful or successful or wonderful one is.
It comes from hard work, specifically from effort directed at pursuing one’s passions. There are no quick fixes.
7. You’ve discussed 4 different archetypes relating to happiness in your work. What advice would you give to a nihilist archetype to encourage them in the pursuit of happiness?
My philosophy teacher, Ohad Kamin, gave me advice when I graduated from college and was not sure where I wanted to go:
“Life is short. In choosing a path make sure you first identify those things that you can do. Out of those, find those things that you want to do. Then, out of those things, identify those things you really want to do. Finally, identify those things that you really, really want to do—and then do them.”
In words, Ohad created four concentric circles for me, with the inner circle holding in it the pursuits that would make me happiest.
8. What are your favorite books?
- Helen Keller’s “Optimism”
- Nathaniel Branden’s “Six Pillars of Self-Esteem”
- Marva Collins’ “Ordinary Students, Extraordinary Teachers”
- Mary Ann Evans’ “Middlemarch”
💬 “Happy people live secure in the knowledge that the activities that bring them enjoyment in the present will also lead to a fulfilling future.”
9. Your book “Being Happy” addresses the concept of overcoming barriers to happiness. Are there any barriers you’ve personally faced?
I often tell my students that I am the right person to teach a class on happiness, because I wasn’t born with the genetic predisposition for it.
It is through hard work that I achieve happiness, and am therefore in a good position to teach it.
10. You’re a keen sportsman and have previously said squash is a type of mindful meditation. What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a mindfulness practice?
Just start it. Even if it is one minute a day.
And remember that there isn’t one size fits all. Experiment, try different methods.
11. What’s your favorite quote?
19th-century British author Mary Ann Evans reminds us that,
“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.”
12. Your book “Even Happier” advocates gratitude journaling. Is it preferable to focus on positive emotional topics while journaling (as in The Nun Study) or include anything on your mind, including negative emotional experiences?
The key is to experience, in the words of Barbara Fredrickson, heartfelt positivity.
In other words, not to do it on autopilot, but rather to be mindful and heartful and experience the emotion associated with the subject of our gratitude.
💬 “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”
13. Your work highlights the significance of embracing failure. How can we develop a healthier relationship with failure and use it as a catalyst for personal growth?
One of the mantras I repeat over and over again, to myself and students and clients, is “Learn to fail or fail to learn”.
The most successful people throughout history have also been the ones to fail the most—-and to learn from their failures.
Thomas Edison, the most creative scientist in history, said: “I failed my way to success.”
We need to remind ourselves of this truth.
14. You’ve previously written that social relationships are a powerful predictor of happiness. Can you share any tips on how our readers can strengthen their existing relationships and cultivate new, meaningful connections?
Relationships are the number one predictor of happiness.
Having close, supportive, kind, and intimate relationships is the key to a happy life.
At the same time, given their importance, they can of course generate a lot of pain.
The key is to invest in our relationships, and to accept the fact that even the best relationships are not perfect, and there will always be ups and downs.
It’s important to recognize that to enjoy lasting love, we need to invest in the relationship, to work hard.
The mistaken notion that finding love guarantees eternal bliss leads partners to neglect the journey, the day-to-day of the relationship.
Would anyone seriously entertain the notion that once he found his dream job, the ideal workplace, he would no longer need to work hard?
Such an approach would inevitably lead to failure.
It is no different when it comes to relationships: the real, hard work begins after we fall in love.
15. Your course on positive psychology at Harvard University was one of the most popular in the institution’s history. How can parents and educators use these teachings to help children develop important life skills?
- First of all, lead by example. When parents focus on their happiness, they model the path for their children.
- Second, don’t try to solve every problem for the child; let them struggle when appropriate. We learn and grow through hardship, not when things are too easy.
- Third, give them permission to be human, to experience the full range of human emotions.
16. If you had to give our readers one piece of advice from your books, what would it be?
Gandhi’s advice: Experiment!
✍️ Pursue happiness indirectly by pursuing activities that bring meaning and pleasure, such as cultivating relationships, exercising regularly, and expressing gratitude.
✍️ Embrace failure as a catalyst for personal growth and development, and learn from your mistakes to move forward.
✍️ Focus on heartfelt positivity and cultivate a daily practice of gratitude journaling to experience greater happiness and well-being.
✍️ Invest in relationships by working hard to maintain them, accepting the ups and downs, and remembering that the real work begins after falling in love.
✍️ Experiment with different methods to find what works for you in your pursuit of happiness, and lead by example to teach children important life skills.