The Science of Smiling

Positive Psychology is the most popular course at Harvard. Is happy the new sad?

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Ben-Shahar lectures to a packed house in Sanders Theater.

CORRECTION APPENDED

845 students sat in Sanders Theater last Thursday watching an online trailer for the movie “Pay It Forward.” The lecturer, Tal Ben-Shahar ’96, had screened it to illustrate just how far one nice gesture can go—how easy it is, as they say in the film, to change someone’s life by taking “the things you don’t like in the world and [flipping] them upside down.”

When it was over, Ben-Shahar thanked everyone for coming, and teaching fellow (TF) Jessica L. Glazer took the stage to say a few words. “Congratulations,” she said after making some announcements about section. “This is the largest psychology class in the history of Harvard.”

Sanders erupted in applause, faces lit up in wonder and an air of “we did it” wafted through the room. Psychology 1504, “Positive Psychology,” the study of “happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, goalsetting, love, achievement, creativity, mindfulness, spirituality, and humor,” was officially a phenomenon.

It was number one in the department, and Ben-Shahar’s other class, Psychology 1508, “The Psychology of Leadership,” was not far behind at number two.

It was as if he and his students had won some unspoken contest, coming out on top in spite of the frown-clowns who’d dismissed their course as a naïve self-help seminar. They’d called it a group therapy circle, a class better suited for a church basement than the most prestigious lecture space at Harvard. They had said, in sum, that 1504 was not a real class.

Now the votes were in: the people had spoken. Read ‘em and weep: turns out that Harvard students are not all cynical, sleep-deprived depressives, and if they are, they’re coming out in big numbers to try to get better. Turns out quite a few of us would rather cultivate our self-esteem and spirituality than spill tears over textbooks at 4 a.m. The proof is in the pudding, it seems—the mental health crisis is taking care of itself.

Indeed, no matter what you think of Ben-Shahar, it’s a simple fact that he is teaching up to 20 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate population this semester. His message—that studying what works is more productive than dwelling on what doesn’t—is reaching a lot of people. Some would call him and his disciples a movement. Others think they might fit in better at a guidance counselor’s office.

LET’S GET IT: HUG MOTIVATION 101

Ben-Shahar does not deny that his primary goal is to teach his students how to be happier and healthier, not to inundate them with abstract psychological theory. He wants them to learn how to feel better about themselves and become better citizens, not to slave over stuffy, abstract concepts they’ll never use in everyday life.

Sure, it’s kind of like self-help, but why should that be a bad thing?

“I want to reawaken people’s desire to do good, people’s desire to improve their lives and the lives of others,” Ben-Shahar says. “Is it naïve? I don’t think so. The greatest things in the world were achieved through people who were discarded very often as idealists, as naïve. I think these are the kinds of people who ultimately make a difference. And there are many of them here at Harvard, and there can be many more.”

Indeed, almost every other class at Harvard teaches students how to think well, how to read well, and how to write well. Shouldn’t someone be teaching them how to live well, too?

Some classes come close. Professor of Psychology Daniel T. Gilbert’s Psychology 1573, “Future Happiness” asks if “people know what will make them happy” and draws on “psychology, philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, and behavioral economics” to explore the answer. Clinical Instructor in Psychology Nancy L. Etcoff’s Psychology 871a, “The Science of Happiness” has students learning about “the brain’s pleasure circuitry,” the “history of ideas on happiness from Aristotle to Kahneman,” and the “genetics of happiness.” But these classes are highly specialized, and more to the point, a college student would be hard-pressed to apply the lofty academic material to his or her personal life.

Ben-Shahar, on the other hand, wants his class to be practical. Students around here should be happier, he says, and they should get more rest. He even wants Harvard to build a “happiness center,” a place on campus that would “help students identify what gives them bliss” and “help them find a sense of meaning in life.” Failing that, 1504 will be a place-holder.

And over the course of the next semester, Ben-Shahar will lecture from the Sanders stage four times a week—twice for Positive Psychology, twice for the Psychology of Leadership—and he will teach his students that “happiness is and ought to be the ultimate end.” He’ll do it for as long as he can—because he’s a lecturer and not a research professor on the tenure track, he may only be allowed to teach here for one more year after he returns from next year’s sabbatical.

In the meantime, he will do everything he can to train his students to be more aware of what they want, what they’re good at, and how to find the “the overlap.”

THE SECRET INGREDIENTS

To this end, he will give lectures entitled “Can We Change?” (03/02) and “Yes, We Can Change” (03/07). He will give homework assignments like “get eight hours of sleep” and “write a letter expressing your gratitude to a person whom you appreciate.”

Last semester, students were assigned a response paper with the following prompt:

“Write a brief biographical sketch from the positive perspective, about how fortunate you have been to get to where you are now. Mention a few lemons that you turned into lemonade, and some wonderful things that happened to you—and are happening to you—along the way.”

Grading these kinds of assignments, needless to say, can get pretty blurry—and the 1-3 page response papers due every week are conveniently evaluated on a pass/fail basis.

Which is to say, if you hand one in, you pass.

During last Thursday’s lecture, Ben-Shahar spent about thirty seconds showing a video clip of a toddler giggling in order to demonstrate the contagious qualities of laughter. He spent another thirty seconds showing it again (“Too much, too much. I’ll post the URL.”). The week before, he played excerpts from “Seinfeld” and “Will and Grace.”

In section, meanwhile, TFs encourage students to pursue long term projects of self-improvement. Students are encouraged to explore their limitations and their strengths on their own time, keeping journals of their progress.

Asked in an e-mail about his most memorable experience teaching section, Head TF Shawn J. Achor describes an exercise in which students make “a habits grid” in which they “work on something specific they wish they were doing (workout every day, do yoga, practice painting, meet someone new, don’t bite their fingernails, do something altruistic, etc) everyday for 21 days.”

And the students aren’t the only ones learning—TFs seem to be getting just as much out of the course.

According to TF Jeffrey M. Perrotti—his demeanor sunny, and his utterances consistently steeped in excitement and hope—that’s part of why he loves working with Ben-Shahar.

“Since I taught the course in the fall, it has been a year of incredible health and well-being for me,” he says, wearing a t-shirt that says “the glass is half-full” on the front. “I was able to improve my diet, my sleep, my exercise, my relationships, my sense of where I want to go in life, and what’s important to me.”

He wants the same for his students, and in his opinion, Ben-Shahar is the best man to make it happen.

“At the risk of sounding cliché,” Perrotti says, “Tal really walks the talk. He’s a model of positive psychology.”

THE STORY BEHIND THE SMILE

But Tal wasn’t born walking. It wasn’t until 1992, when he moved to America from his home in Israel, that his optimistic philosophy really started to take shape.

Looking back, he traces his relentless positivity most directly to his athletic career as a nationally ranked squash player.

“I have always focused on one thing,” he says, in his velvety Israeli accent. “When I was growing up, it was squash. That’s what I did all the time. I trained from the morning until night. All I could think about was being a professional squash player.”

Those thoughts were interrupted when he served a mandatory three-year-term in the Israeli Defense Forces. He didn’t see combat, but his focus was understandably thrown temporarily from its rails.

When he arrived at the peaceful grounds of Harvard in 1992, he quickly found himself a champion squash player. But it didn’t take long for him to realize that he couldn’t play sports forever. “I wasn’t depressed,” he recalls. “It was closer to what Thoreau says, that most men live lives of quiet desperation. I was okay, but okay wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough for squash and it wasn’t enough for my subjective well-being.”

His attention turned towards politics, psychology, and philosophy. He loved Ayn Rand. He even founded the Harvard Objectivist Club.

As a sophomore, he took a class with Professor of Psychology Philip J. Stone, and became interested in the study of organizational behavior. He continued working with Stone, a lifelong mentor who tragically passed away three weeks ago at the age of 69.

Positive psychology, meanwhile, was just starting to gather steam as a distinct field within psychology. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, pioneers like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers had decided that the positive side of human nature was under-represented in psychology, and they wanted to turn their attention instead toward things like self-actualization and happiness. They founded humanistic psychology, but according to Ben-Shahar, the discipline quickly morphed into self-help and pop psychology.

From its ashes rose modern Positive Psychology, and by the time Ben-Shahar received his A.B. in 1996, he had decided to shelve his squash racket for good and to devote himself entirely to studying the burgeoning field.

He became a Leverett House tutor as a graduate student in organizational behavior, and it wasn’t long before he was TFing classes under Stone. Stone taught the very first positive psychology class at Harvard in 1999 as a seminar, and Ben-Shahar served as his TF for the class. After Ben-Shahar finished his graduate work, Stone told him that he should take his place and teach the course on his own.

And Ben-Shahar did just that, raking in an impressive 380 students his first time teaching Positive Psychology.

Squash, needless to say, is ancient history by now. These days, he’s more into yoga and meditation. In fact, one of his TFs, Deborah R. Cohen, is also his yoga instructor, which is as good an indication as any that his days of intercollegiate stardom are long behind him.

Now, his students, about 1300 of them, are his new team, and their devotion to his game-plan is fierce and unshakeable.

POSITIVELY DEVOTED

The people in Ben-Shahar’s class really do seem to believe in him. At least, that’s what a week’s worth of FM interviews and last year’s Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) Guide seem to suggest. Of course, some are only doing it because it seems like an easy A, but by and large, these 850 kids are genuinely enthusiastic about Ben-Shahar’s message.

According to Achor (the head TF), 1504 boasted 95% attendance on a regular basis last fall even though it was videotaped and populated mostly by seniors.

As Perrotti says, “what’s so wonderful about these courses is that people leave the classes with a spring in their step.”

Often, it seems, the effect is even more profound.

One senior, for instance, had been spending his summers working in consulting firms until he met Ben-Shahar in his sophomore tutorial. “I was working 60 hours a week and not doing something I was necessarily very interested in,” said the senior, who did not want his name used because of something called “Google.” Now, he’s planning to go to graduate school to study—what else?—positive psychology.

He’s not the only one, either. Last fall, 23 percent of CUE guide respondents said the class “changed their lives.” And according to several TFs, it has inspired many students to switch concentrations and rethink their professional plans.

“A lot of my friends took the course last spring and told me it was the best class they’ve taken at Harvard,” says Austin F. Blackmon ’07, who is currently enrolled in both of Ben-Shahar’s courses. “I have not heard a single person give [Positive Psych] a recommendation below ‘amazing.’”

Jennifer J. Blumberg ’08 has heard similar reviews: “Basically, everyone recommended it to me. Everyone who took it said it was the best class they’d ever taken. One girl, a good friend of mine, said it changed her life, and that it gave her a different way of looking at things—a different way of looking at what it is to be happy.”

And does Blumberg think she’ll experience a similar epiphany?

“I hope so,” she says, “I expect it, actually.”

Ben-Shahar’s ability to inspire such feelings of loyalty and optimism is extraordinary—even a little unsettling. He’s an undeniably talented speaker, and a quick, unscientific scan across Sanders during each of his last four lectures yielded a total of just 19 sleepers—remarkably low compared to what you see from a lot of tenured professors.

Then again, Ben-Shahar’s methods are unlike anyone else’s at Harvard—just try and think of another class where the professor might utter the phrase “Remember when I told you about my girlfriend leaving me?” without skipping a beat.

He sets himself apart by being more personal than most people would dare to be in front of 800 people. He tells stories about his love life and his days as a Harvard undergrad. He tells jokes. He earnestly invokes “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” His demeanor is humble but authoritative; his points are delivered with tense conviction. He often recounts stories from his days at Harvard and gives examples that involve Harvard-specific phenomena like first-year blocking.

It goes without saying that Psych 1504 is not designed like a traditional college course. It’s more like a collaborative workshop than anything else: a group of students who meet on a regular basis to search their feelings, work out their problems, and think about their life goals.

And so, to many of his students, Ben-Shahar is not just a teacher. He is a friend, perhaps a wise old preacher.

Listen to Jennifer L. Huang ’06, who says she joined Positive Psychology partly because she had spent the previous semester struggling with mental health: “I felt [Ben-Shahar] was really effective in the way he taught,” Huang says, recalling shopping week. “I felt like he wasn’t lecturing at you. He was like a therapist, talking about ways to improve your life.”

Ben-Shahar teaches you what you really need to know, in other words—stuff you can really use in your “day to day.” As Huang puts it, “most people think that it will be helpful. It’s not just some history class on ancient China.” Indeed, Ben-Shahar does not ask for much in the way of work, and he teaches his students that they are good enough (and smart enough) to overcome their problems. Most importantly, he tells them that a good, healthy attitude is a lot more valuable than anything they could learn from a book.

These are the things his students like about him. They are also the things his detractors despise.

I LOVE YOU BUT I’VE CHOSEN DARKNESS

“I shopped the first lecture and I haven’t been back to the class since then,” says Jill K. Swencionis ’08, a joint concentrator in Psychology and Social Studies. “I don’t necessarily think that the format is appropriate for an academic setting. Shopping the class felt like group therapy.”

Swencionis worries that students who have never taken psychology before will walk away from Positive Psych thinking that the entire field is a breeze. 1504 is known as “one of the easiest classes at Harvard,” Swencionis says. “I don’t think that positive psychology is an illegitimate field. I just think the format of the class seems a little self-helpy.”

Some skeptics who shopped 1504 decided to give Ben-Shahar a chance, enrolling in the class, despite some misgivings, in order to find out for themselves whether or not it deserves its reputation.

“I’m a senior, and I wanted to take something fun. It’s the mint on my pillow,” says Steve Lee ’06. “In the first three lectures, we’ve been promised that positive psychology is about matching fun and rigorous science. So far we’ve had anecdotal stories and heartwarming tales, but nothing rigorous yet.”

Even Ben-Shahar’s biggest fans agree that the workload for the class is nowhere near as intensive as it is in most Harvard courses. M. Alice Johnson ’06, for example, “liked that Professor Ben-Shahar admitted we wouldn’t be learning a lot of material.” But despite the light workload, Johnson continues, 1504 deserves to be taken seriously. “I’ve heard a few people say they didn’t take the class because it was too fluffy,” she writes in an e-mail. “I agree that it will be a fluffy class, but I don’t think it will be boring as a result. If I can learn to think positively about myself without memorizing a lot of facts and reading hundreds of pages every week, I think that’s great.”

Ben-Shahar says that his students read “the most rigorous research out there in the field of psychology,” even if the weekly page count is not as staggering as it might be in an average history course. But 1504 does have a reputation for being a gut class, which accounts for some portion of its record-breaking enrollment stats.

Ben-Shahar is well aware of the fact that the course is known for being easy. But he’s an optimist, and he interprets that reputation to mean that his students are just having fun learning.

“I openly said at the beginning that this is not Math 55 or English 10a, where you have so much reading,” he says. “I think people have a perception that it’s easy because they like it. When you love something, it becomes much easier. For me, it’s reading philosophical texts. I love it, I enjoy it, so it feels easy, even though it’s hard reading.”

Achor adds that learning practical things always comes easier than learning “tedious and pointless ones that are disconnected from the rest of their lives.”

But what about the rest of our lives? What is it about Harvard that pulls people to the gospel of Ben-Shahar?

LEMONS TO LEMONADE

“People have lost their sense of awe and idealism,” he offers. “They’ve lost their sense of gratitude, wonder.” Too much work, not enough sleep, he says. And in his six years as a resident tutor in Leverett House—much of which he spent “hanging out in the dining hall”—he has seen students grow less and less concerned with their well-being while over-extending themselves more and more in their extracurriculars.

“I have my finger on the pulse of undergraduate life here,” he says. “I think what’s happening is that students try to do more and more in less and less time. I think that has consequences, in terms of stress, as a mediator to unhappiness.”

According to Achor, half the students who take 1504 are doing so because they have personal problems they want to overcome.

“Despite what some might think, the course is not self-selecting, meaning that it is not only happy people that take the course,” he writes in an e-mail. “I’d say more than half [are] people who are struggling with depression, fighting alcoholism, dealing with a breakup, coping with a disease, etc.”

Positive Psychology as solution to Harvard’s mental health crisis? Ben-Shahar as shrink, Sanders Theater as the Happiness Center?

Not so fast, says Ben-Shahar. Positive Psychology is not “feel-good Polly-Anna happy-go-lucky” anything. “I’m a teacher, not a therapist,” he says. “I do hope that the class improves students’ lives...Therapy, too, is about improving people’s lives. So that’s where I think the similarity between my class and therapy lies. A therapist doesn’t lecture to his clients about the research in his field as I do, and I certainly don’t ask students to free associate in my lectures as a therapist would.”

Some might say that the University is not the right place for that pursuit. Others migh say it is, and maybe they’ll end up living longer and more fulfilling lives. The debate can rage, but whether it’s the children of light or the children of darkness who emerge at the end of the line, Ben-Shahar will still be lecturing to over a thousand students per week.

Next year, he’s taking time-off to write a book called “The Permission to Be Human” and another one, as yet untitled, about leadership.

After that, he says with a smile, he will teach 1504 again.



Julie Y. Rhee, Shannon E. Flynn, and Nicola C. Perlman contributed to the reporting of this story.

CORRECTION

The Feb. 16 magazine article, "The Science of Smiling," incorrectly identified Shawn J. Achor as the head teaching fellow (TF) in Psychology 1504, "Positive Psychology." In fact, while Achor is a TF in the course,
the head TF is Jessica L. Glazer.

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