15 Questions With Tal D. Ben-Shahar

Glum? Bummed out? The Prozac professor is here to help. Tal D. Ben-Shahar ’96, the course head of the wildly-popular
By Jack G. Clayton

Glum? Bummed out? The Prozac professor is here to help. Tal D. Ben-Shahar ’96, the course head of the wildly-popular Psychology 1504: “Positive Psychology,” is one of the highest rated professors at Harvard with a whopping Q Guide score of 4.8. Is it the light workload or their interest in the material that makes students so happy with Professor Ben-Shahar? FM sat down with guru of glee to discover more about his course, happiness, and how to handle a lonely Valentine’s Day.


FM: What do you enjoy most about your class, “Positive Psychology”?

Tal Ben-Shahar: I enjoy most when students tell me that the class is making a difference or has made a difference in their lives. This is the reason why I teach. When they tell me they are happier or were able to understand something about themselves or their lives better as a result of the class... this to me is priceless.


FM: Why do you think the class is so popular?

TBS: Because people want to be happier. Whether it is at Harvard or any other place, people want to be happier. [...] There are over 200 campuses just in the United States alone where positive psychology is being taught, and on most campuses it is one of the, if not the, largest class.


FM: Do you feel that Harvard students are more in need of happiness instruction than students at other universities?

TBS: No. There was research that came out recently, a survey of college students nationwide, which showed that around the country about 45 percent of college students had experienced depression over the last year. And this is not Harvard data, this is U.S. college data...and the thing about happiness is that happiness and happiness levels are rarely a function of external circumstances. So whether you are in one college or another, whether you are enjoying the weather of California or the weather of Massachusetts, it really doesn’t make that much difference.


FM: I noticed that your class dropped from over 800 students to 600 or so. How do you feel about the loss? Any idea why it happened?

TBS: The main reason is that the class no longer counts as a concentration requirement for psychology and it did count last time. So the largest decrease in numbers is psychology majors, and the reason is because of an internal structure within the department where there are more perquisites for taking upper-level classes, which this one is. The other reason is the regular ups and downs, you know, each year there are more or less students in different classes, so I don’t think I can attribute it to anything beyond that.


FM: Still, a class with over 500 students is pretty huge. How do you get that many students if the course doesn’t count for Core credit or even Psychology credit?

TBS: As I said, most students want to be happier...and I make it very clear from the outset, the class is taught on two levels. The first level is like any other class in the department: students are exposed to rigorous research, they read and write academic papers, they have exams. [...] The second level is that I always ask—whether it is in class or in the response papers—I always ask how can we take these ideas and apply them to our lives. In other words, it is a very applied class where the students hopefully use the ideas to become happier and to help others become happier.


FM: So if the course is about happiness, how do you grade it? Smiles?

TBS: [Laughter] No, a smile is a B, a laugh is an A. As I said, the course is graded like any other course. [...] They have to learn a lot of material and the [exam] questions are no different. They have to describe theory and talk about ideas, show that they understand the material. But in my mind the more important test in this class is whether or not they can take these ideas and apply them in meaningful ways in their lives.


FM: Looking at the massive throngs in Sanders, are you able to pick out the happy and non-happy? If I were trying to pick happy people out of a crowd, how would I do it?

TBS: Well, let me answer through an anecdote. Many people ask me, “Am I happy or not,” and my answer is that it is very difficult to answer that question, because when I have passed the point from unhappy to happy the question that is more helpful is, “How can I be happier?” It is very difficult to measure happiness. [...] It’s rather that happiness is a process, and what this class is about is whether one is in a rough patch or feeling great about their lives. The goal is that they become happier.


FM: I’ve heard that you discuss relationships in the class. Any advice on how sex relates to happiness (with Valentine’s Day and all)?

TBS: Sex is good for happiness, and happiness is also good for sex. You don’t even need research for that—you know that when we are in a good mood, when we are feeling good about ourselves, about our lives, our libido is stronger. So, it works both ways: you can sort of picture sex and happiness together in an upward spiral.


FM: When were you introduced to the field of positive psychology?

TBS: The field of positive psychology is relatively new. I was introduced to it as a grad student at Harvard studying with Professor Philip [J.] Stone, and he is one of the pioneers in the field–or was, he passed away two years ago. He taught the first positive psychology class at Harvard and I was his TF in 2002. When I graduated, he suggested that I take over the class, which I did.


FM: Did any of your experiences at Harvard inspire you to pursue positive psychology?

TBS: Very much so. I started thinking about this topic when I was an undergrad, Class of 1996. When I was a sophomore, I was a computer science concentrator and I found myself doing well academically. [...] I was doing well in athletics (I played varsity squash), and I was doing well socially and everything seemed to be going well—except that I was not happy. This didn’t make sense to me and I wanted to figure out why I wasn’t happy and what I could do to become happier. It was then at this point, and in literally seconds, that I decided to change my concentration to philosophy and psychology with the hope of becoming happier.


FM: There is a rumor that this is your last year at Harvard. Is this true? If, so why?

TBS: Unfortunately, it is true. It is a combination: part of it is that we are going back to Israel, as a family. [...] I would have wanted to continue my relationship with Harvard, but there is a limit of three years—and this is my third year—given that I am a lecturer, not a tenured faculty professor.


FM: What do you plan to do next?

TBS: To live in Israel with my family and to be a visiting professor in the United States at another university. Whoever will take me [laughter].


FM: Where can Harvard’s students look for positivity instruction in the future?

TBS: There are many wonderful professors in the psych department who teach courses related to positive psychology. Professors like Ellen [J.] Langer, who is my mentor and was my dissertation adviser with Philip [J.] Stone, and Professor Daniel [T.] Gilbert, who is doing a lot of ground breaking work in the area of happiness. Very often people look for happiness very far away when it is right next to them. If you are talking about positivity and well being, they should look to their friends, family and roommates. The number one predictor of well-being is quality time with people we care about and who care about us. Your grandma could have told you this, and she probably has told you this: that you should invest time in your family. And there is research to back up your grandmother’s suggestion—a lot of research.


FM: Do you have any plans this year for Valentine’s Day?

TBS: Yes. I’m on my way home to be with my wife and family.


FM: So, in honor of Valentines Day, do you have any advice for those who are going solo this year?

TBS: When I talked about the number one predictor of well-being being in relationships, it’s not only romantic relationships. So, [I would say] to take time to appreciate those close friends, to spend more time with those close friends, because that is the ultimate source of well-being.