When he was a sophomore at Harvard majoring in computer science, Tal Ben-Shahar should have been on top of the world. He was doing well academically, he was thriving socially, and he was playing varsity soccer — but something was off. He was strangely unhappy.
So he went to his adviser, as he recently told a capacity audience at Temple Adath Israel, and he requested a change of major to psychology. He wanted to look into what made people happy.
As it turns out, that was a wise shift in direction.
"The good news was that I became happier, especially when I started to teach," said the professor. "And I began to truly understand the concept of positive psychology."
Today, Ben-Shahar looks back on a remarkable career trajectory. His first class at Harvard in positive psychology drew eight students; eventually, two dropped out. But his next class drew 300 students, who had learned by word of mouth that this was no ordinary course — and Ben-Shahar was no ordinary professor.
That became even more obvious when his class in Positive Psychology grew to 900 students, and became the course with the largest attendance at Harvard University.
The aptly dubbed "Happiness Professor" has now become affiliated with Jerusalem Online University (www.JerusalemOnlineUniversity.com), a nonprofit Internet university offering multimedia courses with Jewish content.
Ben-Shahar's visit on behalf of Jerusalem Online University was sponsored locally by Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, Gratz College, the Jewish National Fund and Hadassah, along with the Kohelet Foundation, The PJ Library, the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School and the Chevra.
Using 3,500 years of Jewish wisdom — combined with contemporary thought — the professor brings the science of happiness to light — and it seems to be a field that's literally exploding around the world.
The roots of positive psychology actually reside in Philadelphia. Martin Seligman, a professor in the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote his landmark book Learned Optimism in 1991, and is credited with starting the movement that puts emphasis on what goes right in people's lives — the "glass half-full" tilt, not its opposite.
Ben-Shahar is one of Seligman's disciples, with this added dimension: His approach often relies on his belief that Judaism itself provides a kind of framework for acknowledging and celebrating happiness.
"What positive psychology is really about is the scientific study of optimal human functioning — the focus is on psychological health and not disease," explained Ben-Shahar.
A Viable Goal
While this scholar doesn't deny that problems and even suffering are often part of life, he pointed to certain strengths and habits that can make happiness a viable goal.
"Happiness," noted Tal Ben-Shahar, "lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. And happiness is really dependent on one's state of mind, not the state of one's bank account."
And Judaism's precepts play a vital role in all of this.
"In my classes, I create a bridge between ancient Jewish wisdom and modern scientific research," Ben-Shahar said in an interview following his formal remarks. "I help students to see the relevance of our tradition in our everyday lives."
Cases in point: The joy of welcoming Shabbat each week tends to release us from the shackles and tension of constant and debilitating busyness. Yet Judaism also acknowledges mourning wisely and effectively, reminding that sadness is part of life.
"If we deny them, negative emotions don't just go away, they grow," suggested Ben-Shahar.
The speaker also noted that Judaism focuses on the positive in many of its principles, including gratitude for life itself, and daily prayers before and after eating for the simple gift of food.
Happiness, added this expert, can come from simplifying life, seeking its meaning and respecting the mind-body connection: "I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the body's effect on the mind. We really need an exercise revolution in the modern world. Going without it is like inviting depression."
Then there's gratitude, an element in life that Ben-Shahar believes is another route to the deepest happiness. Embracing the good in life, he said, needs to be a conscious, daily commitment to living a better life.
Before he goes to sleep, Ben-Shahar said that he expresses his own gratitude by consciously noting five things that have made him happy that day.
"The effect is powerful. You can truly lift your own spirits," he said, "by pausing to celebrate something as simple — and wonderful — as delicious food, nature's bounty or a smile."