On July 31, I joined around 500 other people in the Camden Centre in London to hear a talk on The Science of Happiness by Dr Tal Ben-Shahar organized by the UK’s leading happiness movement, Action for Happiness.
As well as authoring several books, Tal Ben-Shahar lectured on positive psychology at Harvard University. In fact, his course quickly became the most popular that Harvard has ever run, attracting many hundreds of students every year. This was one of the reasons I wanted to go to the talk. Anyone who can engage undergraduates on that scale must have something very special to offer.
Since the talk was in central London there was a good chance it would be attended by a fair number of University of East London MAPP graduates and students, so I guessed it would be a great opportunity to reconnect. Reconnecting is important, as I explained recently. I was right. I saw more than a dozen people I knew, and I got to meet a few more during the course of the evening. My other reason for going is that there are always different ways of looking at things or new insights to be had, perhaps new positive psychology research findings or simply the benefit of a new perspective on an old subject.
Importance of Paying Attention to Reality
(or “What you see is what you get.”)
“We see what we look for and we miss much of what we are not looking for even though it is there….Our experience of the world is heavily influenced by where we place our attention.” (Stavros Torres)
Tal Ben-Shahar started by explaining some of the background and history of positive psychology, how it could be useful in today’s world where more people are suffering from debilitating stress, anxiety and depression at younger and younger ages, despite rising economic wealth and better physical health. He made several important points. Psychology’s traditional response to helping people has been to focus on what is going wrong. We ask “Why is that child failing?” and hope that with sufficient analysis and discussion of the problems we will find the right answer. Positive psychology encourages us to take a different perspective and to ask an altogether different question: “Why is this other child succeeding despite the same unfavorable circumstances?” Studying how and in what conditions people flourish is far more likely to enable others to flourish than studying how and in what circumstances people do not.
He went on to emphasize that positive psychology is not about denying our negative emotions or the other difficulties we experience in life or the bad things going on in the world. It’s about seeing life as it really is, the downsides and the upsides. The problem is that often the downsides get our fullest attention while we let the upsides slip by unnoticed.
Obviously if we focus our attention on something, it looms larger. That’s the observational selection bias. But did you know that focusing on one thing crowds out our ability to notice other things? If you’re not convinced, take this selective attention test.
It’s not just about what we chose to focus on, however. What we know from the science of positive psychology is that feeling negative emotions tends to close us down, but feeling positive emotions broadens our horizons and builds additional resources, helping us be more creative, effective, resilient, persistent, and able to reach out to others.
Positive psychology has a big role to play in helping us cope with the downsides as well as to recognize, maximize, and appreciate all the upsides. By attending to our well-being and boosting our positive emotions, Tal Ben-Shahar explained that we enable ourselves to take more effective action in dealing with life’s difficulties.
“Positive emotions don’t make us blind to life’s hardships. They are the fuel which enable us to go out and do good in the world.” Tal Ben-Shahar
So focusing on well-being isn’t really about ignoring reality or about wanting happiness for the sake of itself. Happiness matters because it contributes to other important outcomes. It enables us to put the most into life and get the most out of it.
(or, “Words create Worlds.”)
Tal Ben-Shahar’s second point is also linked to the theme of attention. Our reality is shaped by the language we use everyday, and in particular the questions we ask. If our language is negative, it’s no surprise that the world seems negative too. Asking the wrong questions can mean we spend a lot of time and effort focusing our attention on the wrong things.
Take our relationships. During the first few years of a relationship, partners seem perfect to each other. They can do no wrong. It’s as if our faculties of critical judgment have been switched off. Then when the honeymoon period is over, things start to go awry. We notice those annoying little habits all the time. We ask “Why does she always leave the lid off the tube of toothpaste?” or “Why does he never put the seat down?”
What typically happens then? We start asking what is wrong in the relationship, and our attention is drawn to everything that is negative. Our reality, “This relationship is going down the tubes,” is determined by our negative thoughts, questions, and language. Instead, says Tal Ben-Shahar, we could focus on what is working in the relationship, what we do well as a couple, what first attracted us to each other, and on doing more of those things we enjoy together.
“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.” ~ Peter Drucker
Importance of Appreciation
Interestingly the word ‘appreciate’ has several meanings, all of which are relevant to happiness:
- To recognize the full worth of something
- To be grateful for something
- To increase in value
The first two are related, insofar as when you rate something highly, you’re more likely to feel grateful for it. Unfortunately for many of us, the first time we really recognize the full worth of something is when we’ve lost it. So the point here is to stop and think now about what you value in your life. It’s long been known in positive psychology that counting your blessings on a regular basis makes a lasting difference to your well-being. Tal Ben-Shahar then explained how expressing gratitude for something makes it appreciate in value, setting up a kind of virtuous circle.
Putting It Together: Focus on What’s Right
So, the simplest way to bring the three themes of paying attention, asking the right questions and appreciation together is to focus on what went well today. We did this in pairs at the start of the talk, but my partner David, who runs his own training company, was stumped. “It’s really hard to think of something,” he said, scratching his head for a minute. I had to agree. Even after 8 or so years working in the applied field, it sometimes takes longer than you’d think to answer this question. That’s why it’s so important to try. Verbalizing those positive things makes them an enduring part of your life narrative, rather than something that just gets lost in the mists of time.
It turns out that the most important question to finish with is not “Did you enjoy it?” (yes we did, Tal and Action for Happiness, thank you so much!) but, “What are you going to do differently as a result?”
For me, the answer lies in going back to reconnect with people who for one reason or another I’ve lost touch with. So if you happen to be reading this and you haven’t heard from me in a while, don’t be surprised to get a call or an email from me soon. But don’t wait for me. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!
Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Professional.
Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill.
Ben-Shahar, T. (2014). Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness. The Experiment: Reprint Edition.
Ben-Shahar, T. (2012). Happiness 101. Youtube.
Grenville-Cleave, B. (2014). Other People Do Matter: ECPP 2014, Positive Psychology News.
Fredrickson, B. L., Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172–175.
Stavros, J. M. Torres, C. B. (2005). Dynamic Relationships: Unleashing the Power of Appreciative Inquiry in Daily Living. Chagrin Falls, OH: Taos.
Tal Ben-Shahar courtesy of Action for Happiness