Harvard psychology lecturer
"People who express gratitude regularly are happier, more optimistic and more successful".
Learn from science how to improve your life through enthusiasm and happiness.
Almost nobody understands how to be happy. Most people say: "I'll be happy if I'm successful". This could be by being rich or famous, by attaining a certain professional or personal goal, by a woman or man agreeing to go on a date with you, or by achieving your aims. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like this. That's why we often see really successful people, who have a lot of money and who have achieved a great deal, but who are really unhappy. Because they think that if they achieve a certain goal or milestone, then they'll be happy. Yet, when they've achieved this goal and made a pile of money, they're still unhappy. And not only are they unhappy, they also feel lost because they're disillusioned. Up to that moment, they thought that when they reached this point they'd be happy, but now they're there, they're still not happy and can no longer sustain the illusion. Reaching a goal does not make you happy in the long term. It's true that you'll experience an increase in well-being, but it won't last long. This idea has been researched using lottery winners. When people win millions of dollars, they think all their dreams have come true. They think they'll be happy for the rest of their life. However, after three months they're back where they started, but even more disillusioned. You also see it with university professors who have worked hard all their lives to gain tenure. When they achieve it, they think they'll be content forever, but this only lasts one month, or six at most. Reaching a certain point results in a temporary feeling of well-being, not a permanent increase in a person's level of happiness.
The science of happiness is based on common sense. Much of it is to do with things your grandmother might have told you. Now, science can explain them. For example, relationships are the foundations of a happy life. The father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, and his colleagues did some research into the world's happiest people. What makes them different? They discovered that one of the two things that made these people different was that they had solid personal relationships. This means romantic relationships, but also friendships and family, etc. Their relationships aren't perfect, because there are always disagreements and disputes in close relationships. However, they see these relationships as a priority in their lives. In today's world, we're surrounded by technology (and will soon be connected to it internally), which means that actual relationships have been overshadowed by virtual ones. Unfortunately, this is having a negative impact on people's happiness. Relationships are crucial to living a happy life.
Another key component of happiness is gratitude and recognition. Oprah talked about this in 1999 when the science of happiness did not exist. Now it does exist. What's more, it has proved that people who express gratitude regularly, do not take what they have for granted, do not ignore their problems and are able to acknowledge what they have are happier, more optimistic, more successful, more likely to achieve their goals and also physically healthier. We actually make our immune system stronger when we focus on being thankful. My favorite word is “appreciate”. “Appreciate” means to be grateful for something. However, the word “appreciate” also has another meaning, which is to increase in value. If you deposit money in a bank, it will hopefully increase in value and then you will have more money. The two meanings of the word “appreciate” are connected. Because when you appreciate the good things in your life, they will increase in value and you will end up with more. The connection here is not purely etymological, as there is scientific proof that if I appreciate my partner, work or life, the positive aspects of my life increase in value and I have more of them.
There are only two kinds of people who do not experience any type of pain, such as anger, sadness, anxiety, disappointment, envy, fear, etc. The first are psychopaths, who lack the ability to feel painful emotions. The second kind are dead people. It's a good sign if you can feel painful emotions: it means you are not a psychopath and that you are alive. We can work with that.
The analogy I use to understand the role technology plays and the value we assign to technology is electricity. Is electricity good or bad? It depends. Electricity is good if it is used to produce light or to operate a life support machine. However, it is not good if used to electrocute an innocent person. Technology works in the same way. Technology is a power or force. It can be used for good or bad purposes. Recently, Shaun, my best friend when I was ten or twelve, got in contact with me. We hadn't spoken in a long time as we live in different countries, but thanks to technology we're now in touch. It's great. My sister married a wonderful man. They met through technology. At the same time, technology also causes a lot of unhappiness. For example, studies have shown that the longer people of any age spend on social networks, the more alone they feel. Loneliness is the leading indicator of depression. When you abuse technology, you forget about other important aspects of your life such as actual relationships, movement and physical exercise. Ultimately, unhappiness is the price you pay for this. As with many things in life, it's a question of moderation.
We know that regular physical exercise (just thirty minutes three times a week) makes us both healthier and happier. Exercise has the same effects as the strongest psychiatric medication. It releases norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine in the brain. My routine is to exercise three times a week, without fail. Even if I'm traveling, I exercise. Even if I'm tired, I exercise. Another habit I have is to give thanks every night before I go to bed. I write down the things I'm grateful for. I also have a weekly date with my wife. Many of our friends say, “Come on, you've made a weekly date into a routine? That doesn't sound very romantic. Where's the spontaneity?” So, I say, “Spontaneity? We have three small children and we both work. Spontaneity? We'd be lucky to have a date once a year." So, we've included a routine in our relationship. We also have family routines. For example, we always eat together. Routines are very important. I also have a negative routine. I used to take a look at the news every morning when I got up. I'm addicted to the news. The problem is that, before I knew it, an hour and a half had gone by and I was still reading the news. However, the morning is the best time to write. So, I created a negative routine, which is not to read the news in the morning. This allowed me to establish a positive routine of writing in the morning. I can always find out about the news in the afternoon. And if the world ends while I'm asleep, someone will let me know. So, it's no big deal if I don't read the news at that precise moment.
Find out more about Tal Ben-Shahar
- Tal Ben-Shahar has a PhD in psychology and philosophy and has lectured at Harvard University. He has written books such as "Choose the life you want" and "Being happy", and is a global authority on social relationships, friendships, managing negative emotions, and how to establish daily routines to increase happiness.
- What role does failure play in increasing self-esteem and happiness?
A lot of research has been done on failure. The findings of this research show that the most successful people are those who have failed the most. For example, some of the world's greatest artists, including Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, and some of science's leading lights, such as Marie Curie and Thomas Edison, are those who have failed the most. Thomas Edison once said: “I have failed in order to obtain success.” The same also applies to leaders. When you read the biographies of leaders, you see that those who are most successful today are the ones who failed the most in the past. It may have been when they were children, or at work. One of the mantras I always repeat to both myself and my students is: Learn to fail, or fail to learn. There is no other way to learn. We learn to walk by falling down. We learn to write by scribbling. By failing, we can learn to be better leaders, partners or parents.