Hoping for happiness in the hallowed halls of Harvard
By Lisa Earle McLeod www.forgetperfect.com
What would make you happy? Are you dreaming about wealth? Beauty? A new car? Maybe if you had the brains and bucks to attend a fancy school like Harvard and were poised for a lifetime of greatness, you would already be happy. Or maybe not. Consider this: The single most popular class at Harvard is Psych 1504, Positive Psychology, taught by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D. The course is more commonly referred to as “How to Get Happy.” Since beginning with a pitiful six students in 2001, the course is now more popular with Harvard scholars than poli-sci or Econ 101. It seems the over-achievers roaming the hallowed halls of Harvard make some of the same mistakes as the rest of the mediocre masses when it comes to the elusive goal of happiness. “The great deception is that everyone puts on this happy face,” says Ben-Shahar. “But the great deception leads to the great depression and everyone thinks, ‘everyone else is happy but me.'” We humans often make the mistake of assuming that happiness will descend upon us when we achieve our goal, be it getting a new dining room set or, say, graduating from an Ivy League university. Or, we confuse happiness with pleasure, believing that if we only had more sex, pizza and pedicures our lives would be bliss. In his book, “HAPPIER: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” (McGraw Hill, $21.95), Ben-Shahar describes his own experience with fleeting happiness when, after years of training, he won the Israeli national squash championship at the age of 16. “Suddenly, without warning, the bliss that came from having attained in real life what had for so long been my most cherished and exalted fantasy disappeared and my feeling of emptiness returned,” he wrote. Thus began a lifetime quest. “I became obsessed with the answer to a single question, ‘How can I find lasting happiness?'” he said. Ben-Shahar observed, “I was not alone in my unhappiness; many of my classmates seemed to be dispirited and stressed. They spent their time pursuing high grades, athletic achievements and prestigious jobs but the pursuit and attainment of these goals failed to provide them with an experience of sustained well-being.” I’m guessing Ben-Shahar’s current Harvard students are just as shocked when they discover they don’t automatically get a golden ticket to happiness with their diploma. “I tell them the first day, there is no secret. Happiness is hard work, it’s not handed to us,” Ben-Shahar says. (View past lectures on www.talbenshahar.com) Well dang, if they’re not handing out happiness at Harvard what hope do the rest of us middle-of-the-bell-curve mortals have? Apparently, even beauty school dropouts can be happy. Research demonstrates that, once our basic needs are met, wealth and intelligence don’t correlate to happiness. According to Ben-Shahar, the true secret of lasting happiness is being willing to ask introspective questions. Ben-Shahar points out that “Am I happy?” is a closed question, suggesting that we are either happy or we are not. However, happiness is not a finite and definable point that, when reached, signifies the termination of our pursuit. The belief that it is leads to dissatisfaction and frustration. Instead, he suggests, “We need to ask ‘what has made me happy in the past?’, and then pursue it.” As with many endeavors, the journey matters just as much as the destination. Ben-Shahar’s research reveals what many of us instinctively know: we need both pleasure and purpose to sustain lasting happiness. It’s not a one-time event, but something we must develop on a daily basis. It’s probably no coincidence that the Declaration of Independence cites our unalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I guess our forefathers knew that life and liberty were gimmes, but happiness takes a little more work. And the only person who can tackle that job, is you.
Lisa Earle McLeod is a nationally recognized speaker and the author of “Forget Perfect” and “Finding Grace When You Can’t Even Find Clean Underwear.” Contact her or join her interactive blog at www.ForgetPerfect.com. .
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