Dr. Happiness Speaks
A few weeks back, I went to see a talk by Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar. The topic: How to be happy. Dr. Ben-Shahar helped kick off the recent happiness-mania that seems to have infiltrated the American zeitgeist. His positive psychology course at Harvard begin as a six-student seminar and expanded over the subsequent few years to over 1400 students — making it, at its height, the university’s most popular offering
What this tells me: his advice rings true for college students.
From Him to Me to You
In the spirit of last week’s Radical Simplicity Manifesto, I want to share Dr. Ben-Shahar’s insights. Below I have included his most interesting points — drawn from both his lecture and his book. I follow this summary with some observations and questions about what would happen if you were to apply this philosophy to your student life.
We start with the basics…
What is Happiness?
Happiness is the “overall experience of pleasure and meaning. A happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving her life as purposeful.” The balance here is key. Neither hedonism nor rat-racing delayed gratification can satisfy alone.
Allow Yourself to Be Human
An important caveat: don’t expect to be “happy” all the time. You will sometimes be sad. You will sometimes be anxious or nervous, you’ll get dumped, and you’ll feel overwhelmed. These are human emotions. Don’t fear or be embarrassed of them. Instead, embrace them; they are part of life. Your life. As Dr. Ben-Shahar said: “there are some people who always feel happy, they’re called psychopaths.”
The goal should be that over the aggregate of your life you have a large number of pleasurable moments and feel, on the whole, engaged in meaningful activities.
Happiness is the Ultimate Currency
This is a dangerous thought for college students. Increasingly, however, I’ve been pushing it: Make happiness the ultimate goal in your life. Build everything around this; from your course schedule to your career path.
Enough big picture ideas, let’s get to the specific advice…
Tip #1: Set Goals
Research shows that the pursuit of goals that are concordant with your values can produce significant increases in your sense of well-being. Interestingly, the data show that achieving goals (or failing to do so) doesn’t seem to matter so much. There is something about having a focus on something important that helps us get more out of each present moment.
Tip #2: Seek Flow
The magic state for increasing well-being is to be neither bored nor overwhelmed. This means you should seek challenges that exactly meet or slightly surpass your current abilities. For college students, in particular, this translates to finding that perfect course load that pushes you intellectually without overwhelming you with more work than you can easily manage.
Tip #3: Simplify Your Life
Psychologist Time Kasser has shown that time affluence consistently predicts well-being whereas material influence does not. For the uninitiated: Time affluence is “the feeling that one has sufficient time to pursue activities that are personally meaningful, to reflect, and to engage in leisure.” In other words, under-schedule what you have to do so you have plenty of time to deal with what you want to do at the moment. For college students, this means resisting the urge to fill all of your time with coursework and activities. Instead, purposefully under-schedule, and then use the excess hours for the cool stuff that randomly pops up.
Tip #4: Focus on Happiness
Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven.” The practical translation: put in an effort to both seek out happiness-boosting experiences and learn to express gratitude for what you find. There will always be crap lying around in your life. This will never go away. If you focus on it, your world will become Emerson’s hell. The real trick is to learn how to keep moving amidst this crap — acknowledging that its a part of life that spares no one — and continually seek out or construct experiences that make you happy. Don’t just have these experiences, but also reflect on them later and show real gratitude. Dr. Ben-Shahar points to compelling research that mindful reflection on what you enjoyed during your day can significantly boost self-reported well-being.
Case Study: The Happy College Student
Let’s take Dr. Ben-Shahar’s advice out for a spin. Here’s an interesting question: Assume you built your undergraduate life around the concept of happiness, what would it look like? Here’s one proposal:
- Our hypothetical happy-focused student has a single major that he finds interesting. He is careful to keep his course load light; mixing easy with hard courses each semester so he is never overwhelmed with work. By deploying a smart arsenal of study habits he further reduces the difficulty. This allows him to really dig into the material; spend extra time thinking about the bigger implications, arguing in class discussions and finding himself often getting struck, at the most unexpected moments, with little shivers of inspiration. He doesn’t dread schoolwork, because he doesn’t have enough of it to make it painful.
- He’s involved in some activity that he finds really important. For example, as a philosophy major, perhaps he believes in the movement to re-emphasize the importance of the liberal arts in college education. This might translate, practically, into him being an editor of the undergraduate philosophy journal and helping to organize the journal’s guest lecture series that brings interesting liberal thinkers onto campus.
- However, this is his only real time-consuming extracurricular activity. Combine this with his manageable course load, and he has plenty of free time. He uses this for all sorts of purposes. Maybe he’s taken up Yoga, and has learned to take advantage of the daily shuttle from campus to a local ski slope. We can imagine that he’s constantly hanging out with friends and has been known to spend an afternoon reading random books at the bookstore cafe. He attends talks that seem interesting. Watches a lot of movies. And has become a beer snob, to the endless amusement of his natty-lite swilling roommates. At the same time, these extra hours also let him take advantage of more unexpected (and impressive) random opportunities: like writing an op-ed, pitching an article to a magazine, or volunteering to help setup a conference. He’s flexible, engaged, and low-stress. This leads him to interesting places.
- This combination of being engaged in his schoolwork, doing something important, and finding lots of opportunities to inject some pleasure into his day leads to one happy undergrad.
My Questions For You
This is, of course, just a hypothetical scenario. But the big ideas are concrete:
Like what you have to do; don’t do too much of it; get the most out of the free time that remains.
It’s a simple philosophy. Yes, some might say radically simple. But it’s worth thinking about. Here are the key questions to ponder:
- What changes would you have to make in your student life to make happiness your ultimate currency?
- How would this impact your potential paths after college?
- Does this impact matter?
I’m curious to hear the results of your ruminations…