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How to Be Happy

Dr. Happiness SpeaksTal Ben-Shahar Lectures

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…

28 thoughts on “How to Be Happy”

  1. Nice article! I’m in college and my goal right now is to be involved in things other than classes and studies. My problem is that I get really bored in classes sometimes and just quit going to it and later drop them.

    I read your article about dropping classes every semester and I’m going to try it next semester to see if it works for me.

    Thanks and keep the good work!

  2. I thought this was a nice entry. Do you feel this applies to some special circumstances, such as medical students, where one is being compared to others in terms of performance in a relatively fixed curriculum across schools. Many of these students may be striving to match for ultra-competitive surgical subspecialties, but may become somewhat unhappy in the process.

  3. @bennie:

    I’m glad that you have more than just classes in your sights. But you definitely figure out how to engage in your schoolwork as well. I think that balance — a reasonable number of interesting classes plus a reasonable number of meaningful activities — proves key.


    I don’t know as much about medical school, but I think that during rotations you’re not going to have much control over the simplify piece. However, becoming a doctor probably counts as a goal concordant with your values and there is a lot to be gained by going out of your way to focus on what’s exciting and interesting about the whole process…so, I guess, in the end, you can’t apply all the advice, but some key pieces can make a difference…

  4. Great entry. I find it inspirational to my current situation. I am planning to transfer to a different college for next fall. Your blog is helping to keep me on track with making a smooth transition for the upcoming change.

  5. Hey,
    That was a great post. I think that you find happiness when you have a greater sense of purpose. N it is a never ending process .. something that you have to work on internally. It is not influenced by external factors, but rather something that you feel within yourself.

    Thanks so much for that!

  6. Looks like you published this article quite a while ago but I just found your site today. I must say I really appreciate all that you have written. I am a high school senior this year, and I often end up thinking about all of this. I am currently in the boat that you stress not getting into–the overloaded one. I manage, but I am always behind. I won’t be making that mistake again though 🙂 Luckily it does not effect my severely.
    Indeed, I often muse over this exact concept you have written about. I agree whole heartedly, and I would like to add one last thing: I believe that it is the journey to the result that matters. It is why we say that failing is only an obstacle to overcome. We will never, in my mind, overcome any given concept entirely; but that, in fact, does not matter. Life is a journey and the journey is what matters. The end result, while satisfying, does not give anything more than a sense of accomplishment. Your personal happiness does not sprout from your accomplishments, it arises from the innumerable events that precede it.
    Simply my ruminations 🙂 Hope you enjoyed them.

  7. Indeed, I often muse over this exact concept you have written about. I agree whole heartedly, and I would like to add one last thing: I believe that it is the journey to the result that matters.

    Thanks Jason. I think this is a great addition.

  8. The seek flow tip just be embraced by all college students, even high school students. Many students take courses which are overwhelming while others take courses which they can study off of at the last minute. They should reach for that range of toughness, yet not too tough. Well done Cal!

  9. I think Emerson was definitely referencing (or lifting from) Milton, whose Satan in Paradise Lost says “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven” .
    Great article, and thanks so much for helping me not overwhelm myself with work. 🙂

  10. Hi, I’ve enjoyed reading your articles. I think I’m a bit older than some of your followers I’ m definitely thru with college and now my husband and are are working and raising a family. As you go through life you will have different experiences that you will grow and learn from and I couldn’t agree more with your previous person who posted before me saying that life was a journey. I feel that I have have been blessed with many experiences in my life so far seeing new life come in to the world and also being with both of my parents as they passed away. My exact words to my husband after my father passed less than one year ago were “Life is definitely a journey”.


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