The Most Popular Course in Harvard History – Dr. Thornburg
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The Most Popular Course in Harvard History

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Tal Ben-Shahar, a Ph.D. from Harvard University, taught the most popular course in Harvard history.  Some refer to his course as Happiness 101, but it is actually Psychology 1504, “Positive Psychology.”   

Ben-Shahar says, “People are looking for ideas that will help them to lead better lives.” Depression and anxiety are reaching epidemic proportions across all industrialized countries. Suicide rates surged to a 30 year high last year.  We are checking our emails every moment of the day.  We are constantly tied to our professional and social media networks.  Our work days grow longer, our tasks more complicated, the pace of work is accelerating.  Competition is on the rise for professionals and students alike.  Students especially are having to contend with higher expectations and fewer prospects.  

This is not your father’s psychology class.  Positive Psychology hones in on themes like flow, optimism, resilience, courage, virtues, energy, flourishing, strengths, happiness, curiosity, meaning, subjective well-being, forgiveness, and joy.

Harvard Professor of Psychology George Vaillant explains, that the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the clinical “bible” of psychiatry and clinical psychology, “has 500,000 lines of text. There are thousands of lines on anxiety and depression, and hundreds of lines on terror, shame, guilt, anger, and fear. But there are only five lines on hope, one line on joy, and not a single line on compassion, forgiveness, or love.”

The mind healers of the past were singularly focused on where humans went wrong, how we responded to pain and pleasure, on flaws and weaknesses, and depraved behavior.  We were in Freud’s view struggling to keep it together under the torment of deep, dark drives.  It was the job of the psychologist to work with pain because it was thought our minds could not face these issues alone.

This is not Tal Ben-Shahar’s message or approach.  Positive Psychology rests on looking at personal strengths, building competencies, seeking pleasure, pursuing happiness, growing your potential, and leveraging creative tension.  Positive Psychology aims to ground concepts from a generation of self-help humanistic psychology with research and reason.

Their lab experiments might seek to define not the conditions that induce depraved behavior, but those that foster generosity, courage, creativity, and laughter. Their departure point for achieving greater happiness is not in addressing humanity’s flaws, but to focus on people’s strengths and virtues.

He also works at bringing research from the ivory tower to a more accessible place where it can be applied by real people.  “Most people do not read the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  In fact, one of my colleagues at Harvard did a study, and he estimated that the average journal article is read by seven people. And that includes the author’s mother.”  

With the hope of reaching more than seven readers here are Tal Ben-Shahar’s 5 Tips for Flourishing and Happiness:

1. Accept painful emotions as part and parcel of being alive.  When we open ourselves up to being human, that is to say invite the entire gamut of human emotion, then we open the door to all the positive emotions, too.

2. Stop texting while you are with your friends.  A very big predictor of well-being is time affluence.  The time we have to sit down and be with our friends.

3. Exercise!  3 times a week of 30-40 minutes of exercise is as powerful as some of the most powerful drugs in dealing with sadness, depression, or anxiety.  

4. Express your gratitude daily–in writing.  People who write down 3 to 5 things for which they feel grateful (big things or little things) are happier, more optimistic, more successful, more likely to achieve their goals, physically healthier (strengthens your immune system), and are more generous and benevolent to others.

5. Simplify.  Do less rather than more.  We try to cram more and more things into less and less time.  We pay a price in the quality of our work, and in the quality of our relationships.

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