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Harvard's crowded course to happiness

'Positive psychology' draws students in droves

More than 800 students fill the lecture hall for Tal Ben-Shahar's 'Positive Psychology' at Harvard this semester.
More than 800 students fill the lecture hall for Tal Ben-Shahar's "Positive Psychology" at Harvard this semester. (Globe Staff Photo / Michelle McDonald)

CAMBRIDGE -- The most popular course at Harvard this semester teaches happiness.

The final numbers came in this week: Positive Psychology, a class whose content resembles that of many a self-help book but is grounded in serious psychological research, has enrolled 855 students, beating out even Introductory Economics.

Every Tuesday and Thursday at 11:30 a.m., students crowd into Sanders Theatre to learn about creating, as the course description puts it, ''a fulfilling and flourishing life," courtesy of the booming new area of psychology that focuses on what makes people feel good rather than the pathologies that can make them feel miserable.

''Positive Psych may be the one class at Harvard that every student needs to take," said Nancy Cheng, a junior majoring in biology. ''In this fast-paced, competitive environment, it is especially crucial that people take time to stop and breathe. A self-help class? Maybe. . . . But from what I've seen and experienced at Harvard, I think we could all use a little self-help like this."

In the last several years, positive psychology classes have cropped up on more than 100 campuses around the country, said Shane Lopez, an associate professor at the University of Kansas, who recently co-wrote a positive psychology textbook. But with such an enormous course enrollment, Tal D. Ben-Shahar, the lecturer who teaches Harvard's course, ''is the leader of the pack right now," Lopez said.

The courses can change how you see yourself and your life, Lopez says. ''A lot of people are just not accustomed to asking, 'What do I have going for me?' and 'What did I do right today?' "

Marty Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania professor who is considered the father of positive psychology for his scholarship and efforts to promote it, said he saw a similar groundswell when he offered a course in 2003. He sees the student enthusiasm as reflecting the tremendous appeal of the positive psychology movement in society at large.

''When nations are wealthy and not in civil turmoil and not at war, then I think, like Florence of the 15th century, they start asking what makes life worth living, and that's what positive psychology is about," he said in a phone interview.

Among the research findings that support the idea that happy people function better: A study of aging nuns found that those with a positive outlook in their 20s lived as much as a decade longer than those with a negative outlook, and people who were asked to keep a diary every night for six months, recording things that had gone well that day, fared better in measures of happiness, optimism, and physical health than those who did not.

Furthermore, studies show that optimism is a skill that can be taught and learned.

On Tuesday, midway through the lecture, the lights dimmed and Ben-Shahar led the assembled hundreds of students through a couple of minutes of meditation, asking them to focus on their breathing and on releasing the tension in their bodies.

''Just let go," he said. ''Experience whatever experience you're having. Just let it be. Give it permission, give yourself permission to just be."

A few deep sighs of relief could be heard.

It was an astonishing scene in the hard-driving academic atmosphere of Harvard. Despite the short weekly papers, two exams, a final project, and required readings from hard-core psychology texts and journals, the course seems a bit like brain candy, compared to Harvard's usual academic fare. Some students do see it as a ''gut," according to an article in the Harvard Crimson's magazine.

But Ben-Shahar argues that if the course seems easy, it is because it holds such great relevance to students' own lives, which they naturally are fascinated by. ''Most things we find interesting, we also find easy," he said.

''My goal is to create a bridge between the Ivory Tower and Main Street, to bring together the rigor of academia and the accessibility of self-help," he said. ''If the class has a rigorous academic foundation, which it does, then why not try to help people lead better lives?"

It certainly does not hurt that Ben-Shahar, 35, raised in Israel and educated at Harvard, tells deeply personal stories to illustrate points. On Tuesday, he described how, in his senior year at Harvard, he won his dream fellowship, only to start worrying the next day about why he hadn't won a better one instead. The moral: How you see things can matter more than what actually happens.

He also shares catchy phrases: ''Learn to fail or fail to learn," for instance, and ''not 'it happened for the best,' but 'how can I make the best of what happened?' "

He also spoke about routes to personal change, wondering aloud about post-traumatic stress disorder, in which a single trauma can damage a person for life. Might it be possible to create the opposite phenomenon?

He proposed that perhaps a single glorious, ecstatic experience could change a person for the better for life -- and went on to describe how students might increase the likelihood of such an experience and its aftermath, from cultivating a sense of gratitude for the beautiful things in their lives to taking the time to really listen to music.

Students left the 90-minute-long class cheering and smiling.

After Positive Psychology, Harvard's next most popular course this semester is an economics class with 669 students; and the third most popular class is another psychology course taught by Ben-Shahar that has 550 students.

Between his two courses, Ben-Shahar is teaching more than 1,400 students. Although some may be taking both classes, it appears Ben-Shahar is teaching at least a fifth of Harvard College's undergraduate population of about 6,500.

But despite the clear appeal he holds for students, Ben-Shahar is not on the track to tenure and is not seeking to get there.

To qualify for tenure, he would have to conduct and publish original research. But research is not where his interests lie, he said.

''My passion is teaching," he said. ''So that's what I'll do."

Carey Goldberg can be reached at

Happiness tips

  • Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions -- such as fear, sadness, or anxiety -- as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness.

  • Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning.

  • Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well being is determined by what we choose to focus on (the full or the empty part of the glass) and by our interpretation of external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity?

  • Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much.

  • Remember the mind-body connection. What we do -- or don't do -- with our bodies influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.

  • Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.

    SOURCE: Tal D. Ben-Shahar

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