Harvard’s lessons for being happy

Carlos Carabaña

Tal Ben-Shahar is one of Harvard’s most successful professors. Each semester he attracts some 1,400 students, or 20% of the graduates of this prestigious university. Ben-Shahar doesn’t give classes en economics or how to get rich or how to learn to write computer programs. Rather, he teaches how to be happy in the 21st century.

This Israeli, professor of Positive Psychology (or the Science of Happiness) and author of the bestselling Being Happy, argues that happiness is a matter that can be cultivated through discipline, patience and good humour, and that to accept life as it is helps us achieve a more realistic vision of what the future will bring. Dr. Ben-Shahar’s principal advice has to do with pardoning, expressing gratitude, simplifying and meditating, and is centred around:

1. Be a human being. “When we accept our emotions –such as fear, sadness or anxiety– as something natural, there’s more of a chance of overcoming them. Rejecting our emotions, whether they’re positive or negative, only brings frustration and unhappiness.”

2. Happiness it at the juncture between pleasure and sense. “Whether at home or at work, the aim is to involve yourself in activities that are both meaningful and enjoyable. When this isn’t possible, be sure you have things that enhance happiness, moments during the week that can bring you both pleasure and a sense of living.”   

3. Remember that happiness depends more on your mental state than your social status or the size of your bank account. “Without taking into account external circumstances, our level of wellbeing is determined by the way we focus our life –the glass that’s half full or half empty– and how we interpret outside events. For example, do we consider failure as a catastrophe or as an opportunity to learn?”

4. Simplify. “We’re usually very occupied with fitting more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity has an influence on quality, and we compromise our happiness when we try to do too much.”

5. Remember the connection between mind and body. What we do or do not do with our body has an influence on our mind. Regular exercise, sleeping enough and healthy eating leads to mental and physical health.

6. Express your gratitude whenever possible. “Normally we take our existence for granted. We should learn to savour the wonderful things in life, from a meal to people, from nature to a smile.”

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