Story at a glance
- Author Tal Ben-Shahar’s new book "Happiness Studies" introduces a new interdisciplinary field of study dedicated to exploring happiness.
- Now, Ben-Shahar is working to create a masters degree program for the discipline at the Happiness Studies Academy.
- The author and scholar defines happiness as “the experience of wholeperson wellbeing,” or “the experience of wholebeing.”
It’s been 30 years since Tal Ben-Shahard educated himself to the study of happiness, and he recently published his eight books on the subject. So is he happy yet?
“I don’t know how to answer this question,” he told Changing America, “because I don’t think there is a point before which you’re unhappy and after which you’re happy. It’s not a binary. Rather happiness resides on a continuum - so, yes, today I am a lot happier than I was 30 years ago and I certainly hope ten years from now I’ll be even happier, but it’s a lifelong journey that ends when life ends.”
Five years ago, he started the Happiness Studies Academy, which now has students from more than 60 countries all pursuing the study of happiness. The academy even has plans to create a masters degree program in happiness studies, but that’s not the end goal, according to Ben-Shahar. Instead, the author sees happiness as the means to many other ends.
“There are fewer degrees of separation - fewer whys - between the study of happiness and life’s highest end than there are between any other course of study and that same end,” he wrote in his latest book, “Happiness Studies,” which was released on July 4 - an homage to the “pursuit of happiness” promised in the U.S. Constitution.
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The book is an aggregation of happiness studies across centuries, continents and classes. His goal, he says, was to create a bridge “between the ivory tower and main street” by making jargon-filled scholarship accessible and putting an emphasis on application.
There are universal facts of happiness, he said, such as that “people need a sense of meaning of purpose, physical exercise or movement is good for us and relationships are central to happiness.” Culturally, “what’s true in the US is not always true in China or India or even Germany,” which is why his study of happiness includes history and anthropology, among other disciplines. Many people’s definitions of happiness are too narrow, according to Ben-Shahar, equating happiness with pleasure and ultimately leading to frustration and unhappiness.
“It doesn’t allow for the place of painful emotions in one's life, it doesn't allow for the sense of meaning and purpose in one's life, it doesn’t allow for considering the relationship between the mind and the body and it certainly doesn’t allow for a sense of curiosity or questioning,” he said.
Instead, the scholar defines happiness as “the experience of wholeperson wellbeing,” or “the experience of wholebeing.” This more holistic sense of wellness focuses on both the internal and external well-being, or "SPIRE," a strategy created by Ben-Shahar and Megan McDonough, co-founders of Wholebeing Institute. The acronym represents five parts of the "wholebeing": spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational and emotional.
But when it comes to the individual, Ben-Shahar said, research won’t cut it.
“What we need instead is me-search,” he said.
Amid a global pandemic, who has the time?
In June, Gallup’s Life Evaluation Index reported that nearly two-thirds, 59.2 percent, of Americans consider themselves to be “thriving” — or at 7 or above on a scale of 10, with their expected situation five years down the road at 8 or higher — reaching a record high. While that number had dropped to less than half in the early days of the pandemic, Americans’ levels of stress, worry and even boredom dropped, according to the survey, as daily enjoyment increased along with the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and loosened restrictions.
“There are of course people who are emerging stronger from this pandemic, some people for whom this has been a wake up call in terms of appreciating the basics,” Ben-Shahar said. “Hopefully we will remember these things beyond a certain honeymoon phase.”
At the same time, more Americans are reporting feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety than ever before. While the pandemic may have paused our society’s grind, the author pointed out that many people have filled the openings that arose in their daily schedules and physical health is suffering.
Still, as Americans return to school and work during the ongoing pandemic, Ben-Shahar’s proposed “Happiness Revolution” might yet be possible, even if it looks different to different people.
“What I’m hoping for is that we’ll have choice,” he said.
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