The Science of Human Happiness with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar 

Content By: Ari Whitten & Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar

In this episode, I am speaking with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, professor of the most popular course ever at Harvard and world-renowned expert in the science of human happiness, about how we can live our most fulfilled lives 

Click on the button below to register for Dr. Ben-Shahar’s Happiness Course. Get $500 off the price when you use the coupon BLUEPRINT500 on checkout

Table of Contents

In this podcast, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar and I discuss:

  • Dr. Ben-Shahar’s formula for happiness: The 5 elements of “SPIRE” that contribute to our well-being
  • Differentiating between hedonism (pleasure) and sustainable happiness, and understanding their significance
  • Spirituality and its impact on happiness, including the development of mindfulness, purpose, and presence
  • Meditation – what it is, what it isn’t, and why you need it
  • The correlation between having a strong life purpose and experiencing happiness
  • Intelligence – why smarter people aren’t any happier than less smart people, and the intellectual trait that is associated with greater happiness 
  • The influence of money on happiness. (Does wealth make it easier to be happy? Does poverty make it harder?)
  • The crucial link between kindness, self-esteem and happiness
  • Recognizing happiness as a skill that requires practice, insight, and study for most individuals to master, and where you can begin this journey yourself.

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Ari: This is something that is very, very special to me. Dr. Ben-Shahar is one of the world’s top experts on the science of human happiness. As I’ve gotten older, and more mature and wiser, and more experienced in life, the more I realize the importance of studying this topic of human happiness, and the more I’m shocked at how little education we humans, modern humans receive in the science of human happiness, because after all is said and done, we learn so much stuff in school, we learn about history and geography and math, and all kinds of topics, but rarely, if ever, does anyone get a class on the science of human happiness.

I think what could possibly be more important for us humans to know about, than how to have happy, good lives. I want to do my part to help correct this situation, what I perceive as a very unfortunate gap between the importance of a topic, and how much education we’re receiving on it, by personally inviting Dr. Ben-Shahar, one of the world’s top happiness experts to speak to my audience, to correct this. He has graciously agreed to do this. We’re going to do an interview.

He’s going to deliver a bunch of amazing content and ideas, I think life-transformative stuff, stuff that has, personally, for me been life transformative. That’s why I feel so passionate about sharing his work with you all. At the end of that, you guys are going to get a chance to engage in some live Q&A with him. You’re going to get a chance to ask him your questions. I know we have a ton of people on here. There’s over 8,000 people registered for this. We may not get to everyone’s questions, but we’re going to do our best. We have people here from all over the world. With no further fluff, no further ado, we will jump straight into this. Dr. Ben-Shahar, thank you so much for joining me and agreeing to do this.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Thank you, Ari. It’s so great to be here with you.

What is happiness?

Ari: Let’s talk from the meta-level perspective first. Let’s first just go as general, as big picture as we can. This word “happiness” is thrown around a lot. Everybody’s heard and used this term millions of times in their lives, but I think that, if you ask the average person to define it, most people might struggle with defining a term like this. How do you, as a world expert on this topic, how do you define happiness?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Yes. Ari, there are probably as many definitions as there are people in the world, and that’s perfectly fine and legit. The definition that I found most useful, again, is not the ultimate, only, or even best definition, what I found most useful is including five elements within the happiness definition. They are what we call the SPIRE elements. The S stands for spiritual wellbeing, and that’s about a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s about being present, about being mindful. Then, there is physical well-being, which is about physical exercise and nutrition, and rest and recovery.

Then, there is the intellectual well-being, that’s the I of SPIRE, and that’s about deep learning, it’s about curiosity, and so on. Relational wellbeing, the R of SPIRE is about the number one predictor of happiness, which is, quality time we spend with people we care about, and who care about us. It’s about kindness and generosity, which, of course, increases relational well-being. Finally, emotional wellbeing. That’s about learning to deal with painful emotions, which is a very important part of a happy life, of course, as well as generating and cultivating pleasurable emotions, which is also a significant element of the overall happiness experience. Spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational, and emotional.I

The difference between pleasure and hedonism, and happiness

Ari: My mind is overflowing with ideas of where we can go from here. Let’s talk about hedonism and pleasure, and the distinction between, let’s say, pleasure or joy, and happiness. What differentiates pleasure in, let’s say, hedonistic things from happiness, as you’ve defined it here?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: No, that’s a critical distinction, because if you think about it, most people, when they think about happiness, think about it in the context of pleasure. They would say something like, “Oh, I was so happy going to the beach yesterday,” or, “I’m so happy having this ice cream.” Now, these are pleasurable experiences. They’re important. They’re, needless to say, legit and we should strive to have many of them, but it’s not the same as happiness, because they are temporary. They do not typically last, and they’re not as deep.

In other words, the experience of happiness can for humans include much more than mere pleasure.

They can include the spiritual element, which is a sense of meaning and purpose, and we can have meaning and purpose without necessarily experiencing pleasure and joy at the moment. For instance, if you think about people working hard towards a goal, which is very meaningful to them, but they’re working hard they’re struggling. There may be even some pain involved in the process. Still, overall, their lives are happy lives or think about painful emotions, which are part and parcel of every life, even a happy life, or think about challenges within relationships, or investing time and effort in relationships. It’s not always pleasurable in the moment, but in the overall constellation of happiness, these contribute a great deal.

Spirituality and happiness

Ari: Very interesting. In the SPIRE acronym that you spoke about, spirituality, this is another one of these vague, nebulous, hard-to-define terms that is used very commonly by millions of people, and yet is hard to define, or many people would have different definitions of it. We have people who maybe associate spirituality with going to church, and being devoutly religious, and we have lots of people who might say, “Well, I’m spiritual, but not religious.”1 Many of those people might define it in different ways. What does it mean to be spiritual?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Once again, many definitions. The one that I use is that, spirituality brings together purpose and presence, or to use synonyms, meaning, and mindfulness. Now, of course, people can and often do experience spirituality through religion. It could be by going to the church, synagogue, mosque, temple. It could be through prayer. These are all legitimate ways. However, we can also experience a sense of the spiritual in our day-to-day activities. For example, if I do something at work, which is meaningful to me, which matters to me, I feel like I’m making a difference, I’m experiencing a sense of the spiritual.

If I’m completely present to an activity, and it could be interacting with a friend, it could be focusing on the breath going in and out, or on a tree outside my window. If I’m present to the experience, I’m experiencing the spiritual. Now, what’s very important to understand is that, for example, an investment banker who finds meaning and purpose in her work, leads a more spiritual life than a monk who does not. It’s not necessarily what we do, it’s how we experience what it is that we do.

Cultivating mindfulness and meditation for happiness

Ari: You mentioned a monk there. I’m curious, and this idea very much integrated into your answer, this idea of presence. What would you say is the importance of mindfulness, or meditation in human happiness? Does one have to spend time learning the art of mindfulness, or cultivating skills in mindfulness and meditation to be happy? Are meditators more happy than non-meditators? What’s the body of research tell us there?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: The only easy question from the number of questions that you asked was the last ones. Are meditators happier than the non-meditators? The answer is, clearly, yes. There is a lot of research showing the benefits of meditation. People who meditate regularly, their brains are actually qualitatively different than non-meditators’ brains, in terms of being more resilient, in terms of being more susceptible and open to pleasurable emotions, in terms of being more open and generous towards others, in terms of being physically healthier.

Just about every variable that you look at, there is an upside, a benefit to meditating. Now, what’s interesting here is that there are many different forms of meditation, and there is no one-size-fit-all. What meditation very simply means is, being present, being in the here and now, or some would qualify non-judgmental presence. Now, what does this mean? Where can it happen?

Well, it can take place when you are focusing on the breath going in and out, and focusing on the sensations in your nostril, or your air filling your belly. It could be about focusing on a mantra, on a word, or it could be while holding a yoga asana, and a stance. It can come through all these practices. That is what we would call formal meditation. There’s also informal meditation, just like the distinction we can make between formal and informal exercise. Formal exercise would be going to the gym, pumping iron. It could be going to an aerobics or dance class.

These are formal forms of exercise. The informal form of exercise would be, I’m going shopping, so I’m walking to the store, or I’m climbing up the stairs, or I’m working in the garden. These are all informal ways of exercise, and they have benefits just like the formal exercises. It’s the same with meditation. Formally, would be sitting down, taking time, going to a yoga class. The informal would be simply being present, regardless of what I’m doing. Being present while walking to the store, or being present while interacting in a conversation with a friend. It could be being present while playing basketball, or prayer. When we focus on the words on the prayer itself, that’s a form of meditation.

The benefits that we gain from formal meditation and informal meditation are identical. The challenge is, it’s a real challenge to bring as much presence as we can to our day-to-day experiences. Now, how do we do that? Well, we need reminders. Now, there is a practice that I’m sure some people are familiar with in Zen monasteries, where the monks are walking around. and the head monk walks with a stick, and once in a while, just hits the monk on the shoulder. What that does is, “Hey, come back to the present. Where are you going?” Then, we need such reminders. We don’t need that stick.

What we can have are other forms of reminders, whether it’s on our wall, the word “breathe” or “presence”. This is a practice that I learned from a wonderful book by Sarah Orem called The Appreciative Coaching. She talks about one of her clients, Rory, who felt that since starting his own business, he’s been far less present, and much more disengaged.

What he did was, on his watch, hand watch, wrote the letter “N”, and each time he looked at his watch, he saw “N” standing for “Now”, which reminded him to be present informally, didn’t mean that he had to go to a yoga, or a meditation class.

Having these reminders. Wearing a bracelet that reminds you to return to presence. This is a very important element of meditation. Meditation is not about sustaining, or maintaining a presence. It’s not about being in the here and now all the time. Rather, it’s about returning to presence, returning to the here and now. Just like you exercise a muscle when you lift the dumbbell up and down, so you exercise your presence, your concentration muscles, when you return to the present, to the here and now, time and time again.

Ari: You just reminded me of a book by Aldous Huxley called Island. In the book– It’s been a long time since I read it, but I know that they had, in this utopian society that he created, this fantasy that he created, he had, I believe it was parrots, birds that go around. Every now and then, they’re constantly saying, “Here and now, here and now.” [laughter] Reminding all the humans to stay in the here and now. There were other layers like that built into the way that society functions to provide, as you said, to provide those reminders to people to return their attention to the present moment.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Aldous Huxley, as you know, was an expert in helping us attain these, what we call today altered states, higher states of consciousness. The beautiful thing about his work is that, he made these states accessible, whether it’s through those reminders, whether it’s through the day-to-day practice of being present.

The connection between life purpose and happiness

Ari: Talk to me about purpose. What does it mean to have purpose in one’s life, and how does it relate to being happy?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Meaning purpose is an extremely important part of a happy life. In fact, there are many psychologists who would argue, and they have a strong case, who would argue that purpose and meaning is the key pillar of happiness. One of those people would be Viktor Frankl in his remarkable, again, one of my top recommended reads in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Now, Viktor Frankl talks about two types of meaning. Capital M Meaning, which is the meaning of life, and small m meaning, which is the meaning in life.

Now, when it comes to the meaning of life, I must say that that’s above my pay grade. I think each one needs to find her, or his meaning of life. Some people find it in religion. Some people find it in a goal, or an objective that they had from the time they were three-years-old, whether receiving it from their parent, or a revelation, or a dream. Again, above my pay grade. The meaning in life, finding meaning in our day-to-day, there are many very interesting studies and contributions from psychologists that can help us find it. With your permission, Ari, I’d like to share a study, which I think is one of the most important studies in the field of psychology-

Ari: Please.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: -that can help us identify the meaning in life, literally in our day-to-day activity. This is by Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton, originally from University of Michigan. What they did was, they identified three different orientations that people have regarding their work. There are some people who see their work as a job. What’s a job? A job is seeing our work as something that we have to do. It’s a chore. Why do we do it? Because we need to. We need the paycheck at the end of the month, for instance. What are we looking forward to when we’re in a job? We’re looking forward to the end of the shift, or the end of the week, TGIF, Thank God It’s Friday, or retirement when we no longer need to do this job.

Right now, we’re doing it because we have to. That’s work as a job. Then, there is a second orientation, which is work as a career. What’s a career? Career is all about progress. It’s all about climbing up the organizational hierarchy. It’s all about making more money, making progress. What do we look forward to in a job, in a career? More money, higher level, in terms of the organizational chart. Then, there are people who see their work as a calling. The third orientation, we have a job, we have a career, we have a calling. Calling is all about meaning and purpose. It’s about doing something that matters, that’s important.

I may be very glad that I’m paid for it, but ultimately, I’m doing it because I care. Now, we all have some job orientation, some career orientation, and some calling orientation, regardless of what we do. The question, of course, is of degree. Which is the more dominant perspective? It turns out that, that matters a lot. It turns out that we have control over how we perceive our work, and our life as a whole. It’s a job, career, or a calling. Let me give you an example. The first study that Wrzesniewski and Dutton ran was in hospitals. What they found was that with some janitors, and again, what do janitors do? They clean the floors, the toilets, and they change bedsheets.

Some janitors saw their work as a job, something that they had to do. They needed the paycheck. What were they looking forward to? Let this shift just be over, or the end of the week, or retirement, work as a job. In those very same hospitals, there were janitors doing the exact same thing. Again, cleaning floors, toilets, changing bed sheets, who saw their work as a career. They were looking forward to becoming the head janitor, or doing something else that pays more, or maybe is more prestigious. It was all about career.

In those very same hospitals, there were other janitors doing the same thing, floors, toilets, bedsheets, who saw their work as a calling.

What they were doing was, they were facilitating the work of the nurses and doctors. What they were doing was helping the patients heal through their work. What they were doing mattered, was important, meaningful, purposeful. Now, does this mean that they didn’t have their job days or career days? Of course, they did. We all do. Primarily, they focused on the meaningfulness, the purposefulness of their activities. Needless to say, their work, their performance was a lot better. Needless to say, they were a lot happier. They experienced their life as more meaningful. Interestingly, those very same hospitals, there were nurses and doctors who saw the work as a job.

Let this shift– “Just been doing this for 20 years, enough already, but that’s what I know how to do. That’s what I do day-to-day. I’m making a living, providing for my family.” Then, there were doctors, the nurses who saw their work as a career. I want to become the chief nurse, chief doctor, or if it was a teaching hospital, a full professor, start my own clinic, make more money. It was all about that. Then, there were doctors doing the same thing as all other doctors, who saw their work as meaningful, as purposeful, as important as making a difference.

Ari, reminds me of a story that my business partner told me. His name is Angus Ridgway. He spent 21 years at McKinsey as a Senior Director. He is British, with a British sense of humor. He was having lunch one day with his brother-in-law, whose name is Ever, and Ever is a cardiologist, a heart doctor. Ever’s specialty is pacemakers. What he does is, puts pacemakers in, and then every few years, he takes it out, changes the battery, and puts it back in. That’s his expertise, specialty. Angus was having lunch with Ever. He said to him, “Ever, I finally figured out what you do for a living.” Curiously, Ever asked, “What is it?” Angus says to him, “You change batteries.”

Now, Ever didn’t even smile. He just looked straight at Angus, and said to him, “Angus, you are right. Some days I change batteries. Other days I save lives.” It’s about our orientation, our perception, what we choose, choose to focus on that matters. Now, interestingly, the exact same study was replicated among administrators in the hospital, among managers in different industries, line employees in different industries, whether you’re talking banks or you are talking manufacturing plants, the exact same result was replicated in schools among teachers, among parents, who see parenting as a job, “Something I have to do as a career.

It’s all about helping my child succeed,” or recalling, “What a privilege this is to do what I do.” The same results were replicated among hairdressers. Wherever they looked, they found this pattern. Most importantly, what they found is that we have a choice. Everyone will sometimes experience their work as a job, or a career, or as a calling, but how much do we experience it? The quantity of experiences of a sense of calling, that’s to a great extent up to us. One thing we can do, and this is– I do it with many of my clients, is asking our employee or colleague or ourselves, to write instead of a job description, to write a calling description.

Ari: Ah, beautiful. I love that.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: That means writing about, “What is it about my work that’s meaningful, that’s important, that I would do even if I wasn’t paid?” Identifying it, raising our levels of awareness about those things that we do as meaningful, can and often does make all the difference of finding meaning in life.

Ari: You said something there towards the end about, even if we weren’t getting paid for it. I am in a very blessed position that I think about, often, I have a lot of gratitude for, I’ve been passionate and obsessed with health science, and learning about optimization of the human organism, this mind and body that we have, since I was 12-years-old. This is something that I was literally doing for over a decade, before I ever made a dime from it, and it’s been my passion for almost three decades now.

I think about that test of, “Hey, even if this wasn’t my job, if I wasn’t making a career out of it, making money from this, would I be doing this?” The answer is absolutely, yes, this is absolutely how I want to spend my time. What a beautiful blessing it is for me to have developed that over such a long period of time, that I get to have conversations with amazing world-renowned experts like you in human happiness, and learn from, and have an audience that I get to present your wisdom, and brilliance to, to share this.

I feel that, for me, I’m blessed that this is my calling, and I’ve been very fortunate in my life that, that’s the case. For people who are not as fortunate, and to have fallen into something that they’re deeply passionate about, and that they would be doing whether they made money from it or not, maybe people who are in that situation, where it’s just a job for them, they don’t like the work that they’re doing.

I know you said it’s a choice, but I’m sure, subjectively, people in that scenario are thinking, “Well, it’s not that easy. Dr. Ben-Shahar you know it’s not as simple as just a choice, I’m stuck here, my family depends on me. What do I do? Is it just, do I need to pursue a different job? Should I do something I’m passionate about? Should I go back to school, or is it just a change in thinking and becoming more aware of, and grateful for the things that you do have, and changing your relationship to the job that you have?”

Dr. Ben-Shahar: No, that’s such an important question and, Ari, I would like to even push it a bit further.

Ari: Sure.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Let’s concretize this, let’s think of a single mom, who just to bring enough for her kids, she has to engage in three jobs. Really, talk to her about meaning and purpose, meaning in life or meaning of life, that seems at least detached. Let me share with you another study after I clarify the previous one. First of all, changing perception can certainly help, because what she’s doing is absolutely remarkable and amazing. When we look at her life from the outside, we would be awestruck. Wow, she’s an amazing, extraordinary, powerful woman, who’s able to do what she does.

Now, sometimes it doesn’t hurt for us to look at ourselves as others would, whether it’s with appreciation, or with awe, or admiration. This is part of changing perception, I’m doing something that’s important, I’m providing for my kids, but that’s not all. That may not even be feasible or possible for her, but here is what is possible, and this is what the research shows. Yes, ideally, we would all be doing something that we’re passionate about, and feel purposeful about 24/7, or at least while we’re awake. That’s an ideal world, the world is not ideal. Some people can do it 80% of the time.

No one can do it 100% of the time, but some people get pretty close to it. Some people can only do a very little bit of it, like that woman who has to work at three jobs that she’s not excited about, just to bring enough to the table. Now, here is the thing, it’s not an all or nothing proposition. What the research very clearly shows is that, even if we introduce one hour or two hours a week of meaningful, purposeful activities, that affects our entire week. It’s not as good as spending eight hours a day doing something that is meaningful, but it’s a lot better than nothing.

Why? Because those two hours a week, or that one hour a week, when she finds to do something that is meaningful to her, whether it’s spending time with a friend, or engaging in a meaningful hobby, or volunteering in a school. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter, but something that gives her meaning, that’s about her, not about her chore, and her duty. Even that one hour or two hours a week, affect the entire week. Why? Because she looks forward to it, and because it creates an upward spiral when she does it, and after she does it. It has an impact on her whole being. Again, not ideal, far from ideal, but a lot, not a little bit, but a lot better than just resigning to a life of meaninglessness.

Resigning to a life of purposelessness. This is a very important message, in general, from the science of happiness. It’s not all or nothing. Yes, an ideal life would be a life, where I exercise two hours a day, and I spend three quality hours with friends. I do very meaningful and important work for 10 hours a day, and I sleep between seven and nine hours a day, and et cetera. Well, if you add those hours up, you’ll get 48 or 72 hours. Not realistic to have the perfect or ideal life, whatever that means. Very often, people give up unhappiness, because they say, “Well, it’s just not realistic,” whether it’s given my constraints, or whether it’s given my obligations, or whether it’s given where the world is with all its troubles.

The world’s not a perfect place. It’ll never be a perfect place, but that doesn’t mean we should resign or give up. All it means, is that we need to focus on what we can do. Even if there are small things, and small changes make a big difference, if consistently applied. That’s a key principle that we highlight in our programs. Small changes make a big difference, if when consistently applied. Whether it’s that one hour, whether it’s that five minute of meditation a day, or two minutes three times a week. Small changes, but they can make a big difference if we persist with them.

The connection between IQ and happiness

Ari: I have a question for you related to IQ and intelligence. I’m curious if there’s any research on the relationship of intelligence to happiness, and if there is, what factors might be the mediating factors? Is it that they think about life differently, or is it that people, have they controlled for wealth? Meaning, if people who are more intelligent are more likely to do well financially, maybe that’s a confounding variable, but if there is a relationship there, and there might not be, but if there is, what mediates that relationship?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: There is research on the relationship between intelligence and happiness. The research shows that there is no relationship between intelligence and happiness. Why? Because intelligence, as we see it, in our culture is associated with learning, with reading, with being exposed to ideas. Unfortunately, today there are so many misconceptions about happiness. So much misunderstanding around happiness, that even the learned among us, people who do dedicate a lot of time to learning, don’t necessarily have a better idea of what it takes to be happy, or happier, and this is no less important.

Even those people who do, even if you’ve read 20 books on happiness, and they’re all evidence-based and scientific, and you really know what it takes to be happier, that’s only a first step in a thousand-mile journey. Of course, most of the journey is about taking action. There’s a common misconception around happiness that it really is enough to go to read a book about it, or to go to a workshop on it, or to take a course on it, and then your happiness levels will go up. Yes, they will, if you also do something about it. Just like reading a book on tennis, is not enough to become a better tennis player, or learning about playing piano is not enough.

You need to practice. Happiness is a skill. What does that practice look like? Meditate regularly, exercise regularly, spend quality time with people you care about and who care about you, and so on. Work according to the SPIRE elements. We don’t have to do everything all the time, but again, these small changes, evidence-based interventions that we introduce into our lives, that will increase levels of happiness. Does it depend on intelligence? Not at all. It depends on commitment, on persistence, on following through on our understanding.

Ari: That’s interesting that there’s no relationship between IQ and happiness. As you were talking, I could think of a number of extraordinarily high IQ people that I either know personally, or who are public figures that I’ve spent time listening to, who, even you just look at their face and you see how much mental suffering they incur, you can see that their life, their inner world is one filled with stress and struggle and sadness, and kind of a suffering and struggle, instead of one of joy, and happiness.

Conversely, you can see many people who are not particularly high IQ, who are some of the most joyful, happy people that you’ll ever meet. It’s very interesting that this amazing supercomputer that humans have been endowed with, and those intellectual capacities are not very well related to the capacity for, or the tendency towards human happiness.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: You know in the West, we have glorified the intellect, ever since the ancient Greeks, it was all about reason dominating our passions. As David Hume, the Scottish philosopher once wrote, “Reason is and ought only be a slave to our passions.” Now, I don’t necessarily agree with him. I don’t think anyone should be a slave to anyone else, but we should hold reason and passion on par, because both matter. Doing what’s right, le leading a life of learning and exploration is important for happiness. At the same time, respecting our emotions, as opposed to enslaving them, respecting them is also important for happiness.

Now, here is the thing about intelligence, though, Ari. There is no connection between IQ and happiness, but there is a strong connection between how we use our intelligence and happiness, or even more so, whether we use our intelligence and happiness. There’s research, I love this study, showing that people who are curious, who ask questions, who are always learning, are not just happier than others, they’re not just more successful. Being a lifelong learner is important for success, certainly in the 21st century. They also live longer. You know the saying, “Curiosity kills the cats.”? It may kill the cat, but for humans, it helps us live longer.

Ari: Excellent.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: This is where the connection between intelligence and happiness comes in, not IQ, not how intelligent one is, but whether or not one uses one’s intelligence. This is about learning, it’s about asking questions. It could be about reading texts, it could be about exploring works of art. It could be about studying nature. The fact that we have limited intelligence to just, basically, reading, writing, and arithmetics, that’s poor reflection of our culture. Intelligence is so much more than that.

As Howard Gardner says, “We have multiple intelligences,” whether it’s the verbal intelligence, or mathematical intelligence, or visual intelligence that has to do with the art or kinesthetic intelligence, which is all about movement, or interpersonal intelligence, how we interact with others, or intrapersonal intelligence, are we reflective and thoughtful? Each one of these intelligences and other spiritual intelligences can be that particular approach that we take to life, to learning, to growing, to practicing this and this faculty.

The link between introspection and happiness

Ari: There is a personality trait, maybe you could call it, where people are either likely or not very likely to do much introspection, meaning, some people are, let’s say on one end of the spectrum, I would conceptualize it as, people who are not inclined to look inward at all, and do any personal development or inner growth, or whatever you want to self-help type of stuff. People not inclined towards mindfulness, or meditation, or even learning about such things. People who are not inclined to learning about happiness. People who are, if in relationships, who are, if they have issues in relationships, are not inclined to see their own roles in creating certain outcomes.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have maybe people who are constantly, I’m sure everybody listening knows some people like this, that are constantly into the next self-help thing. “I found this new thing, and now I’m working on this, and I’m constantly doing this inner work, and working through my traumas and my triggers, and growing my spiritual self. My personal opinion, I’m curious if you disagree with me, or agree with me, but my personal opinion is that, it’s possible to be pathologically on both of those two ends of the spectrum to do too much of, or too little of that type of thing.

I’m curious, and forgive me for not knowing maybe even the proper terms to describe this phenomenon, but I think you get what I mean. I’m curious if this maps onto human happiness in any way. Are people who are more or less inclined towards introspection, are more or less inclined to be happy?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: No, that’s a great question. One of the things that we focus on at the Happiness Studies Academy is not just psychology, we also focused on philosophy in history, in literature, in neuroscience. Let me draw a little bit on philosophy, as I answer your question, specifically, the ancient Greeks, though there is a very similar discussion in the ancient Chinese philosophers, both Lao Tzu and Confucius.

Socrates, Plato, who was his mouthpiece, considered the fathers of Western philosophy. Socrates once remarked that the unexamined life is not worth living. In other words, that one extreme that you talk about, which is the unexamined life, “Not worth living, don’t even go there,” he would argue. I would add to what Socrates said. If he said that the unexamined life is not worth living, I would add that the over-examined life is tedious.

Ari: [chuckles] Can I quote you on that? Can we create a meme, and put that out there?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: [laughs] Please do. I’m speaking here from personal experience as well. I have the inclination to over-examine, and that’s why I was attracted to philosophy in the first place. [crosstalk] Tend to ask more questions, and that becomes tedious.

Ari: Yes, agreed.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: That’s not helpful for happiness going to that extreme of the over-examined life, but also I don’t want to go to the other extreme and forego my unique human gift, which is exploration and examination and reflection and thinking, and using the rational capacity. As Aristotle, who was Plato’s students said, “We are rational animals.” At least, we have the potential to be rational animals, and to lead a full and fulfilling life. A happy life, in the broad sense of the word. I don’t mean just hedonism, just lying on the beach, and eating ice cream all day.

In the full sense of the word, we need to use our rational faculty, our mind, our thinking. What we need to do, and again, this is a philosophical question that psychology backs, is that we need to find, once again, drawing on Aristotle, the golden mean. We need to find moderation between over-examined tedious, and under-examined, when we forgo our human potential. We need to find, and where that mean middle path, is not necessarily 50/50. For me, with more inclination to philosophize, it may be 75/25. I don’t even know how you would measure it, but just for argument’s sake. For someone else, it may be 30/70 in the other direction.

It doesn’t matter, but we need to find what works for us. Now, how do we find what works for us? Through our emotions. Our emotions are a printout of– Very often, are a printout of our choices. If I experience tedium, if I experience lack of energy or excitement, whether it’s in my relationships, or in my academic work, or in my work in the bank, well, that means maybe I should change that ratio a little bit, and do more of the examined life, or less of it, and experiment with it. Again, experimentation is key. Mahatma Gandhi, arguably, one of the greatest leaders in history titled his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth.

He didn’t call it My Finding Truth. He didn’t call it The Ultimate Truth. He called it My Experiments with Truth. That’s very meaningful, because what he’s essentially saying is that, his life was, as I think our life ought to be, full of experimentation. Let me try a little bit more examination, a little bit more reflect. That’s not really– Let me try less. Maybe that changed over the last 10 years, and I should do a little bit more of this or that, somewhere along that continuum between over-examination and under-examination. Now, one more thing, Ari, about the point you brought up.

There are many people who come to me out, especially, after they hear this study on curiosity, and they say, “I’m not really that curious.” Even more common, I get, “My child is not curious.” My answer to that is– Then, they say, “What should I do?” Curiosity turns out, is a good thing. Again, you live longer, you’re happier, you’re more successful. “What do we do?” They ask. My response to that is that, of course, they’re curious. Of course, you’re curious. Saying, “I’m not curious,” or someone is not curious, is the same as saying, someone doesn’t like to eat. It’s just like saying someone doesn’t like to learn.

We all like to eat, unless there is some, obviously, medical condition, but we all like to eat. Now, you may not like, or your child may not like cucumbers or lettuce, but they like oranges and tomatoes. The challenge is to identify what do you like to eat that is also, at least, moderately healthy. If you like to eat chocolate, it doesn’t mean, okay, now you should eat chocolate all day.

Similarly, with curiosity, they may not be curious about mathematics, or writing, but they are very curious about chess or dance. Again, there are multiple intelligences. Howard Gardner, the father of the Multiple Intelligence Theory says, “We need to stop asking what is the student?” We need to stop asking whether or not a student is smart. We need to start asking what is the student smart at? In the same way, we shouldn’t ask whether or not a student or a person is curious, but rather, what is the person curious about? Identify it, and then pursue it.

Is depression purely a chemical imbalance?

Ari: Beautiful. This is a meta question, and it has to do with paradigms. I think of the parable about the eight blind men and the elephant, and each one of them feeling a different part of the elephant and saying, “It’s this– It’s a thin, long thing with a little bushy part on the end,” or, “It’s a long trunk with two holes in the end,” or, “It’s this big thing like a tree.” I think human happiness and depression are like that.

It’s in the sense that up until the invention the origin of positive psychology and the study of human happiness, which people I think should know is a fairly new thing in the field of psychology, and in science. Everything around studying psychology and psychiatry was pathology, and disease-focused. It was focused on mental illness, it was focused on depression. It was focused on anxiety, and schizophrenia, and bipolar, and narcissistic personality disorder, and this type of personality disorder, and this.

The whole field was searching for various kinds of talk therapies, whether it’s Freudian psychoanalysis or Jungian therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy, or Rogerian therapy, or whatever, trying to fix this pathology. Focus on pathology, fix the pathology. Psychiatry created a paradigm that said, “Oh, this depression. Well, we are very science-y. We’re going to look at the biochemistry, and figure out what specific molecules in the brain are causing this depression. Once we uncover that, then we’re going to create a drug that interrupts these abnormal pathological processes in the brain to correct levels of neurotransmitters of serotonin in the brain. Therefore, we will fix the depression, and create a happy person.”

When you actually understand the science of human happiness, as you are explaining it here, from my perspective, you realize how silly and myopic an approach like that is to reduce human happiness down, or the absence of human happiness down, to a chemical imbalance in the brain to be corrected with a drug, when the real solution is, has to do with relationships and purpose, and all these other dimensions of complex human existence. It’s absolutely absurd.

I would even argue, deeply unscientific to frame human happiness in the context of purely a chemical imbalance in the brain. I’m curious what as somebody who’s been in this field specializing for a long time, what your thoughts are on that landscape?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Wow. First of all, Ari, I find it very meaningful that you asked that question, because I think it’s second or third week of our year-long program. The students read John– What is it? John Godfrey Saxe? I think, John Godfrey Saxe’s poem on The Blind Men in the Elephant.

Ari: Nice.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Which captures exactly what you were talking about, because what the blind men see or feel of the elephant is just that the tail, or just the trunk, or just the foot. They think, “Oh, this is a rope, this is a trunk, this is a snake.” They don’t get the whole. Now, why do we assign this poem? Because our definition of happiness, I talked about the SPIRE elements, but if I had to put the SPIRE elements together, and this relies on the work of Helen Keller, we define happiness as whole person wellbeing. Whole person wellbeing, or in a word, whole being, and the whole person wellbeing includes spiritual wellbeing, and physical wellbeing, intellectual and relational, and emotional wellbeing.

That’s the backstory behind SPIRE. I’m very glad you brought that up and you used that metaphor of The Blind Men and the Elephant. Now, why is that so very important? Look at the word “health”, and then let’s go a little bit into linguistics now, which is also an important field to study, because there’s so much wisdom in our languages. The word “health”, its Latin origin is H-A-L, hal. HAL means whole.

In other words, what our language tells us, and what you just described in the realm of psychology, is that to attain health, we need to look at the whole, and the whole also includes our relationships. The whole also includes our internal perception of our life, in terms of being purposeful or purposeless. It also includes what we do with our bodies. Do we exercise, or are we sedentary?

It also includes what we do with painful emotions when these arise, which they do, inevitably, at times. It also relates to whether or not we’re learning, whether we’re over-examining or under-examining. These are all elements, parts of the whole, part of the metaphorical elephant. Just reducing it to a chemical imbalance, is not doing our complex being justice, and we’re undermining our health, both mental health, and because mind and body are one, part of the same elephant, also our physical health. Now, the answer is not to do away with the biochemical processes. They matter too. They’re a part of the whole, not the whole.

Ari: That’s right. To that point, I think that, especially, within modern science and modern medicine, there is a huge– Within the general public, because of cultural narratives along these lines that have been promoted for so many decades, there is a widespread conflation and confusion between the biochemical correlates of a particular physiological state, or disease or illness, and the “cause.”

For example, elevated markers in the blood, just as a simple example, let’s say, cholesterol are the “cause” of heart disease, or low levels of serotonin in the brain are the “cause” of depression. When we know that those biochemicals are intimately intertwined and connected to, at the macro level, the food we’re putting into our body, our mental states, our sleep, and circadian rhythm, our exercise habits, and so on and so forth. There’s a tendency to see, to put these biochemical correlates of certain physiological states upon this pedestal, where we imagine those things exist in isolation, and arise, regardless of what our life is like, and then cause illness, when in fact, they’re intimately intertwined with the way we live.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: That’s exactly right. The idea of the elephant and the blind man talks to an approach to learning, which we call today systems thinking. Systems thinking is about looking at the whole, rather than at a point. It means looking at the system rather than at the symptom, or if you look at the symptom, understanding that it’s part of a larger system. Now, that’s important, not just in terms of space.

It’s also important in terms of time, because it means that what happens now, is not an end in itself, it’s just part of a chain, because it’s a result of something that happened before, and it’s an effect of something that happened before, and it’s a cause of something that will happen going forward. In other words, it’s important to look at it in context, context of the physical, the metaphorical elephant, but also context, in terms of the time dimension.

All these markers that you talk about, there are measurements of the now, but what led to it? Yes, it’s your diet, probably. It could also be, and in all likelihood is also your interactions with others. It’s also how likely you are to be a learner or not. All these things are interconnected, both in space and in time.

Course in Happiness Studies

Ari: I feel like I want to keep going, and I have many more questions that I would love to ask you. I don’t know if we’ll have time for them all. I know that I want to let our viewers ask some questions here but first, I want to have you talk about something you have coming up in a week or two, which is your year-long happiness certificate program, which I’m extremely excited about. This is something, I should have said this at the beginning, but your work has really been life-changing for me. This is something I’m extremely passionate about.

I’ve learned so much from you, and the insights have genuinely transformed my life and made me into a happier person. My personal experience is really the reason that I reached out to you and your team to ask you to do this, because I feel it’s such important work to share with the world. With that said, I would love for you to just tell people about the program that you’re offering, and how people can go deeper with you and learn how to be a happier person, which, as I said, for me personally, it’s hard to imagine anything more important to learn than that.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Thank you for that, Ari. What gives me meaning and purpose, what keeps me up in a good way at night and gets me out of bed in the morning is sharing these ideas, sharing evidence-based tools, techniques that can help us increase our level of happiness and can help us do the same for others. When I say us or others, I mean whether it’s as individuals, as parents, as coaches, as managers, we have medical doctors, lawyers, you name it. Because if you increase levels of happiness, and we contribute to our own well-being as well as to our overall success and other success and creativity, and productivity, and engagement and relationships, of course and physical health.

There are all these benefits. That’s why we created the Happiness Studies Academy in order to bring these ideas and to make them accessible. Whether it’s through our year-long certificate program, or whether it’s through our two-year-long master’s, MA in happiness studies. What we do is introduce the SPIRE elements, both through a psychological lens, philosophical lens, bringing in neuroscience, looking at the whole elephant, metaphorically speaking. Then deeply exploring the tools and techniques and the applications of these ideas. Because again, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, none of us would be doing what we’re doing, if we didn’t think it could make a real difference in people’s lives, in their environment, in their families, in their workplace, and communities.

Ari: Let’s talk a little bit more about the certificate in happiness studies. This is something that your team, through a little bit of negotiation on my end, your team agreed to give a $500 discount to my audience. For people listening, you can click the button here, it should be on your page somewhere to enroll in this course. This is something I’m personally going to be enrolling in because I want to go deeper on this topic. Tal is my number one happiness expert that I personally look to and have learned so much from. I wanted to share this with you all.

You guys can click the button and join this year-long program with me. I strongly recommend that you do this. I think it’s hard for me to imagine, even including my own programs and products, it’s hard for me to imagine a better place to spend your money as far as something that is likely to transform your life and the lives of all the people you’re in close connection to, because being a happier person creates happier relationships. Whether you’re in relationship with a partner or you have children, you being a happier person also makes their lives much better.

As a husband and as a father to two little kids, this is a huge value of mine and this is a huge priority for me, is to make sure that I understand the science in this area, and I’m managing myself well, optimizing myself well in terms of my own happiness to create the most happy and flourishing, and play, and joy, and laughter-rich relationships and lives possible for my wife and my children. I really feel very passionate about you all doing the same in your own lives. Tal, can you talk a bit about more of the details of what that year-long program is all about?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Sure. Ari, first of all, in terms of our audience before I go in, we have many of our students, come in for personal reasons. Almost all of our students, in addition to personal reasons, come in for professional reasons because they take it in, again, from literally day one. They see the applications of the program to their work. They used to call it job, to their work. To their coaching practice, to their classroom, or wherever it is. What we do is we have essentially part of that year, two courses. The first course is called Introduction to Happiness Studies.

That’s where you really understand what each of the SPIRE elements means, what happiness’s whole being is all about. You’re exposed to positive psychology, the science of happiness, and you learn about studies and every study. Again, I don’t just give studies that are nice, interesting. Every study can be applied. Just like the study I talked about, job, career calling. Interesting. Nice. Now, how can you apply it in your life, in your work, as a parent, as a therapist, as a doctor, as a janitor? How do you apply to every study, every week you get applied?

Now, this is the first course, Introduction to Happiness Studies. The second course is Facilitating Happiness. Each week, you learn about a particular technique or rather a set of techniques that you can then apply in different domains. Once you’re enrolled, you’re enrolled for life, meaning you can have access to these courses and lectures, and most importantly, community for the rest of your life. We have students who are going through the course a second time. Just out of curiosity I often ask them, why are you doing it? They say, I want a refresher. Very often they say, last time I went through it as a manager, I had that hat on. Now I’m going through it as a partner because I’m in a new relationship.

Ari: Nice.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: In that respect, each course is different because it depends what you focus on. Just like you can apply the research that I talked about to your work or to your home, you can apply the whole course by focusing it on different areas that are important to you at a given time.

Ari: Beautiful. Again, everybody, you can click a button to register for that. You get $500 off by being from my audience, by being in the Energy Blueprint. I strongly encourage you to join this with me. Again, this has been life transformative for me personally, and I’m going to be doing this. The whole reason I am having this webinar, that this is happening right now is because I feel so passionate about this work of Dr. Ben-Shahar. I strongly encourage you to do this. With that said, chat is enabled now, and I want you guys to put forth any questions that you have that you’d like me to ask.

I also might mix in a few more of my questions here before we end. To get us going while we’re waiting, Tal, I’m curious if you could speak a bit on the, and maybe we’ll do short answers from here on out to just fit in as many as possible, if you could speak a bit on the connection between technology and happiness. Obviously in the last few decades, there’s been this enormous change in the way humans live. With so much technology, mobile phones, the internet, social media, all these types of things that haven’t existed for 99.99999% of human evolution, is all of this advancement making us happier?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: It’s a great question. The answer is, and again, very briefly in three hours, the answer is yes and no. It’s like asking, is electricity good? It depends. You can use electricity to bring light, to have this webinar that we’re having, for a life support system, wonderful. You can also use electricity to electrocute an innocent person. It’s the same with technology. What do we use it for? Right now, more often than not, technology, rather than being used, is abusing. We’re being abused by it, because so many of us are addicted, whether it’s to social media, whether it’s to games, whether it’s to pornography, whether it’s the number of likes that we get.

We keep on checking and checking again, and that’s not helpful, because 1,000 friends on social media is no substitute for that one best friend whom we interact with face to face, playing in the same sandbox. If we use technology to facilitate real in-person relationships, great. If we allow it to take over our social life, that’s a big problem. Therefore we’re seeing the impact of it, whether it’s on teenagers, sometimes even younger kids, as well as on adults. The question is all, again, moderation. We need to find times during the day when we disconnect from technology fully, so that we can fully connect to people.

Ari: Well said. A few questions that have come in, some practical. Somebody wants to know what’s included in the program. I think you already described that as far as the two courses, but can you maybe describe the technical or practical aspects of it?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Basically, in terms of investment in the program, you should be prepared to invest around three hours a week if you want to complete it in a year. We have people who completed in a year who invest 3 hours, and we have people who invest 10 hours, because you can invest as much time as you want. There’s plenty of material, and we we provide a lot of material talking about how if you don’t do it now, you can do it next year or 10 years from now if you want to go back to it. Let’s say three hours would be the the norm for a year. We have people who do it over two or three years. Remember, once you’re in the program, you’re in the program. You take it at your own pace.

Ari: Basically, just for people who it may not be clear, it’s an online program, they’re getting access to–

Dr. Ben-Shahar: 100% online.

Ari: They’re getting access to videos and audios and documents.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Thank you for clarifying this. It’s an online program. You have a weekly lecture, which is pre-recorded. You watch it whenever you want. You have a weekly live webinar where I mostly talk about new developments in the field, and then I open it up for questions and conversation, and, very important, we also have retreats, live retreats. When we created the program, we were debating whether to have it as a in-person program, whether to do it hybrid, whether to do it 100% online.

We went for 100% online because we wanted people from around the world to have access to it. We have students from over 85 countries taking our certificate program. Now, at the same time, we also realize the price that we pay for just online, because there is a great deal of benefits that you gain from interacting with people playing in the same sandbox together, being in the same room together, so we created those retreats which we have a few times during the year around the world.

Our last one was in Italy, our next one is in Shanghai, the one after is in Colombia, the one before that was in Florida. We have them literally all over the world, and people who want to attend attend. You don’t need to attend in order to graduate, to get your certificate, but if you do want to attend, you’re always, I mean always, from the time you sign up, and all of our alums can attend. These are amazing, amazing retreats and experiences where we learn together, we ask questions together, we even dance together, we have fun. We focus on the five SPIRE elements during those–

Ari: Maybe I’ll put in some suggestions for next places to hold these retreats in some of my dream destinations.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Costa Rica sounds amazing.

Ari: [chuckles] There’s a nice retreat center just a mile away from me that I see from my house called Blue Spirit.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: We may take you up on that, Ari.

Q & A session – How close to Buddhism is your orientation?

Ari: I would love to do something like that with you. Let’s see. I have questions, but let’s see if there’s some other good ones. Lorna wants to ask, “How close to Buddhism is your orientation?”

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Great. We draw on wisdom and there is a great deal of wisdom in Buddhism. Now that wisdom is thousands of years old. Today we have a lot of research that shows just how important it is, for example, to meditate. How important it is to practice acceptance and surrender as a first step before taking action. There are a lot of practices within Buddhism that we adopted. Practices that have stood the test of the neurological or psychological lab. As I said, this is where we are different from so many other programs in that we synthesize, we bring together from the world’s greatest thinkers and traditions all the way up to what’s happening literally today in that neuroscience lab, integrating all these.

How to find happiness when you're suffering with chronic disease or with physical pain every day

Ari: Elizabeth is asking a very interesting question. She said, “How to find happiness when you’re suffering with chronic disease and with physical pain every day?”

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Of course that’s a very challenging– I wish I could tell you yes, just do X, Y, and Z, and then all your troubles will be gone. The field of happiness studies or psychology, or any field is not a panacea. It’s not a solve everything. What it can do is it can alleviate some of the suffering. How much? That depends. Depends on what you do, and of course, depends on the condition. I would also urge you, the field of pain management today has made remarkable strides forward. I would certainly encourage you to look at what’s happening there. Where can the field of happiness studies help?

It can help just about any field, whether we’re talking dealing with emotional or psychological pain, or physical pain. It can help as an adjunct intervention in addition to augment the impact of medication or therapy. In fact, more and more medical doctors, and I know that because we have students at the academy, more and more medical students and medical doctors are using the tools and techniques that they learn within the field of happiness studies to help in the physical healing process.

More and more therapists, more and more psychiatrists are using tools and techniques from the field of happiness studies in their practices, and that helps them be more effective, more impactful. In and of itself, of course it doesn’t solve everything, but it can certainly help take the field of pain management to the next level, whether we’re talking physical pain or psychological, mental pain.

The connection between money and happiness

Ari: I have a question I think that’s a somewhat controversial question. My understanding of it is that there’s some widespread misinformation or misunderstanding out there in the public, and it has to do with the connection between money and happiness. Can you describe the connection of money, of financial status, wealth to one’s happiness level? There’s an idea out there that money is unrelated to it. What’s the truth of that? As a follow-up question, I’m also interested if there’s any research on the places we spend our money, and how that relates to happiness.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: The answer is yes and no. Yes, there is a connection between money and happiness. No, it’s not where most people think it is. Providing for our basic needs, in other words, having enough money for food, shelter, basic education, that’s critical for happiness. If anyone would tell me, oh, all you need to do is study happiness and don’t worry about money, that may bring your food and shelter, that’s completely detached, unrealistic. Of course we need our basic needs met for happiness.

At the same time, beyond basic needs, money makes very little difference to our happiness. Yes, here and there an additional income could shift the needle, but only very slightly, which is why we don’t see that the happiest people in the world are not the wealthiest people in the world. They’re also not the poorest people in the world. You have poor people who are happy, you have wealthy people who are happy, and you have everything in-between. Happiness is [crosstalk]

Ari: I know a couple of pretty miserable billionaires personally.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: You find many miserable billionaires, and you find many very successful people who are miserable, because there is no connection, again, beyond basic needs between money or success and happiness. Now we get to the second part of it. If we do have money to spend beyond our basic needs, are there more helpful or wise ways of spending this money? The answer is yes. Let me just give two examples. Again, this is a field that’s developing, and there’s more and more research on it, which is interesting, but let me just give two examples.

The first is the difference between buying things versus buying experiences. When you ask people, would you rather buy something, a new car or a bigger house, or spend this money on experiences, say, vacation with my loved ones, most people would say, “I love the vacation with my loved ones, but that’s just a week or two weeks and then it’s gone. I’d rather buy things because I’ll have this car 4 years from now, or I’ll have this house 20 years from now.” It turns out that, again, comparing the same amount of dollars to the same amount of dollars, it actually makes more sense on average.

It’s not in every case. Remember, research is always average. On average, it makes more sense to spend it on experiences rather than things. Why? Because experiences build capacities. Experiences begin often upward spirals. Experiences create memories. Spending it on experiences more often than not makes more sense than spending it on things. Again, I’m not talking about things that we absolutely need. I’m talking about indulgences by definition.

Ari: What about things that blur the line? Because I’ve thought about this question quite a bit. Let’s say someone’s into motorcycles or fancy sports.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Right example.

Ari: Then you buy a thing but it provides an experience. I just spent a couple thousand dollars buying three new surfboards, because here in Costa Rica I surf a lot, For me they’re like toys. I like to play on new toys and have new sensations, new experiences, opening up new aspects of my ability. It’s part of my own ongoing process of growth and skill development, and play, and fun, but it’s a thing that I’m buying that is facilitating an experience.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: You’re buying both. You’re buying a thing and an experience, which is a win-win on both ends. I know people who collect cars or motorcycles and they love whether it’s driving it or fixing it, or whatever. They’re having experiences that are, as you point out, facilitated by those things.

Ari: This is an interesting question from Susie. She said, “What is the relation of virtue to happiness?”

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Great. That was actually my second part of my answer to the first question. Another way of contributing to our happiness through money is giving. Charity or in general, kindness. When we give, when we help others, we’re helping ourselves. In fact, one of the most powerful ways of increasing our happiness levels, our resilience, and our physical health is through generosity, contribution, giving, helping. That’s connected with virtue as well. It’s very difficult to lead a full and fulfilling happy life if we don’t lead a virtuous life. Again, I’m not talking about being a perfect being, a saint, but I’m talking about striving for higher and higher levels of goodness.

Why? Because of a very simple and important principle in psychology called self-perception theory. We create or we evaluate ourselves in the same way that we evaluate others. If we see a virtuous person, someone who is good, who’s generous, who’s kind, who’s nice, we say, oh, that’s a nice person, I like them. In the same way, if we see ourselves behaving kindly, nicely, generously, virtuously, we automatically evaluate ourselves as such, which means we like ourselves more. Now, there is a very strong and significant connection between self-esteem, how much we like ourselves, and happiness.

Ari: Fascinating. You mentioned a couple of times, this is something I’ve wanted to ask you. you’ve mentioned a couple of times the word resilience in passing. I’ve watched a video of yours previously talking about anti-fragility, becoming more anti-fragile, becoming more resilient. What is the connection between being more anti-fragile with happiness?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: First of all, the term “anti-fragility” was coined by Nassim Taleb, who’s a professor at New York University. Anti-fragility is essentially what I’ve come to call resilience 2.0. Resilience 1.0 is the ability of certain material when after you put pressure on it to go back to its original form. You squish a piece of rubber, if it’s resilient, it goes back to where it was before. A ball, you drop it, if it’s resilient, it bounces back up to where it was before. That’s resilience 1.0. Resilience 2.0, anti-fragility takes it a step further. You take a piece of rubber and you squish it.

If it’s anti-fragile, it doesn’t just go back to where it was before, it actually grows bigger, stronger, or a ball, you drop it if it’s resilient, it bounces back up. Anti-fragile resilience 2.0, it bounces back higher. It turns out that there are anti-fragile systems within us and all around us. For example, our muscles. You go to the gym, you lift weights, you’re putting stress on your muscles. As a result of that stress, they grow stronger, bigger, healthier. It turns out that we can do the same for our cognitive, psychological, emotional faculties. We can put pressure on them, and you know what?

We don’t need to put pressure on them because life puts pressure on them. That’s the nature of being alive. If we put certain conditions in place, if we live our lives in specific ways or incorporate specific practices into our lives, we become more anti-fragile. Now, no big surprise, it turns out that the SPIRE elements, that focusing on finding more meaning and purpose or meditation, or exercising, or learning new things, or cultivating healthier relationships, or expressing gratitude, all those things that increase levels of happiness, they also simultaneously make us more anti-fragile, more resilient and more resilient. 2.0.

The effect of resilience on mood

Ari: This is a particular area of passion of mine. It’s the subject of my next book. I’ve been, for the last six months, writing all about resilience 2.0, as you call it, physiological resilience. One of the chapters will be on psychological resilience as well, but really going very, very deep in the science of the specific mechanisms that our physiology engages as you said, with regards to weight training. Also there’s different adaptations with endurance training, high-intensity interval training with heat exposure, with cold exposure, with breath holding practices.

What’s also fascinating just in the last few days, I’ve been writing the chapter on hypoxic training, low oxygen training, which can be induced either by breathing hypoxic air or by breath-holding practices, what’s really fascinating is the interplay, how all of these things are interconnected. Physiologically, when we do breath-holding practices, there’s many, many studies that actually show that we become more resistant to mental stress.

We alter the set points where our autonomic nervous system functions and the brain circuitry that processes stress and fear responses, we’re altering the set points of how those systems respond to a wide variety of stressors, just through breathing, putting our body into a low oxygen state. All of that science is fascinating, and I’m learning– I’ve been learning about that topic for 10 years now, and I’m learning even more layers to the story that are fascinating to me as I’m in the process of writing this book.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Ari, this is fascinating, of course so important, because it talks to the idea that everything is interconnected. What we do on the body affects the mind and vice versa, and that’s not trivial in our culture, because oh, you have physical pain or you are unhealthy physically, go to a medical doctor. Oh, you’re not feeling well, I’ll go to a therapist. Whereas in fact, so many of the interventions on the physical level affect our psychological well-being, and vice versa.

In fact, in 2010 paper that came out of Holland they did research showing the direct connection between physical toughness and mental toughness, or whether it’s the cold exposure. Yes, it strengthens our physical immune system, we’re less likely to get sick, and it also helps with anxiety and depression. Two sides of the same system; mind, body.

Has prayer been compared to meditation to see if there are the same benefits, or do you need to do both because they have different kinds of benefits?

Ari: Exactly. Scott wants to know, “Has prayer been compared to meditation to see if there are the same benefits, or do you need to do both because they have different kinds of benefits?”

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Great question. It depends. It depends on not the substance of the prayer, but whether you do it with intention and concentration. Because if you say the same prayer every night and you basically go through the motion, you’re not mindful, and then it won’t have the effect, the positive effect of actually changing your brain for the better, making you more resilient. However, if you utter these words, even if you say the same words for 20 years, you utter the same words, but you say it mindfully, you really focus on whether it’s the meaning or what it makes you feel, or really have an intention as you’re saying it, that’s meditation. With all the benefits thereof.

Ari: Do you remember the name of that study from Holland that you mentioned in the previous answer? I wanted to ask you, and actually now someone else is asking.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: I don’t, but I can easily find it. I can tell you where it is. It’s in the Handbook of Positive Psychology, but not this last version, the previous version. Handbook of Positive Psychology. The title of the article is Toughness.

Can the happiness course help with depression and anxiety

Ari: We’ve had a couple people ask– they’re dealing with depression and anxiety, and I think the question is really to what extent would going through this program help them with depression or anxiety?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Again, the sounds of happiness studies is not a panacea. If you’re experiencing depression or anxiety, then I recommend getting professional help, certainly if it’s clinical depression and clinical anxiety, we all experience some sadness and some anxiety at times. Having said that, the signs of happiness can help a great deal as an adjunct to augment the impact of therapy, or the impact of medication. In fact, what we talk about a lot is there are many tools and techniques such as mindfulness, such as physical exercise that A, help you feel better, alleviate some of the anxiety and depression.

B, no less important make it less likely that you will relapse. No, I wouldn’t say, it’s not a one-stop-shop for anxiety or depression, not at all. However, it can certainly help. Again, remember experiments with truth. We will introduce you to so many tools and techniques that you will be– because for one person, for many people cold exposure really helps. For other people just starting an exercise regime literally transforms their life.

For other people going to a therapist, is that keystone intervention that makes all the difference, and then everything else can help in addition to it. Sorry, but I did find that study, Ari. What it is, again, it’s called toughness. It’s easy to find on Google. It’s by Richard Dienstbier, D-I-E-N-S-T-B-I-E-R. Richard Dienstbier, and Lisa PytlikZillig. You know what? Yes, I don’t have access to the chat, but it’s D-I-E-N-S-T-B-I-E-R.

Ari: Thank you.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Called toughness.

Ari: Going back to the answer you were just giving, I wanted to just add a bit to it for people listening. Legally, there is an issue where if somebody is asking about a medical condition, legally for me or for Dr. Ben-Shahar to protect ourselves, there has to be essentially a response to say, Hey, go see a professional in this area” to protect ourselves in that scenario.” I want to just say on a broader level, if someone asks, let’s say, I’m dealing with heart disease, will this program help me? Not that this program has any relationship to heart disease, but in general, will a program help me?

The answer is, No, if you have heart disease, you need to see a professional. It’s also the case that there is a large body of evidence showing that, for example, nutrition and lifestyle, and exercise interventions. We have a lot of knowledge around the habits that will essentially eliminate heart disease. We have lots of evidence, for example, in hunter-gatherer populations, that those diseases don’t even exist when you live in that lifestyle. As I was alluding to earlier in this conversation, if you study disease, you study pathology and you focus on trying to reverse pathology, that’s one thing.

I would make the argument that it is even more important, if you actually want to reverse pathology, it’s even more important to study what’s on the opposite end of that spectrum. Instead of studying heart disease and focusing on treatments to fix heart disease, spend a lot of time focusing on the people with the healthiest hearts and heart function, cardiovascular health, and extremely low rates of disease, and do as they do, for example.

Or in this case, don’t just focus on depression and how to fix depression. Focus on the science around who are the happiest people on the planet and what do they do. The more you move towards that, the better. This is like darkness and light. If you want to get rid of the darkness, the best way to do it, in my opinion, in most scenarios, focus on adding more light. I think that’s really analogous to what we’re doing here with the science of happiness.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Ari, in 1954, Abraham Maslow, who is considered the father of the human potential movement, wrote a paper which has really met obscurity. I found it by complete happenstance literally in a basement of a bookstore. There was a very old secondhand book that had that essay in it by Abraham Maslow. Unfortunately, I didn’t study it, and it’s not being taught in psychology department. It’s about what he calls growing tip statistic. What he says is that we’ve got it all wrong with our study of statistics because psychology departments, anthropology, social sciences, mostly look at averages.

He said it’s important to study the average. In fact, we can learn a lot from the average. What’s more important is for us to study the best. As you point out, the healthiest people in the world, the happiest people in the world. Now, not because we’re elitist, on the contrary, because what studying the best does is it democratizes excellence. Because what the average does is it describes.

What studying the best does, it prescribes. There’s a lot that we can learn from the healthiest, from the happiest, from the most successful. If you want to become a great teacher, do you study the average teacher or do you go to the best teacher? You want to study meditation, do you go to the average person on the street or do you study these professional meditators? If you want to be a great leader, do you study average or best? The average describes, the best prescribes. Yes, this is what our fields are so much about.

Ari: Actually the more I learn, the more I am shifting– the more I actually think this is something I’m crafting a lot around with regards to disease. I think on a society-wide level in terms of this particular moment in time, the culture, not only within conventional medicine but even with alternative and functional medicine, I think is misguidedly focused on pathology and disease and not enough on the opposite, on building health and focused on creating health. I don’t think that it’s synonymous, that reversing pathology is synonymous with creating health, and that we can expect to arrive at health or happiness in this case simply through the reversal of pathology.

I think it’s a different thing than actually doing the things to create health because as going back to our previous conversation, let’s say you optimize your serotonin levels in your brain through taking a pill of some kind, okay, but you still have terrible relationships, you still have a terrible diet, you still are sedentary. You still have poor metabolic health, and all of these things that we know drive poor health and poor relationships, and social isolation. You can correct the serotonin levels in your brain, but have you really created the conditions for happiness? I would argue no.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: That’s exactly right. Many of these things that we were talking about, that you are writing about, contribute to both resilience, our ability to deal with hardships and difficulties. and they enhance our happiness levels. To simplify, if, let’s say we’re at a negative five, we’re more likely to go to a negative three, but also, we’re also more likely to go not just back to zero but to the positive side on the spectrum. Again, happiness is not the absence of sadness.

How to find happiness under deep brain fog?

Ari: Someone asked, “How to find happiness under deep brain fog?” Do you have any thoughts on that?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: I think the first step there should be, how can I alleviate this condition, get rid of the of the brain fog? If I can’t, let’s say I experience it, the question, rather than how can I be happy with brain fog, is how can I be happier? How can I go from the negative three to the negative two or to the plus one? Or let’s say I’m a two, how can I go to the four? The question is always, how can I improve? How can I grow happier? That’s why even if we’re not doing well, even if we are going through a difficult spell, whether it’s with physical pain or with emotional pain, we can always improve our lot, even if we can’t get to our desired seven or eight.

Ari: Tal, I have one more question for you and then I think we’ll wrap up. I’m curious if you’re familiar with Anna Lembke’s work. She’s done a lot of work on addiction and treating addiction. She’s wrote a book called Dopamine Nation. Are you familiar with that at all?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Yes. I was not familiar with the name but I’m familiar with the book, yes.

Ari: She talks about the neuroscience of pain and pleasure regulation, I’m paraphrasing a bit, but as one center of the brain, and that if we have too much pleasure, particularly super physiological or supernatural levels of pleasure especially, especially that was not preceded by hard work, that this actually tips the scale in the opposite direction, and that we have pain on the other side of that, that we have a dip in our mood. Certainly our joy and I don’t know how much you would agree with putting happiness in there.

The opposite is also true, interestingly, that doing things like hormetic stressors like we were talking about before, like exercise or cold, or heat, or hard work of various kinds, and oftentimes things that are physically uncomfortable or mentally tough, mentally challenging, create some pain or discomfort upfront, some struggle upfront, but often there’s a reward after. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on how that whole dynamic of pain and pleasure regulation in the neuroscience of the human brain, how that maps on to human happiness.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Going back to Aristotle who advocates for moderation in all things, even in moderation. Because what Aristotle is saying is not that we should try as much as possible to always be in the middle. Henry David Thoreau in the 1800s wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Quiet desperation is always being in that middle. It’s not bad, but it’s also not good. What we want to experience is the full range of human emotions and human experiences to a point. Because even if we think about those difficult experiences, say, cold exposure, we know it’s healthy for us, but we also know that the cold can kill us if we’re exposed to it for too long, or it’s too extreme.

Yes, there are some people like Wim Hof who really take it to the extreme and is able to withstand much more than the average, but even Wim Hof has his limits, whether it’s for cold exposure or heat exposure, that can also kill us. We can go overboard. It’s the same with positive experiences. One of the studies that Lembke talks about is of mice who could press a button that would give them the experience of an orgasm. They kept on pressing it and pressing it and pressing it until they died. Now, you could argue. what a way to go.

Still, it’s taking it overboard to the extreme.

Yes, we want generally, moderation, but at the same time, we want to experience the extremes, whether it’s what Abraham Maslow talked about as a peak experience, extremely powerful, joyful experiences, and we want that cold exposure or heat exposure, or tough experiences that will also help us stretch, and both of these contribute to our happiness. How? When that middle shifts, that base level shifts towards higher levels of positivity. We have our ups and downs throughout life. The question is can we experience life and its ups and downs with an upward trajectory?

Ari: Alter the set point at which our system is operating so that our baseline state is more in the positive valence more towards happiness.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: Exactly. All those interventions that we talked about, basically the whole science of happiness or well-being or whole being revolves around changing that set point, this base level. It’s not about creating a life that is exempt of painful emotions, impossible and desirable. It’s simply about raising the base level.

Ari: Tal it has been an absolute joy to have this conversation with you. Thank you so much for doing this. To everybody listening, I want to encourage you again to sign up for this year-long certificate in happiness studies. Dr. Ben-Shahar is one of the world’s top experts in happiness. He has the honor of teaching, I believe you still hold the record for the most popular course ever taught at Harvard. You can right now, for the Energy Blueprint audience, his team agreed to give you guys a $500 discount, so I strongly encourage you to sign up. The course, the program is starting June 5th or June 6th. Is that when this year-long program starts?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: That’s correct. On a Monday.

Ari: Are there any final words you want to leave people with about the program or anything else?

Dr. Ben-Shahar: A couple of things with your permission. The first thing is, I think the most important thing about the program is that we create a community of like-minded, like-hearted individuals, and people are as involved or uninvolved as they want to be. It’s a very special community that’s all about increasing levels of well-being for the individual, for the family, for the organization, community, and world. Second, whether or not you join our community, I would urge you to take one idea or two ideas from today’s session and implement them.

Because unfortunately, I wish that were the case but it’s not, unfortunately, we can’t become happier in theory. We have to actually apply, do something make a difference. Whether it’s starting a two-minute meditation practice, whether it’s exercising a little bit more, whether it’s disconnecting from technology for 30 minutes extra a day, whether it’s starting a gratitude journal, whether it’s asking more questions, whatever it is, small changes make a big difference when consistently applied.

Ari: Beautiful. Tal, thank you so much for doing this. This was an absolute joy. I really enjoyed it tremendously. To everybody listening I hope you will go deeper in Dr. Ben-Shahar’s work. It’s been transformative for me personally, and again, as I’ve said multiple times already, it’s hard for me to imagine anything more important to study in your life than the science of human happiness.

Dr. Ben-Shahar is the best in the world. Please, I encourage you, study more, implement more. Take from this session and go deeper, and keep practicing, keep playing, keep implementing in this life. Keep implementing this information in your life, and become a happier person, because not only will you benefit from that but everybody you’re in relationship with will also benefit from that. Tal, thank you again so much. I hope to have more conversations with you in the future.

Dr. Ben-Shahar: I look forward to that. Thank you very much, Ari.

Show Notes

00:16 -Guest Intro
01:30 – What is happiness?
03:42 – The difference between pleasure and hedonism, and happiness
05:44 – Spirituality and happiness
08:05 – Cultivating mindfulness and meditation for happiness
15:00 – The connection between life purpose and happiness
32:55 – The connection between IQ and happiness
40:45 – The link between introspection and happiness
50:07 – Is depression purely a chemical imbalance?
59:42 – Course in Happiness Studies
1:14:30 – Q & A session – How close to Buddhism is your orientation?
1:15:35 – How to find happiness when you’re suffering with chronic disease or with physical pain every day
1:17:45 – The connection between money and happiness
1:25:18 – The effect of resilience on mood
1:32.12 – Can the happiness course help with depression and anxiety
1:41:30 – How to find happiness under deep brain fog?
1:47:57 – Outro

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