Published in UT San Diego, October 16, 2012
By Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry
OK, so you have it all, the house, the plane, the family, a successful business, and you’re not happy. Why?
“Deconstructing happiness — the science behind contented lives” is the focus of Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught the most popular course at Harvard on this topic. He recently spoke at the Atlantic Meets Pacific conference in La Jolla, sponsored by The Atlantic magazine and University of California San Diego.
When Ben-Shahar was an undergraduate at Harvard University, he was getting good grades, had an active social life and was a top squash player. Yet, he wasn’t happy, and he wanted to figure out why. He switched his major from computer science to psychology in an effort to find the answer.
His research led to further development of the field of “positive psychology.” At first, one thinks this is kind of goofy — that thinking positive thoughts can make a difference. But the hard data and the empirical statistics actually support this concept. It starts with the idea of how you frame the question.
Ben-Shahar’s remarks about the “science of happiness” are relevant to entrepreneurs, both in terms of their personal lives and in building successful organizations. Ben-Shahar defines happiness as having both a short-term (pleasure) and long-term (meaning) components. He contends that we experience a deep sense of meaning and are more successful when we pursue those things that we care about most.
Positive psychology starts by looking at what works in a relationship, in your personal life, or in an organization instead of the traditional way of starting with an analysis of the problems. “Until 2000, for every article on happiness and job satisfaction, you would find 21 on depression and anxiety,” Ben-Shahar said. “If I go to a therapist, she will ask what’s wrong. When an organizational psychologist goes into a company, he will ask about the weaknesses.”
In contrast, the positive process begins by asking questions like these:
• What’s working?
• What’s going well in your relationship?
• What are your strengths?
• What’s going well in your organization on which we can build?
After World War II, Ben-Shahar said intervention programs for at-risk populations focused on the question: Why do these individuals fail? Most of the programs that were subsequently developed were created in response to the failures. By the 1980s, when psychologists started asking, “What makes some individuals succeed in spite of unfavorable circumstances?” Different answers showed up. The analysis was on triumph over adversity, not removing adversity.
For example, in studies of why some children succeeded vs. others, the distinguishing characteristic was resilience. This trait of resilience, developed early in life, proves to be a critical trait in the entrepreneur personality DNA.
The resilient kids were able to set future goals for themselves. Apparently, having a goal made it easier for them to overcome difficulties and to be optimistic about the possible outcome — to exhibit the relentless pursuit mentality important in entrepreneurship so you’re able to bounce back from the inevitable setbacks. Significantly, the resilient kids had role models (mom, dad, teacher, or historical figure), they focused on their strengths, and they were physically active.
These skills can be taught. We can help kids find role models, teach them how to set goals and encourage exercise. Ben-Shahar says that exercising as little as three times a week for 30 minutes has the same impact as the most powerful psychiatric medication, and it increases creativity and concentration.
In applying these concepts to organizations, Ben-Shahar referred to the 25-year Gallup research project that surveyed employees and managers to identify the behavior patterns of great managers. The study found that allowing employees to do what they do best — to focus on their strengths — resulted in more successful companies. Imagine an employee review that spent 90 percent of the time complimenting vs. criticizing.
And in the final analysis, Ben-Shahar focuses on gratitude — recognition of the wonders of the world on a daily basis. “When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates. You have more of it. When you do not appreciate it, it depreciates, and you have less of it in your relationships, family or organizations,” said Ben-Shahar.
There is no rule about happiness. It is a by-product. It is what is left after everything else is done, but of course, without it, everything else means very little.