Give yourself permission to be human! An interview with Harvard Professor and Happiness expert Tal Ben-Shahar.

Tal Ben-Shahar was born in 1970. As a lecturer at Harvard University, Tal created the most popular course in Harvard's history. Influenced by the pioneering work of Dr Martin Seligman, the world-renowned founder of positive psychology, Tal Ben-Shahar states that his goal in teaching positive psychology "is to create a bridge between the Ivory Tower and Main Street.”

Thrive Global invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive Global or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

I was incredibly lucky to have interviewed him: as you will read, he really walks the talk 🙂 Enjoy!

1.    Tell us a little bit about yourself…I was born in Israel, in 1970. When I was 11 I picked up squash, and that essentially took up all of my time outside of school and sleep. I ended up playing professionally for a few years, until I got injured and had to give up my aspiration of becoming world champion. At the age of 22 I went to Harvard, started studying computer science, was not happy, and switched to philosophy and psychology.

“Organisations are realising that they need to invest in their employees’ happiness as an end in itself, and also as a means toward higher profits. Happiness pays!”

2.    What is positive psychology? Positive psychology focuses on flourishing, on the individual and societal levels–on topics such as happiness, self-esteem, optimism, and joy. This is in contrast with the more prevalent focus in psychology on pathology–on neurosis, anxiety, and depression. In addition, positive psychology focuses primarily on what works, whether in individuals, relationships, and organisations. By starting out with what works, there is more likelihood of success. These positive questions should not only be asked when things go wrong. They are potentially preventative in nature, strengthening the relationship so that it can deal with the inevitable hardships that arise over time. The same approach applies to individuals and to organisations. For example, the questions of an organisational behaviourist trained in positive psychology can be, “What is working in the organisation? What has worked? What can we learn from that?” That is a good platform for dealing with the challenges.

 3.  How did you end up in happiness research? Initially, what got me interested in studying happiness was my own unhappiness. I was doing well as an undergraduate student at Harvard, I was a top athlete, I had a good social life—and I was unhappy. It was then that I realised that the internal matters more to one’s levels of wellbeing than the external, and it was then that I got into psychology. After studying positive psychology, and benefiting from it, I wanted to share what I learned with others.

“Most people believe that success leads to happiness, while actually, the opposite is true. Increase your levels of happiness, and you’re likely to become more successful,”

4. Could you tell us more about your vision and mission? My mission is to bring happiness to people’s lives by creating a bridge between the Ivory Tower and Main Street. I want to make research accessible to individuals, schools, organisations, and nations.

 5. Are company leaders and top management responsive to your work? Very much so, and increasingly so by the day. Most people believe that success will lead to wellbeing. Their mental model is:

Success (cause)  Happiness (effect)

But most people have it wrong. We know from a great deal of research that success, at best, leads to a spike in one’s happiness levels, but the spike is temporary, ephemeral. But while success does not lead to wellbeing, the opposite is the case: What is working in the organisation?  What has worked? What can we learn from that? That is a good platform for dealing with the challenges.

Success (effect) Happiness (cause)

This is a very important finding, turning the cause-and-effect relationship around and correcting the misperception that so many people have. The reason for the above is that when we experience positive emotions we are more creative, more motivated, form better relationships, and are physically healthier. Organisations are realising that they need to invest in their employees’ happiness as an end in itself, and also as a means toward higher profits. Happiness pays!

6. How do you see the corporate work life in the future? Challenging. The lack of real relationships—relying on social media—is a problem for happiness, and hence for productivity, innovation, and health.

“I’m putting together the blueprint for an interdisciplinary field of happiness studies, that will focus on the wellbeing of the whole person.

7. What is the best piece of advice you ever got? Be true to your values.

8. Your advice for us…If things aren’t going well at work, what can we do? Give yourself permission to be human. In other words, allow yourself to feel down, sad, upset, and so on. It’s natural. When we accept emotions — such as fear, sadness, or anxiety — as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. The paradox is that when we accept our feelings—when we give ourselves the permission to be human and experience painful emotions—we are more likely to open ourselves up to positive emotions.

 9. What’s the next challenge for the us? Moral relativism: the belief that there is no right and wrong, good or evil, and that all values are equally valid.

10. What’s next for you? I’m putting together the blueprint for an interdisciplinary field of happiness studies, that will focus on the wellbeing of the whole person (Whole being). The focus is on spiritual wellbeing, physical wellbeing, intellectual wellbeing, relational wellbeing, and emotional wellbeing.

Reference: For more information about Tal’s great work go to

Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment

    Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

    You might also like...


    “Learning to be happy is an everyday affair,” by Tal Ben-Sahar.

    by Sunita Sehmi
    Courtesy of Sarote Pruksachat / Getty Images

    The Surprising Downside of Achieving Your Goals

    by Chloe Noor Khosrowshahi

    What Gives Me Optimism: Harvard Positive Psychology Expert Tal Ben-Shahar

    by Tal Ben-Shahar
    We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.