Global Economics

They Teach Happiness at Harvard


In Tal Ben-Shahar's positive psychology class, students learn that happiness isn't just an accident, it's a science

An entire industry has been built up around the pursuit of happiness. A stroll past any bookstore window demonstrates the explosive popularity of the feel-good, self-help movements of recent years. And whether these products are genuine paths to ultimate happiness or just pleasure-peddling scams, the trend seems likely to hold.

Now, even the Ivy League is getting in on the act, layering serious academic research onto the pop-psychology phenomenon to develop a "science of happiness." Known as "positive psychology," the field was pioneered at the University of Pennsylvania and came to Harvard a decade ago when an elective course on the topic was first taught.

Why Students Flock to Class

Since then, Positive Psychology has become the most popular undergraduate course at Harvard, eclipsing the previous longtime title holder, Introduction to Economics. The success of the course, which focuses on the psychological aspects of a fulfilling and flourishing life, indicates a growing desire by young people to make their lives more meaningful, says Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard psychologist who has taught the class since 2004.

"Students are attracted to this kind of class because they feel that it's making a real difference in their lives," says Ben-Shahar, whose charismatic personality and compelling lectures helped drive explosive growth in enrollment after he began teaching the course. Ben-Shahar says the quest for happiness has always been an innate human yearning, dating back to the times of Confucius and Aristotle. "The difference today is that for the first time we have a science of happiness."

To be sure, the course has its doubters. James Coyne, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine says that Harvard's class and others like it offer little more to increase happiness than does a motivational speaker on a lecture circuit. The sense of euphoric bliss after a compelling presentation is natural, he says, but rarely lasts. "People always readjust to their baseline and go back to normal," says Coyne.

But the point of Positive Psychology is to combine the fun of popular psychology with academic rigor. The course's syllabus reads like a 12-step recovery program with lesson titles such as "Can We Change?" "Setting Goals," "Relationships," and "Self-Esteem." But the list of course readings dispels any notion that the class is what Harvard students call a "gut," or easy credit. Articles, essays, and research reports from vaunted science publications like the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy and Psychology Today are juxtaposed with Ben-Shahar's own book on the subject, Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment.

Despite the heavy workload, the popularity of Positive Psychology has soared. In 2006, more than 850 students filed into the auditorium for the semester's first lesson, up from just 20 in 1999 when the course was launched. Many credit the class's success to Ben-Shahar himself, whose on-campus popularity coupled with media attention has made him a quasi-celebrity in the field of psychology. (He even appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2007.) But Ben-Shahar insists it's the science that is the real draw.

A Skeptic's Conversion

Elizabeth Johnston, who was in Ben-Shahar's section in 2004, began the course with skepticism. "I was one of the naysayers," she recalls. "I said this is crazy, I can't believe this; I want a real psychology class." But as the semester progressed, Johnston says she became a believer. She was fascinated partly by the course literature and message, and partly by Ben-Shahar's colorful personal anecdotes, which she says were inspirational.

Before taking Positive Psychology, Johnston was obsessed with grades and focused completely on her future. She says the class taught her to enjoy living for the moment and to express gratitude more openly, among other things. "A lot of people think positive psychology means walking around with a smile on your face," says Johnston, who went on to earn a master's degree in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's not that. It's learning to take the good with the bad and learning to make the most of your life."

The phenomenon of positive psychology appears to be catching on. Today, more than 200 courses on the subject are taught across the U.S. and Ben-Shahar has given seminars about it as far away as China. "The role of a university is ultimately to improve the quality of people's lives," he says, adding that that is precisely what positive psychology is intended to do.

Matt Mabe is a reporter in BusinessWeek's Paris bureau .

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