Tal Ben-Shahar has been researching, writing, talking, and teaching about happiness for more than two decades.
The Israeli-American lecturer, educator, and entrepreneur is the co-founder of the Happiness Studies Academy and is the author of a series of
New York Times
His latest -
Happier, No Matter What: Cultivating Hope, Resilience, and Purpose in Hard Times -
was written during the COVID-19 pandemic. In it, Ben-Shahar fortifies readers with strategies to manage emotions, care for themselves and their relationships, stay curious, and live mindfully - even when there are a multitude of reasons to do none of these.
After graduating from Harvard with B.A.s in Philosophy and Psychology and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior, Ben-Shahar taught two of the most popular courses in Harvard's history:
The Psychology of Leadership
. His courses attracted up to 1,400 students per semester - approximately 20 percent of all Harvard undergraduates-which speaks to the power of his teaching and his topic.
To be honest, I'm not much of a reader of anything that even whispers of self-help (even, perhaps especially, when I could use the advice within). But I had the privilege to meet Ben-Shahar and hear him speak when he headlined a program and workshop about workplace happiness presented by Spertus Institute's Center for Jewish Leadership. He was persuasive and passionate - and some of the strategies from his workshop have stayed with me, incorporated into my own stockpile of personal best practices.
This new book has the same mix of theory and application. In it, Ben-Shahar explores concepts grounded in serious research (including the Harvard long-term study, which followed a group of students for more than 80 years and is known for its findings on the importance of community, relationships, and joy in achieving health and longevity). Then, with some sticky storytelling likely to stay in readers' memories, he illustrates practical steps that can be woven into complicated real-world lives.
Ben-Shahar organizes the book according to a concept he calls SPIRE, for spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational, and emotional well-being. Core in all these areas is the idea of growing from hardship, of bouncing back in ways that makes a person (or community or organization) stronger and more able to deal with future adversity. Ben-Shahar refers to this concept as antifragility, a term used by New York University professor and epistemologist Nassim Taleb. (I didn't know, either, and had to look it up: An epistemologist studies how we know things.)
This concept goes by a range of names, including emotional agility, adaptive resilience, and complex resilience (a term I know from the interfaith Religion, Vulnerability, and Resilience Project, in which Spertus' Dr. Dean P. Bell is a lead scholar).
I like the term Ben-Shahar presents, Resilience 2.0, because it speaks to a resilience that is improved, that addresses weaknesses unearthed through use and experience.
One of the paths to Resilience 2.0 is the idea that behaviors can change attitudes, and this has me truly intrigued. Ben-Shahar explains the groundwork supporting the "fake it until you make it" strategy:
"Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem conducted research demonstrating how we form attitudes about ourselves in the same way that we form attitudes about others - namely, through observation. If we see a man helping others, we conclude that he is kind; if we see a woman standing up for her beliefs, we conclude that she is principled and courageous. Similarly, we draw conclusions about ourselves by observing our own behavior. When we act kindly or courageously, our attitudes are likely to shift in the direction of our action, and we tend to feel, and see ourselves as, kinder and more courageous."
For me, this idea - that what we do can drive how we feel - provides a wonderful reframing and inspires me to take action and attempt to build positive new habits.
Betsy Gomberg reads (and sometimes writes about) Jewish books. She is Spertus Institute's Director of Marketing and Communications.