The secret to happiness

The secret to happiness

Clinical psychologist Dr. Moshe Talmon has spent the last 30 years asking people what’s wrong – with their lives, their minds, their marriages, their careers and anything and everything else one could possibly complain about. He spent his days in his Tel Aviv practice analyzing depression, anxiety, stress, anger, fear and schizophrenia, and then one day he realized his job was taking a heavy toll on his own mental health.

“My work as a psychologist was centered around what’s bad about people’s lives,” he says, “and I felt I needed to do something to balance it. I needed to concentrate more on being content and happy.”

That’s when he discovered that psychologists in the US had been sharing the same frustration and had already come up with a solution – positive psychology, a revolutionary scientific approach that asks “what’s going right” rather than “what’s going wrong.”

Clinical psychology as a field had always generally focused on the negative, on what’s wrong and how to fix it. Practitioners had patients examine their faults and delve deeply into traumatizing memories in order to mend their broken spirits. But the idea behind positive psychology is that in order to eliminate the negative, one must first accentuate the positive.

The idea was launched in 1996, when Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania was elected president of the American Psychological Association in a landslide vote. His aim as a psychologist was to merge practice with science, and as president his mission became exploring what he calls the area “north of zero.”

“The field of psychology was only half-baked,” Seligman said in a 1999 speech. “We had baked the part about mental illness; we had baked the part about repair of damage. The other side’s unbaked, the side of strength, the side of what we’re good at.”

That side became the study of positive psychology, of positive emotions, positive character traits and positive institutions, building upon what had been learned about the dark side of the mind to promote prevention and mental health.

The seeds for the field had been planted in the late 1980s, when University of Illinois Prof. Dr. Edward Diener began to study subjective well-being by defining, measuring and determining the causes of life satisfaction, studies that have been illuminated by Seligman’s work.

“It’s not enough to take people from minus five to zero,” says Harvard’s positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar. “It’s not enough to just get rid of depression. It may be a prerequisite, but there’s another step afterward, and that’s where positive psychology comes in.”

The discipline focuses on cultivating positive emotions and traits like strength, optimism and self-esteem with the goal of “not only going from zero to five, but becoming more resilient and strengthening the psychological immune system,” he explains recently in a busy Jerusalem cafe.

Now, the professor has left his cushy position at Harvard to return home, citing family, friends and Zionism as his reasons. Hoping to jump-start positive thinking here, Ben-Shahar’s plans include teaching positive psychology classes in local institutions.

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY has caught on quickly and is already being studied in dozens of universities around the world. At Harvard, the class has become the most popular at the Ivy League institution, with 850 students filling the lecture hall every semester to hear Ben-Shahar teach what has been nicknamed “the course on happiness.”

…interested? To read more about the study and practice of happiness – click here.