Judaism Unbound Episode 102: Studying Happiness - Tal Ben-Shahar


Dan and Lex are joined by Tal Ben-Shahar, a lecturer and writer who specializes in the field of Positive Psychology. He describes what "studying happiness" looks like in practice, identifies some of the field's key findings, and explores how religion, and Judaism in particular, intersect with academic research on meaning, purpose, and human flourishing.

Image Credit: WOBI

Image Credit: WOBI

(0:01 - 15:57): Ben-Shahar begins the episode by providing an overview of his field -- Positive Psychology. [1] Characterizing it as "the study of happiness," he explores some of the behaviors and mindsets that scientists have found to be correlated with happiness, [2] along with some elements of many religions that can contribute to a life of well-being. [3] He then distinguishes between the concepts of pleasure and happiness, emphasizing that the latter is more holistic than we often think it is.

(15:58 - 31:31): Ben-Shahar explores how Positive Psychology can synthesize the pursuit of happiness with the quest to help those for whom happiness is unattainable, due to systems preventing them from fulfilling their basic needs. [4] He also presents a counter-intuitive understanding of the self, which complicates our belief that "selfishness" is inherently good and "selflessness" is inherently bad. [5]

(31:32 - 43:48): Continuing his examination of happiness, Ben-Shahar makes the important point that pursuing happiness in a direct sense -- especially if one senses a pressure by others or society to feel happy -- can actually be a hindrance towards the actual achievement of happiness. To close the episode, he looks at how the idea of unbundling Judaism connects to the other threads of this conversation, and he also calls for Judaism to fully internalize the need for more egalitarian communities in which women are fully empowered as equals. [6]

Image Credit: Tst-Dz.ru

Image Credit: Tst-Dz.ru

[1] Read Tal Ben-Shahar's full bio, and learn more about his work, at TalBenShahar.com. You can purchase any of his books at this link.

[2] Ben-Shahar distinguishes between positive psychology and self-help. Learn more about what differentiates the two by reading this article, written by Katie Small and featured at ThePositivePsychologyPeople.com.

[3] For more on the intersection of religion and positive psychology, see "Happiness and Religion, Happiness as Religion," by Sonja Lyubomirsky.

[4] Learn more about how Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs relates to the field of Positive Psychology by clicking here. For a past Judaism Unbound conversation on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, see Episode 3: Exodus - Benay Lappe.

[5] Hear remarks that Dan alludes to, in which Ben-Shahar speaks about the "Permission to be Human," by clicking the video on the right.

[6] Read more about Ben-Shahar's work by taking a look at this 2007 New York Times article about him, by D.T. Max, entitled "Happiness 101." For another window into Ben-Shahar's thinking, see this article, describing why he left Harvard to return to Israel.