In his trailblazing Harvard courses and internationally bestselling books, positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar has shared his wisdom on finding fulfillment with people around the world. In his latest book, Short Cuts to Happiness: Life-Changing Lessons from My Barber, he details two years of heartfelt conversations with his barber, Avi.
Covering love and friendship, generosity and laughter, the two men exchange life lessons that will resonate with readers and instantly boost their well-being. We sat down recently to chat. Here is some of our conversation:
Tell us more about your friend and barber, Avi, the inspiration behind the book.
Avi is a wise and kind man. While he doesn’t have any formal training in psychology, his wisdom is deeply rooted in his own life experiences and in the many conversations he has with his clients.
You explain that short cuts to happiness are right in front of us, but we often miss or neglect them. Why is that?
There is so much information we are exposed to, whether in books, through the media, or in everyday conversations. Some of the information is relevant to our well-being. The problem is that the useful information often drowns in a sea of useless information. What we lack is not information, but the wisdom to discern the useful from the useless.
What are a few simple ways to boost our happiness and quality of life?
Here are a few happiness lessons I put together:
Lesson 1: Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions—such as fear, sadness, or anxiety—as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness. We are a culture obsessed with pleasure and believe that the mark of a worthy life is the absence of discomfort.
So when we experience pain, we take it to indicate that something must be wrong with us. In fact, there is something wrong with us if we don’t experience sadness or anxiety at times; these are human emotions. The paradox is that when we accept our feelings—when we give ourselves permission to be human and experience painful emotions—we are more likely to open ourselves up to positive emotions.
Lesson 2: Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters—moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning. Research shows that an hour or two of a meaningful and pleasurable experience can affect the quality of an entire day or even a whole week.
Lesson 3: Happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well-being is determined by what we choose to focus on and our interpretation of external events. For example, do we focus on the empty or full part of the glass? Do we view failures as catastrophic, or do we see them as learning opportunities?
Lesson 4: Simplify! We are generally too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise our happiness by trying to do too much. Knowing when to say “no” to others often means saying “yes”’ to ourselves.
Lesson 5: Remember the mind-body connection. What we do — or don’t do — with our bodies influences our minds. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.
Lesson 6: Express gratitude whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.
Lesson 7: Prioritize relationships. The number one predictor of happiness is the time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. The most important source of happiness may be the person sitting next to you. Appreciate these people and savor the time you spend together.
What else does research teach us about relationships and happiness?
As I mentioned above, the top predictor of happiness is the quality time we spend with people we care about. In addition to happiness, relationships are critical for health. The kinds of relationships we choose to enjoy don’t matter much, in that we can enjoy friendships, family relationships, or romantic relationships.
What does matter, however, is that the relationships are real, not virtual. Research by NYU professor Eric Klineberg shows us that the more time we spend on social media, the lonelier we are. The key is to disconnect from social media so we can connect to people. Switching off the phone for a few hours each day is critical for our well-being.
In your book, you explore how happiness intertwines with our business lives. Could you expand on that?
Most people believe that success will lead to happiness. Their mental model is:
Success (cause) –> Happiness (effect)
However, 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 it’s temporary and short-lived. But while success does not lead to well-being, the opposite is the case:
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 pleasurable emotions, we are more creative, more motivated, form better relationships, and are physically healthier. Organizations should invest in their employees’ happiness as an end in itself, and as a means to higher profits. Happiness pays!
To learn more about Tal Ben-Shahar and his new book, Short Cuts to Happiness, visit his website.