5 Questions with Tal Ben-Shahar
1. You created the most popular course in the history of Harvard, and yet in Short Cuts to Happiness you talk about lessons you learned from your barber. Why?
I learned that when I tuned in to what my barber was saying in the same way that I tune in to what a fellow academic is saying or a prominent philosopher is writing, I discovered both wisdom and joy. I am very grateful for this lesson because I find myself more open, more attuned, to people, situations, and the lessons that reside everywhere.
2. What mistakes do you see people making in their quest for happiness?
They look for it in the next promotion, the next raise, the next milestone, when the fact is that these accomplishments will not make us happier. Happiness mostly lies within. It is more determined by our state of mind than by our status or the state of our bank account.
3. In what ways can we be more open to the wisdom available to us in the course of our days?
There is a concept in art called the “appreciative eye.” For example, imagine yourself walking in an outdoor market and encountering an original Raphael painting resting in the midst of second-hand junk. You may not notice the painting, and even if you do, you are unlikely to give it a second look. In contrast, if you see the very same painting hanging in the Louvre, then you are likely to stop, inquire, observe, appreciate. You come into a museum with an appreciative eye and mind—inquisitive, open to beauty and awe.
Now imagine putting on this appreciative eye or appreciative ear when we interact with people—not all the time, but some of the time. What a difference this could make to our personal and professional relationships, to our life as a whole.
4. In your view, how are spirituality, happiness, and health connected?
As I see it, spiritual well-being refers to the importance of finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life, as well as to elevating ordinary experiences into extraordinary ones through mindful presence. There is a great deal of research showing that spirituality contributes to both physical and mental health. Spiritual individuals live longer and better; they are happier and healthier.
5. You write about the ritual quality of going to your barber. What are your personal daily practices or rituals that keep you resilient and positive?
I meditate every morning for 10–15 minutes, practice yoga three times a week, and engage in some form of exercise—swimming, biking, or running—three times a week. Additionally, I make a point of having one-on-one time with my wife and with each of our three children. These rituals provide the foundation for my well-being. In addition, my central work ritual is writing 3–4 hours each morning during the week.
Oh, yes, and get my hair cut every six weeks, or whenever there is an important topic I want to explore . . .