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The Science of Happiness

05 Aug 2014 | Bridget Glenville-Cleave

Tal Event V2

Last night I joined 500 other people in London to hear a talk on The Science of Happiness by Dr Tal Ben-Shahar, organized by the UK's leading happiness movement, Action for Happiness in partnership with the Wholebeing Institute.

As well as authoring several books, Tal Ben-Shahar lectured on positive psychology at Harvard University - in fact, his course quickly became the most popular that Harvard ran, attracting many hundreds of students every year. This was one of the reasons I wanted to go to the talk: anyone who can engage undergraduates on that scale must have something special to offer.

Since the talk was in central London there was a good chance it would be attended by a fair number of UEL MAPP graduates and students, so I guessed it would be a great opportunity to reconnect. I was right - I saw more than a dozen people I knew, and got to meet a few more too.

And my other reason for going is that there are always different ways of looking at things or new insights to be had - perhaps new positive psychology research findings or simply the benefit of a new perspective on an old subject.

1. The Importance of Paying Attention to Reality
(or 'What you see is what you get')

"We see what we look for and we miss much of what we are not looking for even though it is there…. Our experience of the world is heavily influenced by where we place our attention" (Stavros & Torres)

Tal Ben-Shahar started by explaining some of the background and history of positive psychology, how it could be useful in today's world where more people are suffering from debilitating conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression at a younger and younger age, despite rising economic wealth and better physical health.

He made several important points. Psychology's traditional response to helping people has been to focus on what is going wrong. We ask 'why is that child failing?" and hope that with sufficient analysis and discussion of the problems we will find the right answer. Positive psychology encourages us to take a different perspective and to ask an altogether different question: "why is this child succeeding despite the same unfavorable circumstances?" Studying how and in what conditions people flourish is far more likely to enable others to flourish than studying how and in what circumstances people do not.

He went on to emphasize that positive psychology isn't the same as self-help, positive thinking or Pollyanna-ism. It's not about sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring the bad stuff going on in the world, or denying our negative emotions or the other difficulties we experience in life - it's about seeing life as it really is, the downsides and the upsides. The problem is that often the downsides get our fullest attention, whereas we let the upsides slip by unnoticed.

Obviously if we focus our attention on something, it looms larger (observational selection bias again). But did you know that focusing on one thing crowds out our ability to notice other things? If you're not convinced, take this selective attention test.

It's not just about what we chose to focus on, however. What we know from the science of positive psychology is that feeling negative emotions tends to close us down, but feeling positive emotions broadens our horizons and builds additional resources, helping us be more creative, effective, resilient, persistent and to reach out to others.

Positive psychology has a big role to play in helping us cope with the downsides, and at the same time to recognize, maximize and appreciate all the upsides. By attending to our well-being and boosting our positive emotions, Tal Ben-Shahar explained that we enable ourselves to take more effective action in dealing with life's difficulties. "Positive emotions don't make us blind to life's hardships", he said, "they are the fuel which enable us to go out and do good in the world".

So focusing on well-being isn't really about ignoring reality or about wanting happiness for the sake of it; happiness matters because it contributes to other important outcomes. It enables us to put the most into life and get the most out of it.

2. The Importance of Language and and Asking the Right Questions
(or, 'Words create Worlds')

Tal Ben-Shahar's second point is linked to the theme of attention - that our reality is shaped by the language we use everyday, and in particular the questions we ask. If our language is negative, it's no surprise if the world we see seems negative too. Asking the wrong questions can mean we spend a lot of time and effort focusing our attention on the wrong things.

Take our relationships. During the first few years of a relationship, partners seem perfect to each other - they can do no wrong - it's as if our faculties of critical judgment have been switched off. Then when the honeymoon period is over, things start to go a bit pear-shaped; we notice those annoying little habits all the time.

We ask "Why does she always leave the lid off the tube of toothpaste?" or "Why does he never put the loo seat down?" And what typically happens then? We start asking what is wrong in the relationship and our attention is drawn to everything that is negative. Our reality ('this relationship is going down the tubes') is determined by our negative thoughts, questions and language.

Instead, we should focus on what is working in the relationship, what we do well as a couple, what first attracted us to each other, and do more of those things we enjoy doing together.

Summing up the importance of asking the right question, Tal Ben-Shahar quoted the great management writer and thinker Peter Drucker: "The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question".

Emotion 400  Resilience 400

3. The Importance of Appreciation
(or, 'You don't know what you've got till it's gone')

Interestingly the word 'appreciate' has several meanings, all of which are relevant to happiness:

  • To recognize the full worth of something
  • To be grateful for something
  • To increase in value

The first two are related, insofar as when you rate something highly, you're more likely to feel grateful for it. Unfortunately for many of us, the first time we really recognize the full worth of something is when we've lost it. So the point here is to stop and think now about what you value in your life - it's long been known in positive psychology that counting your blessings on a regular basis makes a lasting difference to your well-being.

Tal Ben-Shahar then explained how expressing gratitude for something makes it appreciate in value, setting up a kind of virtuous circle.

So, the simplest way to bring the three themes of paying attention, asking the right questions and appreciation together is to focus on what went well today. We did this in pairs at the start of the talk, but my partner David, who runs his own training company, was stumped. 'It's really hard to think of something', he said, scratching his head for a minute. I had to agree. Even after 8 or so years working in the applied field, it sometimes takes longer than you'd think to answer this question. Which is why it's so important to try - verbalizing those positive things makes them an enduring part of your life narrative, rather than something that just gets lost in the mists of time.

And it turns out that the most important question to finish with is not "did you enjoy it?" (yes we did Tal and Action for Happiness, thank you so much!) but, "what are you going to do differently as a result?" For me, the answer lies in going back to reconnect with people who for one reason or another I've lost touch with.


Bridget Grenville-Cleave holds a Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology and has over 20 years experience in organisations, working as a business consultant, positive psychology trainer and lecturer. For more see workmad.co.uk


Ben-Shahar, T. ( 2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.


This article originally appeared on the Workmad blog and is reproduced here with permission.


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