Two Israeli Psychologists Find the Key to Happiness

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar and Shirly Yuval-Yair believe that positive psychology can make us all happier and more fulfilled. Now they’ve written a series of children’s books called ‘True Heroes’ to highlight how from the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success.

Esti Ahronovitz
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Esti Ahronovitz

Two weeks ago, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar visited the second grade class in which his son is a pupil. He read the children the book “Thomas and Me,” which he cowrote with the psychologist, writer and musician Shirly Yuval-Yair. The children laughed, got carried away and asked questions that only children know how to ask. In the car on the way back, Ben-Shahar’s eyes welled up with tears from the intensity of the experience. “I give a lot of lectures,” he said − he is one of the most sought-after speakers on the subject of positive psychology in Israel and abroad, and regularly filled Sanders Theater, the largest lec--ture hall at Harvard, when he taught there − “but I don’t remember when I was so moved.”

There was a time, in the remote past, when Ben-Shahar did not cry so easily. Nor did he allow himself to externalize his feelings. His introverted nature is still part of his psychic makeup. “Our neuroses do not disappear completely, they only become less dominant,” he says with a smile, quoting Karen Horney, the German psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. These days, Ben-Shahar lectures in positive psychology and leadership at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

Ben-Shahar and Yuval-Yair.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

His writing partner, Yuval-Yair, is the complete opposite: a walking explosion of energy with an infectious laugh. She fuses stage lights with the light of the mind. As a psychologist, she treats patients with the aid of poetry; and as a musician, writer and playwright for children, she draws on psychological tools.

Yuval-Yair’s works include “The Wonderful Laugh Machine” and “Do Re Mooo.” She also appears with the actress Sagit Emet-Shirai in a musical, “When You Grow Up, You’ll Understand,” about a journey in the life of a woman. Ben-Shahar and Yuval-Yair are currently also collaborating in leading happiness workshops.

Like most working parents, we scheduled our last meeting for “after the kids are in bed” − around 9:30 P.M. Dishes holding the remnants of the children’s supper are still on the table in Ben-Shahar’s home in Ramat Hasharon. “There’s some pasta left,” he offers politely, “and remainders of vegetables” from the meal eaten by Ben-Shahar’s three children: David, 8, Shirel, 5, and Eliav, 3.

The cucumber slices look exactly like the ones I left in my house less than an hour ago. Yuval-Yair asks if she can have a pita with hummus and calls home to make sure everything is alright. Her older daughter is babysitting for the younger ones.

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar and Shirly Yuval-Yair. Credit: Ilya Melnikov

“It was quiet when I left, everyone was in bed,” she sighs, “but the moment I left they came out of their holes.” She would later describe herself as “a confident psychologist and perplexed mother” to Roni, 12, Gili, 9, and Yahali, 5.

Ben-Shahar and Yuval-Yair are currently celebrating the publication of two children’s books they coauthored: “Thomas and Me” and “Helen and Me.” The books ‏(in Hebrew‏) are the first in a series called “True Heroes,” in which young readers and − no less important − their parents will learn about people in the past who coped with a difficulty by invoking one of the principles of positive psychology.
In the rhyming books the readers meet the Hermon family: mom, dad, the firstborn daughter Yael, the middle child Yoni, and the littlest, Yoav. In “Thomas and Me,” Yoni is a washout at school. His mother tells him about Thomas Edison, “a boy who was an expert at mistakes, a champion at flubs, a genius at blunders.” Years later, Edison’s many failures lead to the invention of the first incandescent light bulb, the first recording device and another thousand patents. “I’ll tell you a secret,” Yoni’s mother says to him in moments of crisis. “Learn how not to succeed, or you won’t succeed in learning.”

The heroine of the second book, about whom the Hermon children hear when they are stuck in a dark cave during a family outing, is Helen Keller, who at 19 months lost both her sense of sight and hearing but went on to lead a deeply satisfying life. The Hermon children learn that “It’s like a magic trick that works: when you move ahead with what you’ve got, you find out you’ve got a lot!”

“We chose the mechanism of coping for each hero,” Yuval-Yair notes. “The idea was first of all to tell a good story, with a message, and connect it to us. I know the child who’s entering the first grade and mixes up all the letters, and I know the guys who go on an outing every Saturday with their parents and never stop grumbling that it’s boring. In the books, we try to bring in the major tools afforded by positive psychology, tools that will help create psychological resilience.”

Whatever works

Stop for a moment. Before you go on reading, do a small exercise: try to think of five positive experiences you had during the week
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Twenty years ago, Ben-Shahar set out to look for happiness from a condition of pain, sadness and dissatisfaction in his life. He was a computer sciences student at Harvard and was doing well, but something wasn’t working.

“One day I told myself: enough,” he recalls. “I am in this amazing place, with so many opportunities, so why am I not happy? We are told all our life that happiness depends on success. I should have been getting up every morning and doing a happiness jig. But that’s not how it was. Then I realized that not even my next external success would bring me happiness. I decided to look inward: What would make me happy?”

He started to read philosophical writings and psychological studies about happiness, and forsook computer studies for philosophy and psychology ‏(later studying education at Cambridge University and returning to Harvard for doctoral studies in organizational psychology‏). Through the great philosophers, the idea of positive psychology, life insights and personal experiences, he was able to rivet many to the formula he found.

His class in positive psychology at Harvard in 2006-2007 was the most in-demand course at the university. His students’ homework was to apply principles and ideas based on studies in the field. His talks were international successes and his books − “Being Happy,” “Happier,” “Even Happier” ‏(all in English‏) − were worldwide bestsellers.

Positive psychology focuses on what works. “A conventional psychologist will ask me, ‘What’s the problem?’” Ben-Shahar says. “The positive psychologist will ask me, ‘What is working in your life? Let’s build on that.’ It’s the same with organizational counseling or marriage counseling. The positive psychologist will ask what works in the relationship, what works in the organization, what are your strong points as a manager?”

Still, people who go to a psychologist do so because something is not working.

“For many years, psychology, managerial methods and education focused on fixing problems,” Ben-Shahar says. “We maintain that it’s very important to fix things, but no less important also to look at the other part of the situation, at what is working. Cultivating what works, our strengths, our sense of meaning, acts as a preventative. We become far more resilient and are able to cope with what does not work.”

Ben-Shahar considers Aaron Antonovsky to be “the grandfather of positive psychology,” referring to the sociology professor who was one of the founders of the medical school at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva and examined the connection between pressure, health and well-being. “He said that life is hard; there is pain, suffering, loss, and yet there are people who are able to cope better with life. He asked, what can we learn from these people who are coping? And there you have positive psychology in a nutshell.”

In his books and lectures, Ben-Shahar defines happiness as a fusion of meaning and pleasure. The foundation for his theory of happiness lies in the doctrine of Freud, who asserted that we are driven by instincts of pleasure, and in the writings of the neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who maintained that the primary force that drives man is the desire for meaning in life.

According to Ben-Shahar, happiness is created from actions that contain immediate gain and future gain, pleasure and meaning.

“There are two models for happiness in society,” Ben-Shahar explains. “One model says that we have an aim, a goal, and that when we reach that summit, we will be happy. The second model, whose foundation lies more in the East, says that reaching the goal does not create happiness. “So many successful people who reached the top did not find happiness there,” Ben-Shahar says. “Accordingly, the focus has to be on the here and now. I say that both models are problematic. We need the fusion. We do need a goal, we need something to push us and pull us ahead. At the same time, we need to understand what the goal of the goal is. The goal of the goal is to liberate us and allow us to enjoy the path.”

Can you provide us with an example?

“The moment I know I want to write a book, I have a goal. I know what I will do when I get up tomorrow morning: I will start researching the characters in the book. When I know that I am giving a talk next week, I know that I get up in the morning in order to write it. That allows me to enjoy the here and now. If the lecture is good, fine; if not, it’s not so terrible. Being in a state of uncertainty is the difficult condition: I don’t know why I get up in the morning. The here and now is enabled by the goal. The goal is the means to enjoy the important thing, namely this minute.”

In his book “Happier,” Ben-Shahar illustrates how this theory works in daily life, in relationships, at work and in school. From the dawn of time, mankind has tried to crack the elusive secret of happiness: from Confucius, Plato and Aristotle down to Martin Seligman, the Jewish-American psychologist who is considered the father of positive psychology.

“A great many people talk about happiness, whether in religions or in the New Age movement,” Ben-Shahar says. “Positive psychology differs from all of them, because we have tools. In the past few decades, we have been able to measure the brain. We know now what a happy brain looks like, and what will cause happiness.”

One of the best-known studies in this field was conducted by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, from the Universities of California and Miami, respectively. They found that participants in the study who kept a “gratitude journal” − in which they wrote at least five things for which they were grateful every day − enjoyed mental and physical health.

“The study encompassed four groups of people,” Ben-Shahar explains. “One group wrote down five things for which they gave thanks; the second group listed five things at which they were better than others; the third group wrote down five bad things that happened to them; and the fourth group was a neutral control group [who were just told to write down five things that had happened to them].

“The researchers monitored the groups for half a year and found that the group that listed the positive things was more optimistic and healthier, and that even its immune system had grown stronger.”

What’s the explanation?

“We know the opposite. Many of us become ill when we go through a very stressful and difficult period. Physicians, too, maintain that a great many illnesses begin from stress. Here it is the opposite: in the same way that we are weakened by stress, we are strengthened when we undergo positive experiences.”

Ben-Shahar has been doing this exercise since 1999. He does it privately, and several times a week he does it around the dinner table, asking his children to tell him about the “fun” things that happened to them. Yuval-Yair does the same with her daughters, but discovered that it’s not so easy. “When I started to think about good things, all kinds of grievances crept in,” she says. “There was no pure good. This clarity did not have such an easy birth. It was the same with my daughter. The first time she said, ‘It was fun that we got treats in kindergarten, but Adi got two treats and I only got one.’ The black side cropped up immediately.

“One day she told me that when something good happened in kindergarten she was happy, because she knew she would have something to tell at supper,” Yuval-Yair adds. “And this is where it starts. When you apply this scanner, this searchlight, you find things. And that is part of how we let happiness pass us by − we miss the good things.”

Why do we think negatively?

Ben-Shahar: “For a historic reason. Thousands of years ago, when people moved through the forest, those who heard noises and fled − because they thought it was a lion − survived. Those who thought it was just a pleasant whistling of the wind did not survive. We no longer live in the jungle, but our instincts remain. Another reason is that the focus of communication is on negative things. I read about sexual harassment in the newspaper, but not about millions of people who make love and enjoy it. The reality to which we have access is negative. The solution is to be realistic. The exercise about the five things acts as a balance and makes us see the positive things.”

No success like failure

Ben-Shahar came up with the idea for a book about historical heroes during his trips with his children every morning to school and preschool. He simply got fed up with telling Spider-Man stories time and again.

The connection with Yuval-Yair came some time afterward, and it was she who developed the idea.

Two principles underlie the children’s books they have written, both drawn from positive psychology: the strength to focus on our strong sides, on what exists; and the permission to fail, because we only learn from failure.

For jazz players, Yuval-Yair notes, mistakes are integral. “Mistakes are the banner of jazz artists. In improvisation exercises, I tell my students: ‘When you are not in tune, when there is no harmony, don’t back off − stay there.’”

The books, she points out, are intended for parents as much as for children. “The key word is parents. We are afraid to let our children fail. What parent wants to see his child hurting? What parent wants to see his child connecting with another child who does bad things to him, or suffering as a social outcast, or failing in the test to be accepted to the school choir? And yes, falling off a bike hurts, too.”

As a girl, Yuval-Yair was often a social outcast. “I remember how hard it was for my parents to see how hurt and lonely I was. I was a social outcast because I had my own style, which was different. It was a rough experience, but also a formative one for life. It is the basis of my fortitude.”

Years later, she wrote the musical “Do Re Mooo,” about a cow that is ostracized because it had its own distinctive “moo.” “Children sometimes have emotional hurts with which we cannot help them very much,” she says. “It’s hard for a parent to see that.”

Do we, too, as parents have to learn how to cope?

“Parenting involves a lot mistakes and learning. It’s a growth machine. Most adults do not undergo therapy. But when it comes to their children they will go, in order to help the children. And then they open up. A super-achieving and competitive home, in which, when a child brings home a mark of 90 he is asked ‘Why not 100?’, is not a home that abides failure. In this case, parents have to correct themselves. Do you know the type of parent whose kitchen is filled with junk food but who will only make the change and dump the fattening food when their child suffers from obesity? Parenting is an amazing invitation to personal development.

“The psychiatrist R.D. Laing published a small book titled ‘Conversations with Children’ in which he documented clever comments by his two children,” she continues. “He writes in the introduction that we usually think that a child needs an adult by his side in order to develop, but the opposite is also true. An adult also needs a child by his side in order to develop.”

Yuval-Yair recalls that one of her students in an arts school − where she taught drama and voice development − refused to sing in her classes and suffered from low self-confidence. However, when juggling lessons began in the school, the student turned out to be the most skilled in the class.

“He could keep five balls in the air at once,” she says. “It was amazing to see what happened to that boy during the year. Because there was one thing he was good at, his sense of self-esteem and his self-pride were strengthened, and others saw that. His behavior improved across the board. He also started to sing in my classes; I saw him opening up more and more.

“When a person works with his strengths,” she believes, “he immunizes himself against difficulties and also neutralizes the minuses. Self-confidence is unbounded.”

How can we reinforce the strong points in our children?

“We, as parents who raise our children and love them, nevertheless often see what is not there and react to that instead of to what is there. I have two children who often fight, but today the little one made a pretty drawing for his older sister. I told him that I found the way he is expressing his love very beautiful. Sometimes it’s the very act of saying something. We have a lot of work as parents.”

Ben-Shahar notes that a course in improvisation helped him develop as a lecturer. “What I got in that course I did not get in many other places,” he says. “I realized that it’s alright to make a mistake; because in improvisation you are constantly making mistakes, and a mistake is an opportunity.” He opens the conclusion to his book “The Pursuit of Perfect” by writing, “My name is Tal, and I am a Perfectionist.”
The book is about how the pursuit of perfection can hamper us on the road to happiness. A key trait of perfectionists is fear of failure.

As an outstanding athlete and Israeli squash champion, Ben-Shahar stretched his abilities to the limit. As a student, however, he was pressured by the examination schedule, and as a lecturer facing hundreds of students, he experienced stage fright.

“The psychologist Dean Simonton, from the University of California, shows that the most successful people in history are also those who failed the most times,” Ben-Shahar says. “All the studies show that we learn by falling.”

The meaning of life

“In the United States, England and Australia,” Ben-Shahar relates, “people went into schools and helped children find their strengths by means of questionnaires. In the second stage, the children were taught how they could use those strengths in school, or with their sibling at home. Children who underwent this process did better in their schoolwork, and it influenced their performance over time.”

The education system in Israel fosters children who are measured by means of tests. The emphasis is on achievements, not on enjoying the learning process. How does the emotional work you are talking about enter into this?

Ben-Shahar: “I am a great believer in both. I am not against conventional education. It’s important to learn the basics. I am not against competitiveness, coping with difficulties or hard work. On the contrary: we have to offer children challenges.

“The problem is that we completely neglect the child’s emotional side,” he continues. “And schools do not furnish the child with tools for coping with difficulties. They do not provide tools for them to discover what causes them happiness in life. The standards by which success in life are measured are shallow, misleading and, in the end, harmful.

“If a child believes that he will gain happiness by becoming rich or famous, we are in trouble. And children do not ask us the truly important questions: What will afford us a sense of meaning in life? And they also have to be enabled to experience the meaningful. William Damon wrote a book titled ‘The Path to Purpose,’ in which he says that the big problem with children today is the absence of a goal, and that correlates with crime and depression.”

Yuval-Yair believes that “a process of meaning occurs when children are allowed to try out what they really want to do, what fascinates and interests them − when a child sets himself a goal that he wants to realize. It’s not just what’s going on in the schools; I am very concerned by what is happening all around. Our children’s heroes are television figures from reality shows. Those are very distortive images.”

In practice, Ben-Shahar and Yuval-Yair say, the schools can reinforce the children’s strengths by means of enrichment, by letting them go forward in subjects or traits they are good at, by letting them teach their friends their favorite subject and thereby enhance their self-image and confidence. The best way to teach them that failure is permitted is simply to tell them stories about other people’s failures and allow them to infer the right interpretation for failure.

“I think we have wonderful teachers,” Ben-Shahar says. “I visit schools a great deal and I meet people with ideals, though many times the teachers need greater freedom of action so they can bring more of themselves into the classroom. A teacher who tells the schoolchildren why she loves teaching will give the children an important lesson: they too will want to work in something they love doing.

“As a parent,” he adds, “when did you last sit with your child and tell them what a wonderful day you had at work? Or about the difficulties you had to cope with at work? That is how children learn a language. They will learn the language of meaning, the language of strengths, by hearing it and being exposed to it.”

Honorable boredom

Yuval-Yair and Ben-Shahar have an entire list of principles which they want to get across to young readers in their series’ upcoming books. One book will be about the life of Beethoven, who listened to his inner voice and also composed works which not everyone liked. “Other topics include the ability to say no to social pressure, the body-mind connection and the ability to be bored honorably,” Yuval-Yair says.

Bored honorably?

“When my children say, ‘Mom, I’m bored,’ I tell them, ‘Be bored honorably.’ To be bored is a choice. If a child says he is bored, we immediately turn on the TV for him or want to give him a game. When I tell the children they can’t use the computer, they grumble that they’re bored, but a minute later they find something to do. It’s important to have “blank time.” Without stimuli, creativity germinates.”

It is not only children who need blank time. In his book “Happier,” Ben-Shahar notes the importance of controlling the limited resource known as time, and of integrating things we truly love into our daily agenda.

Psychologists emphasize the importance time plays in human life. In the book Ben-Shahar mentions the researchers Clyde and Susan Hendrick, who talk about the need to simplify life to ensure healthy relationships. The psychologist Tim Kasser found that an abundance of time is a consistent predictor of satisfaction. An exercise Ben-Shahar recommends is to draw up a list of things we do and how much time we devote to them ‏(an hour for reading and writing emails; two hours watching television, etc.‏). The next step is to reduce the time we allocate to things we wish to engage in less, and introduce things we would like to spend more time doing.

“Even as adults we need a lot of quiet time,” he says. The magic word, he reveals, is to say “no” occasionally. “It’s a small, hard word, but I always remind myself that when I say ‘no’ to others, I am saying ‘yes’ to myself.

One problem,” he continues, “is that we try to fill every leisure moment with activity. We see in organizational psychology that the best ideas crop up just when we are doing nothing. It’s no coincidence that the best ideas come in the shower. It’s the same with children. They certainly need free time, so that their subconscious will do its work. Studies show, by the way, that the best learning time is not in poring over the material but during rest.”

According to Ben-Shahar and Yuval-Yair, another important element for a happy life − both for children and adults − is regular physical activity.

“When I was growing up in Ramat Gan,” Ben-Shahar says, “someone would always shout at 4 o’clock, ‘Tal, come down, soccer,’ and I would run down. But these days at 4 o’clock, children continue with Facebook or watching television. A steep price is paid for the lack of physical activity, such as the many cases of ADD.
“People are not born to sit passively in front of a computer,” Ben-Shahar adds. “For adults, a half-hour of physical activity three times a week does wonders. There are studies that were done in American schools, in which 40 minutes of daily physical activity were introduced into the curriculum. The result was that in these schools, the number of overweight children declined sharply and grades improved significantly, as physical activity improves memory and concentration. The level of violence also decreased.”

The saying that wealth is not a guarantee of happiness is not just a cliche invented by the rich to mollify everyone else.

The American psychologists Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan showed that placing “making money” as a central goal in life generates distress, despondency, anxiety and poor health. The studies in this field show that a large difference exists between the meaning we extract from external assets, such as social status and money, and the meaning we derive from internal assets, such as friendship and personal growth.

Our children live in a society in which abundance is a guiding principle: they have more games, more food, more enrichment groups. Are they happier?

Yuval-Yair: “Empirically, no. It’s like the story about the boy who played with a car he loved, and then his pampering grandmother bought him three more cars and he stopped playing altogether. When he was asked why, he said, ‘I can’t do it with so many cars.’ That is what is happening to our children.”

Permission to be human

Every afternoon, a warm feeling spreads through me at the thought of my son’s return from school. I think this feeling can be described as happiness. Often, though, a second after the million dollar kiss I get and the throwing of his sand-filled shoes on the carpet, the happiness terminates. “He touched me”; “He did something to me”; “I’m not going to the [extracurricular] English class − everyone there is better than me”; “You’re the only mother who doesn’t let the kids kick a ball in the house”; “You’re the only mother who doesn’t let the kids play tennis in the house”; “It’s not my turn to take out the dog”; “I’m first on the computer.” “No, I was first. MOMMY!!!”

I inhale deeply. I try to evoke that feeling of ten minutes ago. Did I say happiness? Look for their strengths, I mumbled to myself this week, look for your strengths.

Many studies shatter the joys of parenting myth by showing that parents are no happier than their childless friends. One of the most quoted findings belongs to a study by the behavioral economist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. In 2004, Kahneman examined what gives pleasure to 909 working mothers from Texas.
Kahneman discovered that caring for the children ranked 16th on a list of 19 pleasure-giving activities. Among the higher-ranking activities were cooking, watching television, exercising, talking on the phone, napping, shopping and even housework.

Ben-Shahar and Yuval-Yair do not accept the conclusion. “These studies look at pleasure and say that happiness equals pleasure,” Ben-Shahar explains. “They take no account of meaning. You won’t find many parents who will not tell you that parenting is the most meaningful thing for them. Yes, it’s hard and painful, and there are anxieties, but it is also happiness.”

Lack of pleasure from children is also related to the busy world we live in and to the lack of time. “Let’s talk in terms of music,” Ben-Shahar suggests. “I take the two pieces I love best: a song by Sarit Hadad and Beethoven’s Fifth. For the ultimate experience I play them together. The result? Cacophony. A nuisance. That’s our modern life. We connect too many things. I go to the park with the kids and talk on the mobile, send a text message, send an email. I love my children very much and I love my work, too, but together it’s terrible. That’s why people in the modern world don’t enjoy spending time with their children. One of the things I do, as a result of a study, is very simple: when I am with the children, I am with the children! Yesterday I played soccer with them in the park.”

And you turned off your mobile phone?

“Obviously.”

“We have an internal image to the effect that we have to be terribly happy and enjoy our parenting,” Yuval-Yair says. “But for most of us things are very complicated internally. The disparity between what we experience and what we expected to experience foments guilt, aggression, anger and disappointment. That comes out every day. But we have permission to be human, to say that family is a complex thing and that there are tricky moments − and that has nothing to do with happiness.”

Are you happy?

Ben-Shahar: “I am undergoing a process and continuing to march in that direction. I remember how I used to get up in the morning 20 years ago, and how I get up today. There’s no comparison. One of the most meaningful things that changed in me with age is that I am no longer frightened by difficulties. Just as I am no longer frightened by failure. I give myself permission to be human, to be afraid, to feel pain; the paradox is that when I recognize this, fear and pain pass more quickly. There are things that come with time. Psychology in general and positive psychology in particular, can accelerate these processes.”

Yuval-Yair: “At the outset, I only sang. I studied at Rimon [a school of jazz and contemporary music], I became a singer, I went on the road with a band, and then I studied psychology. I felt that I needed to stop by the wayside for a good few years. It took me time to interweave things, but my activity today includes music and writing and psychology.

“Of course,” she continues, “I didn’t know this all along the way. I am a person who looks after herself. I ask questions all the time. As a mother, I forgo a great deal in my life – every day – because I want to be with my children. I stopped my race because of the children, and they are helping me stay in one place, to be in the moment, and I surrender myself to that. The message of positive psychology is that you can take responsibility for your happiness. There are things you can do. It is not a decree of fate. Know thyself.”

Can we take responsibility for our children’s happiness?

Yuval-Yair: “Every parent wants his child to be happy, but we cannot take responsibility for their happiness. We can do our best, be an example, teach them, but at the end of the day they will have to take responsibility for their mistakes, for their decision to be grumblers or to be nice, to wallow in self-pity or to be happy.”

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