Academics Health and Medicine

Research-based techniques can lead to smiles

Happiness and well-being scholar Tal Ben-Shahar is UM’s newest Distinguished Presidential Scholar.
Tal Ben-Shahar

Renowned positive psychology expert and former Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar at the University of Miami. Ben-Shahar is UM's newest Distinguished Presidential Scholar. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami 

When Tal Ben-Shahar was a young college student at Harvard, the computer science major was doing well academically and was also at the top of his game as a varsity squash player. Ironically, though, he felt unfulfilled and depressed.

“I filled in most of the boxes I thought needed to be checked, but I was still unhappy,” he said. “When I switched my majors to philosophy and psychology, that was the beginning of my journey and I did become happier, and soon I wanted to share what I had learned with other people.”

Ben-Shahar went on to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard in organizational behavior and began teaching a class there called Positive Psychology. According to a Harvard Special Report on the field, positive psychology refers to the study of positive emotions, as well as engagement in activities and avenues to find satisfaction in life. Ben-Shahar’s class on the subject, which he began teaching in 2004, quickly became the most popular course at the university, and led him to write several books on the topic. Today, Ben-Shahar works as a consultant for companies across the globe and has also created his own online curriculum called Happiness Studies Academy.

Now, Ben-Shahar is lending his expertise to the University of Miami as its newest Distinguished Presidential Scholar. The Distinguished Presidential Scholars and Fellows Program is an initiative of President Julio Frenk’s Roadmap to Our New Century, and aims to attract intellectuals from a wide swath of disciplines.  

“Distinguished Presidential Scholars are part of our efforts to make the University of Miami a magnet for talent, giving our students and our community access to outstanding thinkers,” Frenk said. “With Tal’s appointment, we will benefit from the insights of a top expert in the burgeoning field of Happiness and Well-Being Studies.”

The appointment means that Ben-Shahar will be on campus regularly during the next three years interacting with students, faculty and administrators. Isaac Prilleltensky, vice provost for institutional culture, said that Ben-Shahar has already become an instrumental voice in helping UM craft its own curriculum focused on happiness and well-being studies.

“Number one, Tal is one of the first teachers of positive psychology. Number two, he is a gifted teacher and number three, he is also probably the most well-traveled and international speaker on the topic,” Prilleltensky said.

At a time in history when more people are being treated for depression and anxiety, particularly young adults, Prilleltensky and Ben-Shahar hope to create a host of graduate programs at UM geared toward professionals who want to improve their own lives, or foster happiness and well-being in the workplace and in their communities.The programs will be part of a larger vision to create a well-being institute at the university, Prilleltensky added.

“An important antidote to depression and anxiety is happiness, and not just as a new age, self-help concept, but from a deep, scientific learned perspective,” Ben-Shahar said.

Ben-Shahar’s curriculum uses research-based strategies drawn from a variety of academic disciplines, he said. A few techniques he often suggests to improve personal happiness include mindfulness, journaling, emphasizing the importance of nutrition and exercise, and teaching people strategies to deal with painful emotions.

“While it’s important to treat anxiety and depression by helping people to become happier, we are also helping them to become more resilient in the face of these challenges,” Ben-Shahar said.

Prilleltensky and Ben-Shahar
UM's Vice Provost for Institutional Culture Isaac Prilleltensky and Tal Ben-Shahar meet in the Newman Alumni Center.

Prilleltensky and Ben-Shahar said the task force working on the graduate curriculum come from a variety of schools and colleges at UM, demonstrating campus-wide interest. And although there are existing programs across the United States in positive psychology, this would be the first interdisciplinary program in happiness and well-being, Ben-Shahar said.

“UM is a great place to start as the genesis of this field because of the interest that exists within the university,” Ben-Shahar added. “It would be the first of many campuses to introduce this field, and to essentially create it as a field of inquiry.”

Ben-Shahar and Prilleltensky, who is also a happiness scholar and author, met at the first World Happiness Summit three years ago in downtown Miami (the annual conference has since moved to UM, and attracted 1,000 participants last year). The two authors and professors shared a common history of having lived in Israel and becoming scholars in the same field.   

Hurricanes will have a chance to listen to Ben-Shahar and learn about the field of positive psychology at a lecture on campus later this spring. He and Prilleltensky will also be speaking about well-being at the 2019 World Happiness Summit, held at the Shalala Student Center on March 15, 16 and 17.