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And I'm Robert Siegel.
The secret to happiness. It's a question that eludes even the brightest minds. This semester at Harvard, many of the nation's most accomplished undergrads are hoping that a new class will give them some clues. Psych 1504, or Positive Psychology, is the most popular course on campus and it's one of more than a hundred such courses around the country.
NPR's Tovia Smith took in a lecture.
TOVIA SMITH reporting:
Almost every semester for the past ten years, the most popular class at Harvard has been Intro to Economics, or as Tal Ben-Shahar likes to call it, how to get rich, but today there's an even bigger class on campus. It's Ben-Shahar's course on what he calls, how to get happy.
Mr. TAL BEN-SHAHAR (Harvard University): Let's say on this axis, we have happiness, creativity and performance.
SMITH: Twice a week, some 900 students pack into a campus theater for Ben-Shahar's lectures that are as much the Dalai Lama as they are Dr. Phil.
Mr. BEN-SHAHAR: The key in shifting toward the happiness perception is to ask the right questions, what is most meaningful to me? What provides me the most pleasure, and what am I good at?
SMITH: Ben-Shahar sees his class as the self-help plus the science. He offers research from the relatively new field of positive psychology that focuses on what makes people happy rather than just on their pathologies. He cites studies showing, for example, that, yes, counting your blessings daily will make you happier, but more money won't. As for the syllabus, well, it includes all the great minds you'd expect.
Mr. BEN-SHAHAR: Aristotle, Confucius, William James, the Dalai Lama.
SMITH: Ellen DeGeneres
Mr. BEN-SHAHAR: Ellen DeGeneres, absolutely. She's brilliant, and her idea of us trying to cram more and more in less and less is absolutely right.
(Soundbite of Ellen Degeneres monologue)
Ms. ELLEN DEGENERES (Comedienne): And I don't know about you, but I don't any more time. I have less time.
SMITH: Three times in this day's lecture, Ben-Shahar runs excerpts from an Ellen DeGeneres monologue.
Ms. DEGENERES: Not that we're going to notice if it's a beautiful day. We're moving too fast to even pay attention to that, and we need help to keep up with that pace, so we put a coffee shop here and there's a coffee shop here and a coffee shop here.
SMITH: As Ellen fades behind him, Ben-Shahar flashes a larger-than-life photo of lush green grass and blooming trees in Harvard Yard.
Mr. BEN-SHAHAR: As DeGeneres said, we don't have time to enjoy the beauty that's all around us.
SMITH: Harvard junior Bora Taska (ph), who's been taking copious notes from the front row, stopped, apparently stunned by this picture of the same tree she passes every day.
Ms. BORA TASKA (Harvard student): Basically, we need somebody like him to tell us to slow down and enjoy life a little bit more.
SMITH: Taska, a psyche major, says it's the perfect antidote to the otherwise hardcore and high-pressured world of Harvard.
Ms. TASKA: This is like free therapy twice a week. He makes me happy, and I love him.
SMITH: Ironically, as Ben-Shahar himself will tell you, he is, by nature, much more the tightly wound type than happy-go-lucky. He says he used to be exactly the kind of hard-driving Harvard student that he preaches to today. Now, at 35, he calls himself a learned optimist, and he talks about the power of positive psychology with the zeal of a new convert, explaining, for example, his decision to get off the tenure track because, as he says, teaching makes him happy, but having to publish doesn't.
Mr. BEN-SHAHAR: It's not natural, it's not right. We weren't made to be in the rat race. Not even rats were made to be in the rat race, so what's the solution? And that is the most important advice that I can give you, and the advice is to simplify.
SMITH: It's advice that's been offered by everyone from Thoreau to Ben Franklin. Indeed, it's advice that your grandmother may well have given you, and the simplicity of it all leads some questioning whether such a class belongs at Harvard.
Ms. SARAH BAYHAM (ph) (Harvard student): It's definitely, it would be considered a gut, it seems kind of fluffy almost or kind of a silly topic for a semester-long course.
SMITH: Sarah Bayham, a senior, majoring in biology, says all her friends are taking the class, but not her. She says the material would make for a great inspirational talk to incoming freshmen, but maybe not a full-credit course at Harvard.
Ms. BAYHAM: It's just the same thing over and over again, and several aspects of say, like, neurobiology, it kind of stems down, like, oh, happy thoughts go into happy channels and negative thoughts go in the negative channels, which I think people are frustrated by the level that it's being taught at.
SMITH: But if Ben-Shahar's class is an easier A than most, his students, like junior Gordon Craftodd, will tell you the real challenge to this class has nothing to do with the mid-term.
Mr. GORDON CRAFTODD (Student at Harvard): The work is about personal transformation, not about a quantity of reading, and it's probably the one class where I feel like I'm achieving growth in a way, it addresses growth in a way that no other class does.
Mr. BEN-SHAHAR: Let me zoom out to society at large, and what I'm calling for is nothing less than a happiness revolution.
SMITH: Back in class, Ben-Shahar is thinking big. This is not just some self-help. For him, this is everything, up to and including world peace.
Mr. BEN-SHAHAR: Why? Because happiness never decreases by being shared, and if more and more people recognize this, we will not have as many wars as we have today.
SMITH: A pipe dream? Maybe, but it's one of the secrets to happiness that Ben-Shahar says is borne out by research. You should dream big, he says, about what would make you really happy, and if you keep visualizing yourself getting there, studies show there's a better chance you actually will.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
SIEGEL: And there are more tips on finding happiness at our web site, NPR.org.
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