The Progress and Development of Humanity Towards Kindness and a Shared Destiny
Tal Ben Shahar
Founder, American Institute for the Study of Happiness
Dean of the Academy of Social Sciences, Dean、Professor of the Department of Psychology, Tsinghua University
Secretary General of International Exchange, Cooperation and Communication Center, Guangming Daily
"The methods of happiness can and do change lives."
Xiao Lianbing:Dr. Shahar, your book “The Methods of Happiness” has become a best-seller in the United States. What do you think the reason is? And Professor Peng Kaiping, you have a great reputation in the field of psychology. Happiness theory falls under the field of positive psychology. Any comments on Dr. Shahar’s theory?
Dr. Tal Shahar:There has always been an interest in the study of happiness. The reason why classes on happiness are popular is because we now have a scientific way of studying this topic. Up until recently, the topic of happiness--of enhancing the quality of our lives--has been dominated by pop-psychology. In many of the self-help seminars and books that are currently being offered, there's a lot of flash and flair, but relatively little substance. They promise Five Quick Steps to Happiness, the Three Secrets of Success, and Four Ways to Find your Soulmate. These are usually empty promises, and over the years people have become cynical about the self-help genre. In contrast, an academic class on happiness is evidence-based and draws on research. Students are attracted to this kind of class because they feel that it can and does make a real difference in their lives.
My work today revolves around the Happiness Studies Academy, which was founded with two questions in mind.: First, how can we become happier? Second, how can we help others become happier? Based on the same theory, I founded the Institute for the Study of Happiness. I like China very much, and I have been there many times to give lectures at universities and to the public. I look forward to coming back to China in 2021 and bringing my Happiness course to Chinese friends.
Peng Kaiping:Dr. Shahar is a well-known young positive psychologist who has gained worldwide popularity for his Positive Psychology course at Harvard University. His book “The Methods of Happiness” became a global bestseller as soon as it hit the market. Dr. Shahar is not the first person to teach a course on happiness in the field of positive psychology, but if you ask who has done the most to turn a academic positive psychology course into a global phenomenon of positivity and happiness, the answer must be him. As Dr.Shahar himself puts it, "when positive psychology teaches students the true value of life, it doesn't mean money or any kind of success or fame, but the 'ultimate wealth', where all goals end: happiness.”
Humanity has entered a new era of enlightenment about happiness in the past 20 years. The traditional view of happiness, one based on individual feelings, is being transformed by science, progress, humanity and rationality in the new era. Positive psychology emerged from the field of psychology over the past two decades. This shift regarding happiness is happening quietly, and its effects will be profound. It changed the world's perspective on psychology – from focusing on uncertainty, confusion, trauma, and helplessness to achievement, meaning, commitment, communication, and positivity. Since helplessness and negativity can be learned, then happiness and abundance can also be learned. Moreover, there must be a longer lasting, richer, and more scientific happiness; one that catalyzes happiness. These are the great contributions positive psychology has made to the perpetuation of a "surging flow of happiness."
As a positive psychologist living in the modern world, I believe that Dr. Shahar shares my desire to not only express his scientific observations and views on happiness, but also pursue a more profound purpose. This purpose is promoting a more comprehensive and deep understanding of happiness in this new era, and making people more willing and able to achieve happiness. We have the opportunity to use dialogue to reflect on the similarities and differences between history of human beings and Eastern and Western cultural psychology. Meanwhile, we can reflect on the common spirit of happiness within the whole river of human thought. The success of Dr. Shahar's Positive Psychology class and books may not only be due to a need in this age for the science of happiness, but satisfying the desires of people's innumerable pursuit of happiness.
"We bounce back from trauma and grow stronger"
Xiao Lianbing:Please talk about the impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic on human society from the perspective of the happiness theory. What is the significance of happiness theory to social psychology in the post-epidemic era?
Dr Tal Shahar:A pandemic is a traumatic experience on a global scale. The trauma that billions are experiencing from COVID-19 may come from many sources, including their health situation, that of loved ones’, present or anticipated economic struggle, uncertainty and anxiety, or sustained loneliness and depression. Whether as mental health professionals or concerned individuals, the question that many of us are asking is: What will happen after the health crisis is over and the protests subside? How will all this trauma affect us in the long term? The short answer is that even in the best scenario—one in which a vaccine is discovered and systemic discrimination is abolished—the collective trauma can put us down or raise us up, leave us weaker or make us stronger. The field of Happiness Studies is about helping us, and individuals and as a society, to create the conditions that will help us grow from this crisis.
When I ask students in my Happiness class whether they’ve heard of PTSD, most if not all hands shoot right up. When I then ask them whether they’ve heard of PTG, rarely is a hand raised. PTSD stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—a detrimental and enduring response to a harsh experience. PTG stands for Post Traumatic Growth—a beneficial and enduring response to a harsh experience. A myriad of situations can generate the trauma—from exposure to war and terrorism, to being a victim of a crime or a natural disaster—and every traumatic experience can lead towards a disorder or towards growth.
The fact that so few people know about PTG—about the science of emerging stronger from a trauma—is troubling. If we know that PTG is a real option, and understand some of the science behind it, we can produce a ray of hope in an otherwise dark reality. And hope matters, because the difference between sadness and depression is that depression is sadness without hope. Furthermore, rather than being passive victims at the mercy of trauma, we can play an active role in how the experience plays out. Research by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, Lawrence Calhoun, and others provides insight into the conditions that enhance the likelihood of PTG over PTSD. And while nothing that we know of can guarantee that people fall on the “upside” of trauma, we can do a lot better, as individuals and as a society, in our response to distressing situations like the COVID-19 crisis.
Here are a few brief insights from the research on PTG: First, we ought to embrace the pain rather than reject it, giving ourselves the permission to be human rather than demanding machine-like indifference. Second, it is important to reach out to and engage with those who can support us; a mental health professional is great, but turning to friends, family and colleagues whom we trust and who care about us can be equally helpful. Third, creating a narrative that makes some sense of the situation and gives meaning to it can go a long way in helping us emerge stronger.
Peng Kaiping：COVID-19 has been raging for more than a year. Although China has brought the epidemic under control, today's world has been so closely woven together by globalization. All events, whether political, economic or cultural, will eventually be reflected in the minds of people around the world. I am confident that this outbreak will make everyone at every corners of the world have a more profound and direct understanding of globalization, and a belief in a shared future for mankind. COVID-19 is a common enemy of mankind, emerging at a time when the world needs more understanding and tolerance, more trust and cooperation, more healing and mutual concern and assistance. Although catastrophes cause immeasurable damage to human beings, they are also the best touchstone to test and highlight the nobility of human nature. Only positive resonance can lead to shared success and happiness, which is what we positive psychologists urge and call for at this time.
Facing the COVID-19 epidemic is a great challenge for humanity and an opportunity for the nirvana and rebirth of modern human civilization. In addition to the epidemic, we must face more challenges in all aspects, which will prove to be a major test of the human psyche. Positive psychologists have made the most solid scientific case that we will emerge from our difficulties and lead a better life. I have full confidence in this.
"One of the best sources of happiness is to help others"
Xiao Lianbing:After the outbreak of the epidemic, many Chinese medical workers took the initiative to join the rescue of Wuhan, despite knowing that the virus was threatening their own lives. They took it as their mission to rescue the patients and prevent and control the epidemic. Can an explanation for this be found in the happiness theory?
Dr Tal Shahar:One of the best generators of happiness is giving and helping others. Following an act of generosity on my part, when I see the other person feeling better, I feel better. And as I feel better because of my generosity, I’m naturally driven to be more generous. What we end up with is a self-reinforcing loop between helping others and helping ourselves—the more generous we are (the more we help others) the better we feel (the more we help ourselves), the better we feel the more likely we are to be generous, and so on.
This “upward spiral of generosity” clearly demonstrates that the divide between helping oneself and helping others is unfounded. When I help myself, my capacity for generosity is significantly amplified and hence the benefit to others is real. At the same time, when I help others my wellbeing is significantly amplified, and hence the benefit to myself is real.
Peng Kaiping：Psychology places great emphasis on the concept of empathy. Some of the most remarkable abilities that distinguish humans from animals include "aesthetics", "creativeness" and "empathy". Happiness is not only a feeling of individual psychology, but also people's desire for and embrace of the beauty and goodwill of the world. During the critical times of the epidemic, the fact that many medical workers and other individuals have stepped forward is very touching. It's not just a matter of professional ethics, it's a brilliant expression of humanity, and it's a reflection of the empathic nature of being human.
Xiao Lianbing:What does fate have to do with happiness? How do you see the vision of building a community with a shared future for mankind?
Dr Tal Shahar:We all want to be happier, and we want to help others become happier. If more and more of us learn how to help ourselves and how to help others become happier, then we can create a massive force for generating wellbeing in the world.
It is fair to say that the common destiny of mankind is towards common happiness and building a community with a shared future. The starting point is the common wellbeing of mankind.
Peng Kaiping：There is no doubt that mankind is a community with a shared future. Life has three planes and three steps: the first is survival, the second is living, and the third is life itself. And survival, life, and the integration of life is what I think of as "fate". Destiny is the real life, the real human nature, the real experience. If a person's life is based on happiness, then he must be an "incurable optimist," whose whole life, if represented by a curve, will also be a smile curve.
General Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly called on the international community to build a global community of health for all, demonstrating the Chinese people's belief is that "the world is one family and we should help each other". Safeguarding global public health is undoubtedly one of the most important fundamental tasks for global prosperity, and every country has a responsibility to do so and should be a part of it. Psychological research has proven that when people are healthy, they are happier, which brings many benefits, such as longer life, better relationships, more meaningful life, more sense of gain and security, and more harmonious individual and group development. More healthy people also means more happiness and harmony. Therefore, General Secretary Xi’s propositions may go beyond a call for a benevolent global political ecology, but also a call for a benevolent global cultural progress, as well as a call for a global prosperity and harmony.
Xiao Lianbing:Dr. Shahar's experience with the theory of happiness shows that the concept of happiness is developed through learning and practice. How can people rebuild the concept of happiness in the post-epidemic era?
Dr Tal Shahar:The first thing we can and ought to do is give ourselves the permission to be human, embrace whatever emotion comes up no matter how unpleasant or unwanted. Rather than denying or rejecting the painful feelings associated with the situation—whether fear or frustration, anxiety or anger—it is better to allow these to take their natural course. Giving ourselves the permission to be human means that rather than suppressing our emotions, we express them—be it by journaling about how we feel, talking to people we trust, or by simply opening our floodgates rather than holding back the tears. The paradox is that, to fulfill our potential for happiness, we must allow in unhappiness.
Expressing gratitude can help us through difficult times. So spend two minutes, as you wake up or just before you go to bed, writing down things you’re grateful for. And the important thing to keep in mind is that we can always find something to be grateful for, even in the midst of hardship.
A large number of psychological studies have told us that cultivating our appreciative muscles makes us happier as well as healthier. It is an unfortunate fact that one of the first things to fall by the wayside in stressful times is our inclination to move. Students in school are likely to forgo exercise during exam period, and employees will do the same when facing the pressure of a looming deadline. And who wants to add the discomfort of vigorous movement to the discomfort associated with the Coronavirus panic? The fact, though, is that there is no more important time to exercise than now. And even if you cannot or do not want to go to the gym, try to take a 30-minute walk outside, or (in case you’re quarantined at home) engage in one of many High Intensity Interval Training practices available online. Exercise does not just make us physically tougher, it significantly contributes to our psychological toughness.
Relationships are potentially the number one predictor of both physical and mental health. Francis Bacon, the British philosopher, pointed out 400 years ago that “Friendship doubles joys and cuts griefs in half.” Spending quality time with people you care about and who care about you is always important, but it is especially important now. While the allure of computer screens with their real-time updates and other virtual sirens may be stronger than that of real people, they cannot provide the psychological and physiological benefits of face-to-face interactions. Whenever possible, disconnect (from technology) in order to connect (to people). And if for some reason actual get-togethers are not possible—due to quarantine or distance—then virtual get-togethers will do.
One of the best ways to deal with the depressing and demoralizing impact of a constant barrage of bad news is distraction. Distraction is not synonymous with denial; we are not burying our head in the sand by occasionally thinking about something other than the threats of COVID-19. In fact, constantly thinking about the virus is unhealthy and unhelpful, even if that’s what the media reports on and that’s what everyone is talking about. Watching your favorite TV series, listening to music, meditating, or engaging in one of the many activities that get your mind off of the virus can constitute a healthy form of distraction.
There is much truth to the claim that we have a great deal of control over how we interpret—and therefore experience—a situation. What are the potential upsides of the existence of the Coronavirus? Spending more time with loved ones? Appreciating our life more, rather than taking our health, or status quo in general, for granted? Focusing more on exercise and healthy eating as a way to boost our immune system? Reframing does not imply that you should or even can rejoice that the virus is upon us, but reframing provides us some choice over what we think—and consequently what we feel and do. Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but you can choose to make the best of things that happen.
Peng Kaiping：In my view, the post-epidemic era will be characterized by two features. First, our society will move more rapidly from a materialistic society to an enlightened one. Second, how people define and perceive personality will move more rapidly from the physical to the social, then from the social to the spiritual. This isn’t just a wish—it's reality. My view on how to rebuild happiness in the post-epidemic era is to reconcile with oneself through action and aspiration, reconcile with others through goodwill and cooperation, and reconcile with the world through participation and trust.
We should try to pursue the "surging flow of happiness". Happiness is a psychological feeling that transcends mere emotion of feeling good, while flow is a spiritual feeling happier than happiness. If happiness is meaningful pleasure, then flow is a kind of sublime bliss that resonates with where we are headed as a species. People in the flow of happiness will experience the peak of their aesthetics, creativity, and empathy. Not only will they be happy in all senses of the world, but they will also experience a cosmic awakening, and a sense of connection with mankind’s shared destiny.
In the post-epidemic era, if you see the "surging flow of happiness" as an important pursuit, then you will have more opportunities to immerse yourself in them and experience the understanding, tolerance, achievement, and meaning that come from devotion, empathy, integration, sharing, and cooperation.
"Cooperation is in humankind’s DNA"
Xiao Lianbing:What role does the happiness theory have in solving social problems and promoting social progress?
Dr Tal Shahar:I am all for ambition, success, and hard work. However, a misconception that most people have is that being successful will lead to being happy. Their mental model is: Success (cause) α Happiness (effect). It turns out that most people have it wrong. We know from a great deal of research (as well as from personal anecdotes) that success, at best, leads to a spike in one's happiness levels; however, this spike is temporary, short-lived. While success does not lead to wellbeing, the reverse is in fact true:Success (effect) ß Happiness (cause). This is a very important finding, turning the cause-and-effect relationship around and correcting the mistake that so many people make. Happiness contributes to success because the experience of pleasurable emotions leads to higher levels of creativity, increased motivation, better relationships, and a stronger immune system. Happiness contributes in significant, meaningful, and positive ways to our personal and professional lives. Happiness is a good investment for governments, schools, families and organizations.
Peng Kaiping：The Department of Psychology at Tsinghua University conducted a three-year study on the DNA of human cultural evolutions in 2015. By analyzing the data of nine major languages from the year 1 AD to 2000, stored in Google mGram, we find that the DNA of human progress is not plunder, power, war, conflict, or bullying: it is cooperation. Only cooperation can achieve real progress for humankind. Any behavior that violates cooperation– culture to culture, race to race, country to country, etc. – will eventually lead to failure.
This is a source of great inspiration and positivity, and also conveys a very simple truth: the historical progress and overall progress of people comes from cooperation. Achieving one's own goals yields gratification. Lending a hand to achieve others' goals doubles satisfaction. The goals of oneself and of others can be unified, and the world can be harmonized, This is the true DNA of human culture. Therefore, whether it is innovation or entrepreneurship, whether it is within a country or on a global scale, all follow this rule and need to follow this rule. Some countries and some people in the world are making a fundamental mistake. They do not exist to seek cooperation, but to seek hegemony and dominance. There is no future for that can be found in this mindset.
Over the years, psychological research has long examined the components of the "happiness DNA" from different angles and searched for evidence of it. The studies had different goals, different methods, and different subjects, but the bottom line was that there was a unifying quality: an "abundance of positive desire," the "happiness DNA." Traditionally, cultures around the world have interpreted "positivity" in ways that fit their cultural traits and values. There are some subtle differences, but on the whole, there are common characteristics of "positivity". When we overlay the scientific data with the scientific results, we see a striking graph. This graph shows that all actions in human history are ultimately directed towards achieving happiness. This study is what we call the "permanent upper-right happiness transfer model."
This model has several important implications. First, in a philosophical sense, the progress of human thought is linked to cognitive iteration. Second, from a sociological perspective, the changes in a country's social structure and social classes are closely related to the country's political and economic policies. Third, in an economic sense, people's absolute income, rather than their relative income, is the key determinant of happiness. Fourth, in a psychological sense, society’s social development is closely related to both the individual and the groups.
Therefore, we have good reason to believe that the overall progress and development of human society in a larger sense is not to increase disputes and struggles, but to foster goodwill, increase interaction, and work towards a common destiny. What is our common destiny? One where all humans cooperate, associate, and communicate with others towards the common good. Large-scale cultural exchange, technological exchange, goods exchange, and wealth exchange are all important elements in the development of human society. At the heart of these elements is the sublime human experience of happiness.
Our study found that the happiness motivations helped humanity to eliminate ignorance, reduce the influence of negative emotions, provide protection for positive human progress, and make a desire for happiness become a reality. Through these means, the happiness of all of society can be realized through the happiness of the individual, culture and the individual can be seamlessly connected through the "cultural DNA" and "happiness DNA".
Today, human society has entered a new era. Clearly, one of the strongest signals is the rise of public consciousness of human happiness and the meaning of existence. Happiness is no longer just a feeling in peoples’ minds, but a rich and realistic sensation closely related to the times of one’s country and livelihood. People living condition in general is really becoming better and better, and human society has increasingly realized the positive role of happiness in social development and the progress of people's livelihoods. This is perhaps the best time for mankind to seek happiness.[ Editor: WPY ]