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Positive Psychology Lecture 1 by Tal Ben-Shahar

Updated: Sep 14, 2009

Harvard's Positive Psychology Course by Tal Ben-Shahar

This is Lecture #1 of the famous Positive Psychology course taught at Harvard University by professor Tal Ben-Shahar. These are my original notes, with a little editing, from Lecture #1 while I took Tal Ben-Shahar’s Positive Psychology class through Harvard’s Extension School. Thanks to someone who has uploaded the actual lecture, you can what it below. Here’s also a past Syllabus from the 2007-08 course.

(PowerPoint slides: #01 Intro form Harvard’s site)

Tal teaches the class because he would have wanted someone to teach him a class like this

came to Harvard in 1992 as a computer science, major everything was going well “objectively” except that he was unhappy switched major to psychology & philosophy to find out how to become happier
positive psychology’s impact of making Tal happier drove him to become a teacher

This course will be about exploring the relatively new field of Positive Psychology as well as exploring ourselves.
-1st year 82002 first taught this course as a seminar – 8 students & 2 dropped out
-2nd year 300+
-3rd year 850 students – largest course at Harvard

Positive psychology is popular because of its message
self-help movement lacks substance by over promising & under delivering
research has the substance but lack the accessibility, few read academic peer reviewed research
“The objective of positive psychology is to unite the rigor of academic research with the accessibility of the self-help movement.”

This is the last time he will teach this course or any other course at Harvard

Setting aside times of silence and reflection is important, a study with rats showed that rats learn more about what was important about their maze running experience after the running than during it, replay might generate learning & understanding

how Positive Psychology came about:
origin in Humanistic psychology, which lacked scientific rigor & morphed into the self-help/new age movement

grandparents of positive psychology:
Abraham Maslow, Karen Horney, & Aaron Antonovsky
(Rollo May & Carl Rogers)

Salutogenesis (saluto-health + geneis-origin) = the origin of health – Aaron Antonovsky

Martin Seligman (1998) father of positive psychology
Ellen Langer has done research within the field of positive psychology before 1998
Philip Stone

This class about:

  • About transformation rather than information, chipping away the excess stone/limitations – we have a lot of potential but often with time limitations hinder us to be the best of who we can be
  • “Knowledge is about information, wisdom is about transformation.”
  • This class is less about learning something new and more about being reminded of what we already know. Making common sense more common. This class will take the humanistic approach. In the words of Abraham Maslow: “Humanistic philosophy [offers] a new conception of learning, of teaching, and of education.  Stated simply, such a concept holds that the function of education, the goal of education—the human goal, the humanistic goal, the goal so far as human beings are concerned—is ultimately the ‘self-actualization’ of a person, the becoming fully human, the development of the fullest height that the human species can stand up to or that the particular individual can come to.  In a less technical way, it is helping the person to become the best that he is able to become.”
  • Continuous process of identifying and asking the right questions

Two the difference:

  1. sense of confidence, they really believed in themselves
  2. curiosity, they were always asking questions and seeking to understand more about the world [for more on curiosity check out Todd Kashdan’s work]

This class is a selective eclectic exploration of the question of questions: “How can we help ourselves and others—individuals, communities, and society—become happier?”


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