Education: I'm Reading Happiness at Harvard

By Gunnell, Barbara | New Statesman (1996), April 3, 2006 | Go to article overview

Education: I'm Reading Happiness at Harvard


Gunnell, Barbara, New Statesman (1996)


You might think Harvard students had plenty to be happy about (apart, perhaps, from the almost $40,000-a-year tuition fees), but undergraduates at the elite American university are flocking to a new course which has the explicit aim of making them happier by helping them lead "a fulfilling and flourishing life".

With 856 students now enrolled, Positive Psychology has become the university's most heavily subscribed course ever, shocking Harvard watchers by knocking Introductory Economics (665 students) off the number one spot it had occupied for years.

The course is not what you might expect from America's most prestigious place of learning. The study material includes clips from Seinfeld and Will and Grace. The course lecturer, Tal D Ben-Shahar, is an Israeli army veteran and college squash champion who appears to have no academic pretensions and no body of academic research. You are more likely to find his books--The Question of Happiness, for example--in the self-help sections of high-street bookshops than in university libraries.

His 90-minute lectures at Harvard offer amiable, free-flowing life advice and are (the ones I have heard, at least) almost devoid of academic content. Students attend three hours a week and turn in e-mailed responses which may require them, for example, to describe the relationship of a couple they admire. These are not graded; to file a response is to pass--which is, of course, one simple way to make students happy.

Yet criticism, even from Ivy League professors, is muted, perhaps because Ben-Shahar is riding a wave of enthusiasm in the US for the new "science" of happiness. Similar courses are already on offer at universities across the country, tapping into a collective anxiety that the richest, most powerful country in the world may have got it wrong.

As its citizens have become richer, they appear to have become more miserable. Thus, the one thing everyone--including students--appears prepared to spend money on is the one thing it famously can't buy. …

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