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When it comes to the quest for perfection, former Israeli squash champion Tal Ben-Shahar puts a positive “spin” on things.
Ben-Shahar—who lectures at Harvard University, the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, and to Fortune 500 companies—doesn’t ask, “What is wrong?” Instead, he uses positive psychology to look at what is working, and he explores this methodology in the recently published The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life (McGraw-Hill).
While the field of positive psychology has taken hold in such vaunted venues as the University of Pennsylvania (where Professor Martin Seligman is a pioneer) and Harvard (where Ben-Shahar’s record-setting sessions are always overbooked), Ben-Shahar’s contributions to the field have taken it in exciting new directions.
“Positive psychology focuses on flourishing,” Ben-Shahar tells JointMedia News Service, noting the relatively new field’s focus on self-esteem, optimism, and joy, as opposed to the more traditional triad of neurosis, anxiety, and depression. “In addition, positive psychology focuses primarily on what works, whether in individuals, relationships, and organizations.”
“‘What is wrong’…is an important question,” Ben-Shahar admits, “but it’s not enough.”
By focusing first on success, positive psychologists can look at what needs to be done next from a better, happier, and more productive place. “By starting out with what works,” Ben-Shahar says, “there is more likelihood of success.” This perspective can also help strengthen people when things do not go as planned.
“These positive questions should not only be asked when things go wrong,” Ben-Shahar says. “They are potentially preventative in nature, strengthening the relationship so that it can deal with the inevitable hardships that arise over time…. The answers to these questions provide a good platform for dealing with the challenges.”
Ben-Shahar explains that he became involved in the study of perfection due to a “personal need” to “struggle” with it. “Initially, what got me interested in the subject of happiness was my unhappiness,” he recalls. “I was doing well as an undergraduate student at Harvard, I was a top athlete, I had a good social life—and I was unhappy.”
“It didn’t make sense to me,” he continues, “because from the outside, everything seemed great, but from the inside it didn’t feel that way. I wanted to overcome this personal challenge that I faced, and that got me to learn about the field.”
Since Ben-Shahar had come so far in the competitive world of squash and also in his academic career, he was able to glimpse what others call “perfection.” In the process, however, he realized that this goal was an illusion.
“I have not reached perfection,” he admits, “as it’s unattainable.”
What is attainable, he discovered, was the power to reframe experiences based on what he calls “optimal” outcomes. “Perfect is ideal, something that cannot be improved,” he suggests. “Optimal is the best possible [outcome] given the constraints of reality.”
Ben-Shahar concedes that optimization is not always easy to achieve, either. He claims it can only be achieved by “learning to fail [and] by accepting painful emotions.” On the other hand, this new perspective ultimately leads to greater reward because it emphasizes the acceptance of all that is positive in one’s life.
“It is about putting ourselves on the line, trying, falling down, and getting up again,” Ben-Shahar explains. By “getting up,” Ben-Shahar says that we end up higher than when we began, at least in terms of our own perspective.
While optimization may be more attractive and attainable than perfection, Ben-Shahar cautions that its achievement involves challenge and potential pain. “It’s important to keep in mind that the change cannot happen perfectly,” he says. “There are inevitably ups and downs.”
Optimizationalists focus more on the ups and do not get as distracted or discouraged by unavoidable “failures.” Ben-Shahar has been able to formulate this idea in a way that works for modern Zen masters like fellow professor Jon Kabat-Zinn (whom Ben-Shahar quotes liberally in his book) and college freshman alike. No wonder, then, that Ben-Shahar’s lectures regularly set attendance records and have encouraged even the perfection-seeking students of the Ivy League to reconsider their lives and how they evaluate them.
“Students connect to it on a personal level,” Ben-Shahar says.
As much as his thousands of students have learned from him, Ben-Shahar says that he has learned at least as much from them. The greatest lesson, he says, has been that he is “not alone” in perfectionism.
Among the other lessons that Ben-Shahar shares in his new book are to be grateful for what you do have, to simplify your life as best as you can, to give yourself “permission” to be human, to keep in mind that happiness is greatly dependent on your mind, and to only seek happiness at what he calls the “intersection” between pleasure and meaning.
“Whether at work or at home,” he suggests, “the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable.”
Ben-Shahar observes, “We are a culture obsessed with pleasure.” He said most people believe the mark of a worthy life is “the absence of discomfort,” but that there is “something wrong with us if we don’t experience sadness or anxiety at times.”
However, as these are “human emotions,” Ben-Shahr says they are not only inevitable, but they can also be productive. “The paradox,” Ben-Shahar says, “is that when we accept our feelings—when we give ourselves the permission to be human and experience painful emotions—we are more likely to open ourselves up to positive emotions.”
In addition to positive emotions, Ben-Shahar emphasizes the importance of exposing oneself to positive people.
“The number one predictor of happiness is the time we spend with people we care about and who care about us,” he says. “The most important source of happiness may be the person sitting next to you. Appreciate them, savor the time you spend together.”