Permission to be Human: Tal Ben-Shahar (part 2)

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On July 2, I published the first part of my report about Tal Ben-Shahar speaking to about 1000 people at at the illustrious Streicker Center at the Temple Emanu-El in New York City. Here is part 2, with the remaining 2 major points from his speech and some of the observations that came up during the question and answer period.

Editor’s note: I request permission to be human! At the end of part 1, we told you that part 2 would be published on Thursday, July 5. However I failed to keep the promise because I took a daylong vacation from my computer to celebrate my birthday. I had a lovely day disconnected from technology and connected to people. The weather has been so nice that I’ve spent my time outside.

4. It’s ALL About Relationships

Citing the World Happiness Study for 2018, Tal reported that the happiest countries in the world, including Denmark, Israel, Norway, and Australia, share two main indicators of well-being:

  • The ability to find the positive even in difficult situations
  • The presence of positive relationships amongst friends and family, co-workers and community groups

Playing Mahjong

For example in Denmark, one of the happiest countries, 93% of the population are members of social clubs or churches. They get together regularly for worship or recreation, such as playing MahJong or boating. In Israel, people form strong relationships in school and sports and spend quality time with family and friends observing holidays and the weekly Shabbat.

Online relationships do not provide the same upturn in positive emotions as the positive resonance experienced in person. New York University Sociology Professor Jon Kleinberg posits that the more time we spend on social media, the lonelier we’re likely to be.

5. Pay-if-forward

“You can always give something, even if it is only kindness.” ~ Anne Frank

Tal used the story of Anne Frank, hidden in an attic in Amsterdam for more than two years to avoid being taken by the Nazis, to remind us that we have a choice to be kind to others even when our personal situations are grim.

Giving benefits the giver

Paying-it-forward motivated me to launch Soaringwords, a global not-for-profit organization 17 years ago. My family had experienced three episodes of death and illness over the course of ten months. Gary, my only sibling died, my father had two bouts of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and my oldest son Jon was stricken with Rheumatic Fever and bedridden for four months. Instead of giving in to despair, I decided to take my experiences and create an organization that helps ill children, their siblings, parents, and the extended community learn how to take active roles in their own care. Soaringwords inspires ill children to pay-it-forward because this action facilitates transformative self-healing by focusing attention away from suffering and towards helping another person.

Tal confided to the audience that his favorite Hebrew word is NATAN. In Hebrew and in English NATAN is a palindrome, a word that is spelled the same when the letters are arranged forward or backwards. Natan means “When I give, I receive.”

How does money make you see the world?

Tal cited studies by Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues where students in a lab setting were given a nice sum of money and randomly divided into two groups.

The first group was told, “Spend the money on yourself. Buy yourself something nice… a new gadget, a new pair of shoes… whatever you want.” Naturally the students in the first condition experienced a shopper’s high: their happiness went up for that day and went down only slightly the next day.

The second group was given the same sum of money and instructed to “Spend the money on someone else.” The students in the second group also experienced an upsurge in happiness on the first day. The difference was that these students still reported an upswing in happiness one week later.

Questions and Answers

The question and answer session was moderated by the talented Julie Rice, WeWork’s Chief Marketing Officer. Julie and Tal took the audience behind the scenes to uncover the powerful benefits of exercise, reframing, and legacy. Here are some of the highlights from this riveting part of the program.

The Wonderful, Undeniable, Powerful Impact of Exercise on Well-Being.

Julie Rice and her partner, Elizabeth Cutler, built Soul Cycle into a successful company with 47 locations with a loyal following. They bucked the conventional wisdom of hard-core gyms which can seem competitive and intimidating. When people arrive at Soul Cycle, they feel embraced by an energized community where instructors are motivational and nurturing and everyone is appreciated for his or her own ability. According to Julie, “We were familiar with the research of Michael Blumenthal and colleagues at Duke Medical School that showed how exercising three times a week has the same as psychotropic drugs to reduce depression. Exercise (and community) cause a powerful natural reaction to occur releasing positive natural chemicals into the brain that help regulate mood, such as serotonin.

Tal and Julie both brought up the research by John J. Ratey demonstrating that physical exercise reduces the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease by 52%. The mental benefits of exercise far outweigh the physical benefits. Exercise is a powerful way to reduce stress and enhance vitality.

He Lives What He Says

In addition to being a principal contributor in several positive psychology institutions, Tal is also a social entrepreneur. He co-founded Potentialife to “bring the science of flourishing to the world.” The company runs several not-for-profit programs including programs on positive psychology in schools throughout Israel.

Back in 2012, Soaringwords was invited to collaborate with Zumba® Fitness and invite instructors to lead free monthly classes in hospitals around the world. I met Tal at the Global Zumba Instructor Convention where he was the inspirational keynote speaker for 9,000 Zumba leaders.

Tal and Zumba enthusiasts

Here is a photo from our first meeting at the Zumba Instructor Convention. The following summer, Tal agreed to emcee a Soaringwords’ program at the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) World Congress the following summer.

Tal and Barbara Fredrickson were the emcees at the IPPA celebration where 300 people paid-it-forward by making SoaringSuperhero® puppets for hospitalized children and then enjoying a Zumba Master Class led by the fabulous Marcie Benavides and DJ Francis.

Tal with Parents at Graduation

Honor Your Mother and Father.

Tal cites his mother and father as the inspiration for a life of gratitude, service, and positive relationships. “My siblings and I did not have an easy life, but we always felt that our parents loved us and valued us. My parents put an emphasis on education so we all felt that we really mattered. When I taught the Positive Psychology course at Harvard I saw how students from all walks of life are striving for meaning and purpose, as well as relationships, and happiness.”

You can read the first part of the article here.


Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2014). Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness. The Experiment: Reprint Edition.

Anderson, A., Huttenlocher, D., Kleinberg, J. & Leskovec,J. (2012). Effects of user similarity in social media.

Blumenthal,J. A., Smith, P. J., & Hoffman, B. M. (2012). Is exercise a viable treatment for depression? ACSM’s Fitness Journal, 16(4): 14–21. doi: 10.1249/01.FIT.0000416000.09526.eb

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2018). Prosocial spending and happiness: Using money to benefit others pays offCurrent Directions in Psychological Science.

Dunn, E. & Norton, M. (2013). Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. Simon Shuster.

Easley, D. & Kleinberg, J. (2010). Networks, crowds, and markets: Reasoning about a highly connected world. Cambridge University Press. Draft version available online.

Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2018). World Happiness Report 2018. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons Licenses
Playing Mahjong courtesy of Immagini 2&3D

Gift of tomatoes Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
The remaining images are used courtesy of SoaringWords.


Sir Anthony Seldon Interviews Martin Seligman

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On the occasion of Dr. Seligman receiving an honorary degree from the University of Buckingham on March 28 in New York City.

Seligman with MAPPsters

I was delighted to dash into the Lamb’s, a club on West 51 Street in New York City. It’s just a few steps away from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, and the bustle of Fifth Avenue. I was ushered into a plush third floor sitting room where the man of the hour, Dr. Martin Seligman, was nursing a scotch surrounded by several graduates of the MAPP program at Penn. He smiled broadly to see me, and I did the same.

Seligman was holding court, discussing pressing global trends in quick succession: the dearth of positive news coverage and the urgent necessity to overcome media bias by looking for news with a global perspective and from different media outlets. We discussed leadership from Brexit to Putin to the president of the United States. It was a typical, thrilling, probing, impromptu discourse with one of the great thinkers of our time.

I was thrilled to be invited to witness Seligman receiving an honorary degree from the University of Buckingham, the only university in the UK completely independent of government support.

Suddenly we were ushered into another room where Marty and the top brass from the University of Buckingham donned their brightly colored ceremonials robes.

Seligman holding honorary degree

After the ceremonial march and the bestowal of the honorary degree, waiters arrived with champagne flutes on silver platters. Sir Anthony Seldon invited everyone to raise their glasses to toast the occasion. He then invited the audience to listen to an intimate interview with Professor Seligman.

Seligman began his initial remarks by addressing the audience. “If well-being is going to be a moral compass, then we need to understand what’s missing.” He then posed a stark question, “In the past year, how many of you experienced a major tragedy directly?”

Hands shot up and Seligman calculated the response.

Seligman: About 5-10%. That’s the correct percentage of the general population. It’s typically what I see when I ask audiences this question. So here’s the missing piece. Given this relatively small percentage of people who experience profound tragedy, why do people think that the world is in terrible shape?

Today the Worldwide Well-being Index is 6.5 out of 10, while there is more flourishing globally more than at any time in recorded history. More people have been pulled out of poverty. Many life-threatening diseases have been eradicated. There’s a huge gap between actual negative events and the reporting of negative events.

This is because the media’s continual bombardment of tragedy and terror. Young people today perceive that the world is a terrible place. So the first thing that is needed to enhance well-being is balanced journalism that reports positive, hopeful events that are happening all the time, rather than just reporting the negative, catastrophic events.

Interview underway

Seldon: In your estimation, what are other trends that impact global well-being?

Seligman: We are in need of positive political leadership because a positive human future cannot happen accidentally. We need leaders who actively cultivate a positive future.

Seldon: You’ve written twenty books and co-authored hundreds of scholarly articles. You are considered the founder of the field of modern Positive Psychology. Can you share your career trajectory with us?

Seligman: There are five stages of my career. When you get to be my age you have perspective on what you’ve accomplished. When I was 21 years old, I worked on helplessness: what happens to people and animals who experience uncontrollable events. The conclusions were that helpless beings experience more depression, have more ailments, and actually die sooner. At the time I was doing this work the field of psychology was male-dominated with 80% of the practitioners being men, compared to 20% women.

For decades I had been sweeping important data under the rug. In time I noticed that some people did not become helpless. In fact, a third of the people and animals resisted helplessness. So I wondered, what is it about these humans and animals that makes them resilient? I started to study the way people thought about tragedy and noticed that some people tended to view things as permanent, pervasive, and their own fault whereas the more resilient respondents had a different tendency: “Things will not always be this way. I can do something to improve my situation. The current state of affair is not my fault.”

A relief to study optimism

That started the third phase of my career when I decided to study optimists. I must say this was a welcome change from studying helplessness and depression for so many decades!

There is so much data on why optimism is a good thing, including significant positive health outcomes. Among the findings we discovered were that optimists get depressed less than pessimists, have fewer colds than their more pessimistic counterparts and tend to live eight years longer. This work led me to question the way the psychology profession was oriented where everything was diagnostic and professionals were focused on what was wrong with people and how to cure them. It was 1998 and in my inaugural speech to the American Psychological Association convention I called for a science of positive psychology to study what makes us human and what makes us experience more well-being.

Seldon: Can everyone on Earth become happier including neurotic people and depressed people if they do the right things?

Seligman: When you are below the poverty line, the more money you have, the happier you become. Today 300,000 people will come out of poverty. Tomorrow an additional 300,000 people will come out of poverty. Once the majority of the world population rises above the safety net the challenge for the human future is building more well-being into our lives. Once someone earns more than $95,000 there’s a curvilinear impact as a person earns more. Around $120,000, happiness flattens out.

Seldon: What things can people do for themselves and their loved ones to be even happier?

Seligman: Look at how you celebrate in your marriage or key relationships. How do you celebrate together, what rituals do you do together? Another essential thing is how you respond to each other without tuning each other out or responding in habitual, numbing ways. Active Constructive Listening is a wonderful way to reinforce your partner’s strengths and to let them savor what they really are and what they are good at.

Mandy Seligman

Earlier today my wife Mandy got elected to PhotoSoho as a professional photographer, a clear distinction after years of being perceived as an amateur photographer.

Instead of saying something Passively Constructive such as, “Congratulations Mandy, you deserve it”

Or something Passively Destructive such as, “What’s for dinner?”

Or Actively Destructive, “Do you know what tax bracket this will put us into when the gallery starts to sell your photos?”

I decided to be Actively Constructive in my response which went something like this: “You know Mandy when I saw the portfolio you brought to the meeting with the gallery, that photo of the swan you took from our vacation in UK at Blenheim Palace, it was the most beautiful photo I’ve ever seen of a bird. Where were you in the gallery when they told you that you were elected? What specifically did they say to you? What strengths do you have that draws you to this profession? How can you use these strengths more? Let’s open a bottle of Dom Perignon and celebrate.”

Seldon: Thanks for sharing such a wonderful personal example from the master of positive psychology. To be happier is not selfish, it’s actually pro-social. There’s a difference between happiness and pleasure. If we make our relationships happier and our organizations happier than everything works for the greater good. Marty, I have one last question: Can you teach this to children?

Seligman: Yes students are malleable and readily embrace the Character Strengths based learning. Alejandro Adler at the UPenn Positive Psychology Center just concluded a study in Peru among 700,000 students. The findings clearly show that character strengths education has a positive impact. It can significantly enhance literacy, numeracy, and scientific reasoning. Read more about this study here “Teaching Well-Being increases Academic Performance: Evidence …

Seldon: So Marty what’s your current focus?

Seligman: The fifth phase I’ve been pondering for quite some time actually pertains to the concept of time. I realized that the traditional view of psychology is built on a conceptual foundation of “what’s wrong with our lives” and this framework is wrapped around analysis of the past. For example, ruminating or analyzing about all the things that went wrong in our childhoods, or all the things that have gone wrong in our lives up until today.

Seligman’s new book

This antiquated worldview is a default mode of thinking: the notion that our past would predict our future. When one recognizes the colossal failure of predicting the outcome of the UK election and the most recent US presidential election based on past behavior we can clearly see what a poor indicator past behavior is on future outcomes.

Furthermore, the default mode is the same circuit that lights up when we daydream but there’s another circuit that I call the Hope Circuit. I believe that this is the most significant distinction that makes us human. We are not homo-sapiens, we are homo-prospectus, creatures of the future.

Wishful thinking is passive. Hopeful thinking is active and has a great deal of agency behind it.

Seldon: Thanks to everyone for coming to this special celebration. Please join me in thanking Dr. Seligman for sharing his insights that prove that the highest form of intelligence is to know how to live well.



Adler, A. (2016). Teaching well-being increases academic performance: Evidence From Bhutan, Mexico, and Peru. Dissertation. University of Pennsylvania.

Dweck, C. (2014). The Power of Believing That You Can Improve. TEDx Norrkoping.

Lopez, S. (2013). Making hope happen: SoaringWord interview.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). APA President Address 1998.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2018). The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism. PublicAffairs.

Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2016). Homo Prospectus. Oxford University.

Permission to be Human: Tal Ben-Shahar (Part 1)

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On June 12, a standing-room-only crowd of 1,000 people gathered at the illustrious Streicker Center at the Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue in New York City for a talk by world-renowned happiness expert, Tal Ben-Shahar. Tal is deeply humble, but he mesmerized an audience that hung on his every word, eager to learn about the science and practical steps necessary to experience greater well-being. At the end of his presentation, Julie Rice, WeWork’s Chief Marketing Officer, interviewed Tal in a riveting discussion of happiness. I shall cover 3 out of his 5 major points in this article and return on Thursday with the rest.

1. Be Open to Negative Emotions

Tal opened his talk with a paradox: when we suppress or reject painful emotions, it actually hurts us because we internalize the trauma. Tal recommends a middle ground where we do not deny painful emotions, but we also do not give in to despair.

Golda Meir

Instead, he recommends active acceptance: experiencing the painful emotions, then letting them flow out of us and dissipate, thereby allowing us, in time, to have room to experience more positive emotions.

We allow ourselves to be human when we experience the full gamut of emotions. In this way we can truly appreciate the good, and then the good grows.

Tal quoted Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel who said, “Those who don’t know how to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.”

2. Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste!

According to David Schnarch, world-renowned sex and marital therapist, the most common causes of relationship gridlock are things that won’t surprise you. The deepest conflicts ensue from four areas: The Kids/Education, Sex, Money, In-laws.

According to Tal, when couples reach an impasse, there are three common ways to respond:

    • The partners separate.
    • The partners stay together, but they are not really emotionally together.
  • The partners stay together and things are bumpy, it feels hard, and it hurts. With time, the difficult emotions pass, and the relationship is stronger because it endured the difficulty. The best relationships are those where the people work through conflict together. They follow Winston Churchill’s advice:

    “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.”

Things do not always happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best out of things that happen. The most successful learn from the challenging circumstances.

This is true in other arenas besides personal relationships. Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas concluded that adversity brings out the best in real leaders.

“Even when battered by experience, leaders do not see themselves as helpless or find themselves paralyzed. They look at the same events that unstring those less capable and fortunate and see something useful, and often a plan of action as well.” ~ Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas

3. Stress is Here to Stay. It’s All About Recovery.

Everyone appreciates that life today is full of stress. Wherever we turn, stressors abound. It’s naïve to imagine that you can avoid stress, so the operative question is, “How can you best recover from stress?” Tal posits that ability to recover distinguishes those who experience well-being from those who experience burn-out.

Tal presented a three-tiered approach to recovery that is easy to implement in any stressful situation, as long as you remember to pause and detach for a moment.

Micro-Level Recovery

It only takes 30 seconds to 2 minutes to experience a Micro-level Recovery Break. Close your eyes, and take three deep breaths. This puts the brakes on your amygdala flooding your brain with stress hormones. Your mind and body can come back to balance.

Tal recommends setting an alarm or building this practice into your schedule four times each day. This practice can make an enormous difference in your well-being.

Mid-level Recovery

Reciting Blessings over Shabbat candles

Tal expounds the necessity of getting a good night’s sleep (eight hours) and taking a Sabbath or mini-vacation for one day each week. Tal is a sabra born in Israel, so he appreciates the practice of observing a day of rest. The country of Israel officially slows down on the Jewish Sabbath so that people can spend time relaxing and being with family and friends.

Macro-level Recovery

It’s no coincidence that the words creation and recreation are similar. J.P. Morgan, one of the most successful business leaders of all time alluded to the need for recharge and step away from the daily grind by saying, “I can do the work of a year in nine months, but not in twelve.”

To read Part 2 of Permission to be Happy click here



Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Professional.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2016, June 23). Relationship gridlock. Happier TV.

Bennis, W. G., & Thomas, R. J. (2002), Geeks and Geezers: How era, values, and defining moments shape leaders – How tough times shap good leaders.Harvard Business Review.

Snarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships. W. W. Norton.