Harvard’s Most Popular Course? Self Improvement

Professor Tal Ben-Shahar teaches the largest course at Harvard on “Positive Psychology” and the third largest on “The Psychology of Leadership” — with a total of over 1,400 students.

Last night he made an appearance on The Daily Show to discuss his new book, Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. Here are some interesting quotes from the interview:

Jon Stewart: I hate to use the phrase ‘self help’, but in some respects isn’t this is a self help class for college students?

Tal Ben-Shahar: Yes, and unashamedly so. The class is very much about improving the quality of the students lives and improving the quality of their communities.

JS: And when they leave are they happier? Is that quantifiable?

TBS: We don’t have long-term measures, but the reason the class is so popular is that students tell their friends, “I’m actually better off because of this class.”

JS: Is there a scientific basis for happines, is that the suggestion here?

TBS: This whole field of Positive Psychology has really been picking up around the world and it’s among the largest classes on numerous campuses, and the reason is for the first time we have a science of happiness. Until now the whole realm was dominated by the ‘self help’ movement, which is mostly about the 5 easy steps happiness, the 3 steps to find your perfect lover.

JS: There’s also a “Secret”.

TBS: There are no secrets, there are no easy steps, it’s actually a work book more than anything else. Many of the students comment that it’s actually the hardest class they ever took at Harvard.

It’s great to see self improvement taking off as an academic discipline under the name of “Positive Psychology”. Shahar has impressed me and I’ve already ordered a copy of his book.

People like Shahar will help self improvement shed the “5 easy steps” stigma and become a widely respected discipline. I’m glad that scientific and psychological self improvement is finally being separated from self help scams.

23 Responses to Harvard’s Most Popular Course? Self Improvement

  1. Zot says:

    Thanks for mentioning this book, I think I’ll order it too. I think your site is really helpful, and I’m finding that a lot of what you talk about is relative to the decision making scenarios that I discuss at potterzot.com.

  2. Hi John

    Thanks for the link on this. I do believe personal development can be studied as a science and this article confirms this.

  3. Armand says:

    Wow, I actually wrote in one of my previous blog articles that self improvement is a science! And I didn’t know anything about all this Harvard class. :)

    Great info in this post!

  4. John Wesley says:

    Thanks all. I definitely agree — it’s great to see Positive Psychology is gaining ground. I wish I’d studied it when I was in school.

  5. Edward Mills says:

    Check out Martin Seligman’s site, especially this page with the Positive Psychology and Happiness assessments you can take. By taking the tests you’re actually contributing to their research!


  6. John Wesley says:

    Looks interesting! Thanks for the tip, Edward.

  7. Olaf says:

    Hi Edward,

    thank you for that hint, YOU made me think of things under the surface.

    P.S. Make sure you also download your 117 free gifts, where
    you are able to use them to improve your life.

    Here is the link:

    (Take a look at the site. It’s free.)

  8. Sounds like a great book to me. I will be sure to read up on it so that I can decide for sure to buy it. Don’t worry, if I decide to purchase it I will be back here to buy it from your link. Thank you for the information.

  9. John Wesley says:

    Ha, don’t worry about it, Matthew. I’ll probably end up doing a full review here after I read it myself.

  10. Personal Development is not rocket science. Positive psychology is actually just positive thinking. Being a medical student and having dabbled a bit on psychology, I firmly believe that for your own self help, there is no need to look for outside help. Creating a positive mindset and trying your best to achieve your goals in life is what will create a positive surge in your life.

    I actually think that the secret behind the success of this two psychology classes is the fact that most people lack motivation and guidance in their life. The fact you mentioned that there are lot of scammers stripping these kind of people is a sad fact.

  11. Ellie Walsh says:

    This is my first time at this blog — and I am “happy” to be reading about this book!

    While I agree with the poster who says — there is no need to look for outside help. I do believe each of us has our own answers…..

    I think it is great that a class like this is being offered…. Well I think it is great – if in the end it is teaching that the guidance that each of us needs to follow is the guidance that come from within. And that inspired action is much more powerful and fulfilling than motivated action……..

    I guess I’ll have to read the book……

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  13. Harveen says:

    I’m glad to see a distinction emerging between Positive Psychology and all the self help stuff out there. Positive changes begin in self-reflection. If we begin to truthfully analyze ourselves, we can then begin to make those positive changes. The secret and the happiness principle is internal, not external.

  14. Ben says:

    If you want a good introduction to Positive Psychology, I suggest reading the following books by Martin Seligman:
    “What you and can’t change”
    “The optimistic child”
    “Learned Optimism”
    “Authentic Happiness”

    “A primer in positive psychology” by Christopher Peterson is also a worthwhile read. Don’t be put of by the fact that is a textbook. It’s very readable and has some very useful exercises that are used in Positive Psychology classes.

    The tests on the Authentic Happiness are also worthwhile.

  15. Hi John thanks for mentioning the books – sounds pretty help and it’s entered my “to be read” list which is getting longer and longer I’m afriad.

    Your post actually reminds me that there are some very important subjects that we miss in school – such as yes, being happy, financial planning etc.

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  18. Keith says:

    A most informative article…many thanks for sharing.
    Regards, Keith Johnson, Author
    “365 Great Affirmations”

  19. Steve says:

    Definately recomment for reading is ‘The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, by Nathaniel Branden.

  20. prom gowns says:

    I wanted to thank you for this great read!!

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  22. Ask says:

    A friend is a kind of help. Rain the life on the road, friends can block wind chill for you, for you share sorrow, remove the pain and difficulties, friends will always friendship.
    He is you climb up the escalator when you were injured, is a medicine, is you when a bowl of water of hunger, is when you across the river is the boat; He is money can’t buy orders not to come of, only the truly can track, and the most valuable for the real thing.
    A friend is a kind of acacia, a friend is each other, each other about miss, mutual concerns, each other on. Missing is like a flow of endless river, like a gentle frivolous, like a cloud of a fragrant flowers, like a piece of lingering sound made by the wind.
    Sometimes he also is a kind of light memories, light tea, light resonance……
    Have the friendship, little a lot of worry, gloomy leaves, won’t fall on the earth, and float on the surface, to distant drift, friendship is the river is, is a kind of pure and fresh air, behind out in front……

  23. Marvin says:

    I resent the fact you say ‘finally being separated from self help scams’ many self help/positive psychology books have included steps for years to help people remember and easily understand and apply the teachings, from the ten commandments to Coveys 7 Habits.  

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