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.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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