Most Popular Class at Harvard University? Happiness!

At Harvard University the most popular class is Positive Psychology having 855 students enrolled last semester.  The course concentrates on the psychological aspects of a flourishing and meaningful life.  There are two parts to the course: first, the academic – readings and lectures, and secondly, the practical – applying the principles in real life. This class empowers people and teaches them to find their own way.

Positive Psychology is the most popular class at Harvard University, having enrolled 855 students last semester.

Are you astounded? So was Jon Daily of the Daily Show, as you can see in this clip:

What attracts so many students to study happiness? Here’s the course description from Harvard’s catalog:

The course focuses on the psychological aspects of a fulfilling and flourishing life. Topics include happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality, and humor.

After Positive Psychology, Harvard’s second-most popular course is Introductory Economics (with 669 students). The next most popular class is The Psychology of Leadership with 550 students (also taught by Positive Psychology professor Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar).

There are two parts to the course. The academic part, consisting of readings and lectures (on topics like beliefs, focus, change, goals, perfection, mindfulness, relationships, self-esteem, and health); and the practical part, comprised of how to apply these principles in real life.

But is such a class really needed in today’s world?

In a CNN interview with anchor Carol Lin, Positive Psychology Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar had this to say:

LIN: I just want to get your observation on this. I mean, what does that tell you when ivy league students are so interested and want to know what it takes to be happy?

TAL BEN-SHAHAR: What it tells me is that they’re all human beings. We all want to be happy.

LIN: But why is it so difficult? You know? And why teach it at highest levels of education?

BEN-SHAHAR: It is so difficult for various reasons. One of the reasons is that in our culture, there is so much pressure on people to be happy, to feel good. That if we don’t feel happy, that if we don’t feel good, we think there is something wrong with us. And this pressure to always feel good actually is counterproductive.

LIN: Because you say that happiness really is an act of will. I mean you need to be conscious of it. Something to work towards and that there are steps to be taken.

BEN-SHAHAR: Yes, absolutely. And the steps to be taken are internal rather than external. There’s a lot of misconception about happiness thinking that if we get to a certain place, if we achieve something, then we’ll be happy but happiness is much more contingent on our state of mind rather than our status or the state of our bank account.

LIN: Because you talk about really simple things, you know like to simplify your life, to experience gratitude on a daily basis. To know what you have rather than what you don’t have.

BEN-SHAHAR: Yeah, happiness — I mean a lot of common sense ideas but unfortunately common sense is not that common when it comes to application. And so for instance appreciating the positive things in our lives and appreciating into sense is one to appreciate and to say thank you for them, not to take them for granted. And two, when we appreciate the positive, it also grows appreciating the second sense of the word.

So what’s the key to this course’s success? Of course it’s the teaching of the science of happiness. No doubt it’s also the fact that students are taught exactly how to apply these theories in their own lives.

The key variable in this entire equation is that it empowers people. It teaches people how to find their own way.

Here’s Ben-Shahar from the Harvard Crimson Magazine:

“Ben-Shahar does not deny that his primary goal is to teach his students how to be happier and healthier, not to inundate them with abstract psychological theory. He wants them to learn how to feel better about themselves and become better citizens, not to slave over stuffy, abstract concepts they’ll never use in everyday life.”

Thanks to Evolution … not just a theory anymore for including this post in the Carnival of Education.

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