Dr Tal Ben-Shahar – Harvard Open Courses 1504 – Positive Psychology 23

This is the last session of the Harvard Open Course 1504. It’s a summary of the whole course and a wonderful and touching collection of random students’ personal reflection from this course.

Write down two things that are particularly personally meaningful and/or interesting for you.
My immediate thought:

  • Allow ourselves to be human
  • Grateful, appreciation
  • ABCs – Affect, Behaviour, Cognition
  • 3Ms – Magnify, Minimising, Making up
  • 3 Rules in a relationship

Write down two commitments or behaviour changes you make.
My immediate thought:

  • Do more exercise – cycling every day
  • Write down gratefulness every day

Courage is not about without fear, it’s about having fear but still go ahead.

Happiness is the ultimate currency. It’s not about having a high versus low expectations, it’s about having right versus wrong expectations.

The core of change is to introduce behaviour change now.

People and their work:

  • Carl Rogers said “what is the most personal is the most general.”
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes – simplicity and complexity
  • Peter Drucker said “Don’t call me to tell me how wonderful it was. Call me and tell me what you are doing differently.”

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar – Harvard Open Courses 1504 – Positive Psychology 22

This session continues on the topic of self-esteem.

It is nature that we all have some components of the three self-esteem types. If we want to completely get ride of the dependent self-esteem, we actually are fighting with nature. It does take time to reach the third level self-esteem.

Why do we need to study independent self-esteem? Because it brings benefits as below:

  • better moral behaviours
  • better cognitive performance
  • higher level of happiness

Self-esteem is simply an attitude. It’s the attitude I have toward to the self. 

In relation to the ABC change model (Affect, Behaviour, Cognition), changing Behaviour is the most effective approach to change.

How do we enhance self-esteem?

  • behave like those people who are having high independent self-esteem. It’s important for us to have a role model, change behaviour and over time achieve the attitude.
  • pursue the things that you are interested in and have the experience of flowing.
  • take action
  • humble behaviour
  • have time to reflect on ourselves
  • integrity exercise – journalling, ask yourself “Am I just say thing to be impressed rather than to be authentic? Am I having the little lies?”

People and their work:

  • Warren Bennis – leadership, “I was not always this way.
  • Abranham Maslow – I couldn’t find people who were below the age of 45 were self-actualised. Even self-actualised people still have dependent self-esteem and independent self-esteem.
  • David Schnarch – studied how it’s in 50s and 60s that the individuals become differentiated and where the highest potential for passion is within a relationship.
  • Michael H. Kernis – 1995, stated the concept of self-esteem stability. People with low stable self-esteem were more likely to be hostile; people with more stable self-esteem were more likely to be generous and benevolent.
  • Tal’s research found that dependent self-esteem is highly correlated to instability of self-esteem and independent self-esteem is highly correlated to stability of self-esteem. He also found that narcissism is connected actually to high dependent self-esteem. High independent self-esteem people are more likely to be generous and benevolent.
  • Daniel Gilbert’s work on cognitive dizziness
  • Tim Kasser’s work on time affluence
  • Stanley Milgram’s experiment (Milgram experiment) – 63% of percentages of participants went above 350 volt, which is beyond the level where the person was not even heard any more.
  • George Loewenstein coined the concept hot-cold empathy gap
  • Nathaniel Branden – integrity and to be honest to yourself
  • Bella DePaulo’s research on lying and her research shows that basically everyone lies. People lie in average 3 times a day.
  • Melissa Christino wrote in her thesis “Your true potential lies way way down in the depths of your soul, in the pit of your stomach, past your knowledge, beyond your nervousness, and buried under your fears and anxieties.”As hidden as it may be, it is still there I know it’s there because I felt it before and I know it’s there in others too because I seen others perform miracles. There is a faint glow of unparalleled potential in all of us and when we find it – it shines.”

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar – Harvard Open Courses 1504 – Positive Psychology 21

This session goes back the topic of relationship and moves on to the topic of self-esteem.

How can we cope with conflict in relationship?

  • Asking positive question – What am I grateful for in my partner?
  • Asking positive question – What is wonderful about our relationship? What’s working?
  • Communicating about positive events (win-win)

When Tal talked about a feeling of “low self-esteem” and “punish by success”, I was surprised that I had the exact feeling before! However, I never really quested why because I thought I have a high level of requirements for myself. This session is so important for me to understand it.

Like happiness, we shouldn’t ask the question “Am I happy or unhappy?”, we should ask “How can I become happier?” Self-esteem is often misunderstood. The question we should ask is not “Do I have high or low self-esteem?” but rather “How can I enhance my self-esteem?”

Self-esteem is defined by Nathaniel Branden as “the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.” Both competency and worthiness are essential in self-esteem.

Self-esteem is not a product of empty reinforcement. Only praise no matter what to children won’t help their self-esteem in a long run. It actually reduces their motivation to work, makes them unrealistic, and makes them less happy than they potentially could have been.

Pseudo self-esteem is the pretence of self-efficacy and self-respect without the reality.
Self-esteem is founded in the reality, in actual performance, actual success, in actual practices. It’s a product of hard work.

Self-esteem is not associated with success, not associated with social status, and not associated with money. Tal has done in-depth research on the paradox of self-esteem based on Jane Loevinger’s work and presented an epigenetic model as following:

  • The first level of self-esteem – dependent self-esteem
  • The second level of self-esteem – independent self-esteem, not contingent on others
  • The third – sense of self
The worthiness The competency
Dependent self-esteem Constant evaluation of what other people think of me
Determined by others
Look for constant approval
Compare oneself to others
Independent self-esteem Evaluate oneself according to one’s own standards
Determined by own evaluation
Looking for beautiful enemies to improve self
Not compare one to others, but compare to oneself;
Pursuing self-concordant goals
Unconditional self-esteem Not contingent
Confident enough to not involve in evaluation
Is not “don’t care”

Everyone has some dependent self-esteem, some components of independent self-esteem, and some components of unconditional self-esteem. The question is of degree and the model is epigenetic.

Interesting research findings:

  • Sometimes people who associate too much self-esteem are arrogance, conceit, and narcissism.

People and their work:

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson’s article on friendship in 1841.
  • Robert M. Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
  • Shelly Gable – positive psychology and relationship
  • Jane Elsner, Barbara Heilman and Amanda Horn –  2×2 matrices of communication and relationship: passive active; destructive  constructive
  • Albert Bandura, Germain Duclos, Stanley Coopersmith, Nathaniel Branden – definition of self-esteem
  • John Carlton – two important character of the most successful people: asking questions and believe themselves.
  • Daniel Goleman – emotional intelligence
  • Nathaniel Branden – self-esteem anxiety, six practices for the cultivation of self-esteem (integrity, conscious, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, purpose)
  • Richard L. Bednar and Scott R. Peterson – self-esteem as a core of underlying course, paradox of self-esteem
  • Roy Baumeister – self-esteem and narcissism
  • William James, Charles Cooley, George Mead – dependent self-esteem
  • Nathaniel Branden, Abranham Maslow, Carl Rogers – independent self-esteem
  • Maltimore Devano – dependent self-esteem
  • David Schnarch, Abranham Maslow – unconditional self-esteem

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar – Harvard Open Courses 1504 – Positive Psychology 20

This session is about humour presented by Shawn Achor. A full lecture video is here.

Shawn has a different teaching style from Tal’s. He speaks much faster but the content making people laugh.

I often think people who are humorous are genetically funny. Actually, we can use the Beta press to change the way that we actually view our environment so it’s actually adaptive for us and we learn to be humorous.

The sympathetic nervous system (which makes us energetic) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which makes us clam) work together to make us react to the world. The soprano effect, called by Shaw, is the chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Humour is like mindfulness and meditation, activates the sympathetic nervous system.

Laughing itself is both medicine and exercise.

Humour increases pain tolerance and reduces pressure. It is a luxury.

Humour is extremely contagious because we are actually hardwired for empathy for other people and the mirror neurons in our brain begin to active when we see other people laughing.

Humour is a signal of cognitive fitness.

Humour can make us transfer things that we thought were negative or bad or upsetting in the past.

Six ways of increasing your humorous level:

  • Writing Journals – write the things that make you laugh over the day, think the things funny and change the shape of it and reform the pattern in your brain.
  • Watching funny people – because of mirror neurons, you actually pick up the rhythm from them.
  • TQP (the Two Question Process) – repeating to ask the two questions to yourself “why am I so funny?”, “Why nobody recognise this?”
  • The permission to be subhuman.
  • The variety is absolutely the spice of life. The more you can change up the pattern you are doing, the more you see the potentials in your environment.
  • The Tetris Effect.
 Interesting research findings:
  • On eResources – 97:3 ratio of research on negative factors to humour research.
  • Medical School Syndrome – the way we study the world around of us actually change the lens through which we view the world
  • The Tetris Effect – It makes player see the Tetris shapes when they are not playing the game. Shaw called it as a cognitive afterimage.
  • 10 to 15 minutes of laughing is enough to burn the amount of calories of a medium size block of chocolate.
  • Our mammalian brains are actually hardwired for variety.

People and their work:

  • Three people in the area of humour research: Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson and Shaw Achor.
  • Sigmund Freud’s book Jokes and Their Relation to The Unconscious. He argues that homour is way that allows for id impulses come out. Humour is a psychological release.
  • Henri Bergson argues that humour is the point in which we correct somebody when we slip or fall off the human developmental trajectory. Humour is a social “corractive”.
  • Shaw Achor believes that humour is a mindful lens through which we view the world. Humour is a cognitive lens.
  • Richard Wiseman’s book The Luck Factor
  • Barbara Fraley’s research on humorous and encounters
  • Eric R. Bressler studied the difference between men and women in terms of humour
  • John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar – Harvard Open Courses 1504 – Positive Psychology 19

This session is about love and relationship.

I like this session especially as it taught me to understand an unsuccessful relationship and to learn what makes relationship thrive. It took me longer to complete this session comparing to other sessions as I needed a break each time when Tal said something that touched me.

What makes a relationship thrive?

  • working hard (When we have the finding mindset, it threatens our schema. We need to have cultivating mindset, it’s malleable mindset that will help us work on hardship)
  • what makes the relationship unique is not finding that right person; it’s cultivating that one chosen relationship. It’s by virtue of working together, of being together,  of spending time together, of dedicating one another.
  • having mutually meaningful goals and working together.
  • active love and rituals
  • making that shift from the desire to be validated to the desire to be known – we need to open-up ourselves, for instance our weakness, our insecurity – express rather than impress.
  • allowing for conflict in a relationship
  • happy relationship, love is in the details
  • healthy communication
  • keep the conflict/dispute private
  • positive perception

The Golden rule: Do not do unto to others what you would not have done unto yourself.
The Platinum rule: Do not do unto yourself what you would not have done unto others.
The Tritium rule: Do not do unto those who close to you what you would not have done unto those who are not so close to you.

Interesting research findings:

  • Behaviour management research shows that healthy teams have cognitive conflict (focusing on the person’s behaviour, thoughts or ideas) rather than affective conflict (focusing on the person, the emotion, or who they are).
  • Women generally are better at fights than men. It has a physiological reason for it. When men feel attacked or threatened or disapproved, they have more physiological respond to it, they avoid it and switch off.

People and their work:

  • David Schnarch and John Gottman
  • Carol Dweck – fixed and malleable mindset
  • Muzafer Sherif – argued that Gordon Allport’s work “contact hypothesis” in 1930s was not enough and couldn’t resolve the conflict.
  • David Schnarch’s book Passionate Marriage
  • Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach
  • John Gottman – one right relationship in all relationships is that they all have conflicts. In average, they have one conflict for each five positive interactions
  • John Gottman’s study on gay couples – different to different sex couples, when they have conflicts, they touch, hug or make a smoothing way of reducing the conflicts.
  • Sandra Murray’s term “positive illusions”. Tal disagreed the use of the world “illusions”. For him, it’s real and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Brad Little’s term “illusory grow “

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar – Harvard Open Courses 1504 – Positive Psychology 18

This session carries on the topic of Mind-Body.

Sleep should be treated as an investment though we feel that we are lack of time.

Touch is a natural need as important as sleep and physical exercises.

Love is the first predictor to happiness. Relationship is a natural need. Understand what you need. The problem is not the stress, but the lack of recovery.

Interesting research findings:

  • In average between 19 and 28 years old, 1/4 get 8 hours sleep in 24 hours, 75% don’t get enough sleep (USA national data).
  • Lack of sleep put on our body weight and is likely to lead to depression.
  • We are more likely to have unpleasant dreams in the earlier night and more likely to have pleasant dreams later on in the night.
  • If you can’t have 8 hours sleeps a day, naps over the day will help.
  • Americans are in general are among the least tactile people in the world.
  • Introvert people have higher innate level of arousal; extrovert people have lower level of arousal. Introvert people need alcohol to reduce level of arousal. Extrovert people need coffee to help them up to their optimum level of arousal.
  • 2/3 of marriages today end up in divorces. It doesn’t mean the 1/3 is thriving. [Really? I don’t think it’s the Asian society although it’s worse than older generations, but this is a shock figure!]

People and their work:

  • William Dement – sleep and well-being
  • Tiffany Field – the importance of touch by research about touching premature babies.
  • William Masters and Virginia Jonson – the importance of touch in the sex therapy
  • Harry Harlow – the importance of touch by research about monkey babies.
  • Virginia Satir – We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.
  • Martin Seligman – happy people recover quicker, they have thriving interpersonal relationships.
  • Brian Little – a restorative niche, formal recovery (see his article)
  • John Gottman – research on single sex relationship and opposite relationship – predict divorce with an accuracy level of 94%.
  • David Myers – companionship, life-long relationship
  • Leo Buscaglia – perfect relationship
  • David Schnarch’s book Passionate Marriage

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar – Harvard Open Courses 1504 – Positive Psychology 17

In this session, Tal talked a lot about the importance of exercises in relation to the topic of Mind-Body.

The barriers to exercises are below. Exercise itself and the recognition of the importance of exercises will help us overcome the barriers.

  • Starting to do it is not easy as we felt the ache and challenge to our body.
  • Lack of time. Actually it’s an investment. It does not rely on self-discipline, but it’s a ritual we should have.
  • Our subconscious about exercises.

When Tal talked about exercise implements in schools, I thought through how I grew up. I don’t know if China has foreseen the importance of physical exercises or not, but some well-being concepts (e.g., cooking healthy food, having 100 steps strolling after dinner) have embedded in the Chinese culture for hundreds and thousands years. Actually, the sports class is a part of the education in China from nursery to university. It’s a compulsory course and we needed to pass the exam to get the credit of the course as a part of the study grade. However, truly and sadly I can see nowadays more and more young students have become less and less doing physical exercises because they have electronic toys, video games, iPod, TV and social media to entertain indoors.

I laughed when Tal talking about his experience of enlightened and his meditation class. I can see that I am not able to do a long meditation at all. My mind wanders a lot most of time. 30 minutes per day is fairly a lot for me. This is the 4th time I listened to the course. I remember that I skipped the sitting meditation practice in the first two times; last time I was doing something else over the time when Tal was practicing it with his students in the session; and this time I could really follow and was willing to try. It did bring calmness to me in a few minutes.

Meditation is to focus on one thing; its foundation is deep breathing, and it’s no bad or good meditation. It’s about being here and now.

The foundation of happiness revolution has to come with an exercise revolution.

Mindfulness simply changes us from doing to being.

Tal recommended “deep breathing”, which is important to everyone and can be practiced easily. Tal noted it again, this class is to help us chip away the excess stone so that we can go back our natural wisdom, our natural healer.

People and their work:

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar – Harvard Open Courses 1504 – Positive Psychology 16

This session continues on the topic of Perfectionism first and moves on to the topic of body-mind interconnection.

I like this session very much because it explains fundamental factors that help me to understand my view of life.

The positive modal from outside may look exactly the same, but the inside is different. People at the excellence side of the continuum enjoy the journey. Their excitement about what they are doing is contagious so you know they are enjoying the process. As my own reflection, I didn’t feel extremely exciting or extremely unpleasant, most time it’s glad and cope-able. I would seek changes and inquire why if I felt the journey was so unenjoyable.

Last session, Tal offered advice on “How can we change toward the Excellence schema?” In this session, he stressed it again when answering the question “How do we overcome Perfectionism?”.

  • Awareness – being aware of what I want to change and what I want to maintain
  • Rewarding effort
  • Active acceptance and then act
  • Go ahead and change it. Change our behaviours
  • Act internal too and visulaising
  • Do not do unto yourself what you would not do unto others, or do unto yourself  what you do unto others

Tal’s advice about “How do we help others who are perfectionists?”

  • Know it’s hard to help others as it’s an internal change
  • Be the example
  • Sharing stories
  • Rewarding effort and the journey

Referring to 3Ms talked in the 7th session, Tal recommended 3Ps as an alternative of 3Ms that can help us to cope with the difficulty time or negative feelings.

The 3Ps are (1) The permission to be human – accepting it’s emotional, it’s difficulty, it’s reality. (2) Positive – change the interpretation and see opportunities in the failure. Taking distraction to do something you enjoy. It’s not about avoiding. (3) Taking perspective. Ask ourselves is this really matter? what is really matter?

Psychological maturity is about the ability to willingly shift perspective. 

Tal shared a wonder drug as the start of the mind-body topic:

  • 30 minutes of physical exercise, 4 times a week
  • at least of 15 minutes of mindful exercise 6 or 7 times a week
  • 8 hours of sleep more or leas per 24 hours
  • at least 12 hugs a day
I am thinking about the wonder drug in practice.

  • Physical exercises. Yes, this is no problem for me. I have made it as my routine.
  • Mindful. Yes, I can do it more and regularly. I have done it sometimes over the two years. I can make it as a routine.
  • Sleep. My most favorite routine.
  • Hugs. Hmm, this is hard for me as I still don’t feel so comfortable to hug people or to be hugged though I have lived in the UK for so many years. One reason is I grew up in China where adults do not hug each other so much in terms of the culture. It’s possible with very close friends, family members or your young kids sometimes. Another reason is I don’t know if it’s okay to hug the same person 12 times  in a day. Are there any differences to hug 12 different people in a day? I need to work out a way to practise this 😉
People and their work:

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar – Harvard Open Courses 1504 – Positive Psychology 15

This session is about perfectionism.

I thought I am a perfectionist as I am picky about things I care, but I don’t really know the whole picture of perfectionism. This session explains a lot and helps me to see myself and understand I’m not an extreme perfectionist but I have the Perfectionism schema working in my mind to some extent. It’s what I need to learn and want to change.

Perfectionism is an incapacitating fear of failure that permeates our lives, especially those areas that we care about most.

There are two schemas of the journey of life from A to B. One is Perfectionism and the other is Excellence. There is no perfect perfectionist, we all exist somewhere along the continuum between Perfectionism and Excellence. However, there are many people closer to the Perfectionism end of the continuum. 


  • try to get the most efficient way, a straight line from A to B. there is only one way.
  • is terrified to failure
  • having frustration of not accepting reality
  • if we have this schema in our mind, we are putting ourselves fight nature
  • defensiveness
  • over-generalisation
  • all or nothing approach
  • only experience temporarily relief


  • as ambition as Perfectionism
  • acceptance of failure, see it as learning experience, an opportunity to growth
  • the journey is a part of the success
  • accept what the reality is
  • open and welcome criticism
  • learn enjoying every step of the way
  • Pursuing Excellence is about a constraint view of nature, they do not give up ambition and also do not give up enjoying the journey

Perfectionism schema hurts self-esteem because:

  1. does not accept him/herself
  2. constantly perceive self as a failure
  3. is less likely to try

Perfectionism harms relationships, Perfectionism leads to anxiety and stress.

How can we change toward the Excellence schema?

  1. self-awareness, understanding perfectionism.
  2. focus on and reward effort
  3. active acceptance and take action

Interesting research findings:

  • Pareto Principle or the 80-20 Rule helps you manage those things that really you care the most.

People and their work:

  • Warren Bennis’ book Geeks and Geezers – work-life balance
  • Nathaniel Branden – self-esteem
  • Peter Senge – creative tension
  • Richard Wiseman’s book The Luck Factor
  • John Updike – perfectionism is the enemy of creativity
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow
  • Nathaniel Branden’s book A Woman’s Self-Esteem: Struggles and Triumphs in the Search for Identity
  • Anita Roddick’s work for women and self-esteem
  • Carol Dweck – not all praise is good – it can change our schema
  • Karen Horney – neurosis is always part of us, but it’s manageable.

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar – Harvard Open Courses 1504 – Positive Psychology 14

This session continues the topic of “stress” and how to learn toward happiness.

Successful people know “focus” in one thing at one time. In “recovery”, they understand (1) quantity affects quality. Too much of a good thing will affect us to enjoy each of the thing. (2) things that are meaningful do not always pleasurable.

To cope with procrastination, Tal gave an example of how he put himself into action. Just do it whatever you like it or not! Commit to yourself to do the things you need to do.

About perfectionism, Tal shared his own experience about seeking to understand himself. “All or nothing” is a common view in perfectionism. Like Tal, I pursued the goals that I thought would bring me a lot of happiness, and actually I started to wonder what’s meaning of the pursue, and why it seems not make me happier when I achieved it. This is again linking back to the “Rat Race”.

Courage is not about not having fear; it’s about having fear and going ahead anyway. 

Learn to fail or fail to learn, there is no other way! Tal has said it many many times in the course. He highlighted the point of “the joy of learning”. When we grow up, we forget how we learnt for instance to walk from thousand times of falling down. The worst scenario is it hurts, but I learnt and grow.

Interesting research findings:

  • 70% college students complain about their own procrastination.
  • The most successful scientists and artists have also failed the most.

People and their work:

  • Daniel Kahneman – understanding the most effective things of women during the day. Research results show that they don’t enjoy the time with their children. – to show that quantity affects quality.
  • Susan and Clyde Hendrick – stress and relationship
  • University of London – The IQ of those who try to juggle message at work fell by 10 points, the equivalent to missing a whole night’s sleep and more than double 4.4 fall after smoking marijuana. I tried to search this study in 2005 but can’t find the report. I found the resources:

Abuse of technology can reduce UK workers’ intelligence by HP
Emails ‘pose threat to IQ’ by John M. Grohol

  • Tim Kasser – time affluence and well-being
  • The procrastination research done by University of Carleton in Canada – overcoming procrastination using 5 minutes take-off. I found their website. I found the resources: Study: Procrastination makes us fat and unhappy; we won’t put off putting off and the conference 
  • Elbert Hubbard – The greatest mistake a man can make is to be afraid of making one.
  • George Elliot – no perfectionism – just do it, just act, prepare to fail.
  • Michael Jordan – failed time and time again, which is why he succeeds.
  • Amy Edmondson’s research – groups (Hackman conditions) and medical errors in hospital, learning organisations.
  • Jane Klam’s research on people who are on dieting or exercises – people who are able to persist are people who have failed on average 5 times before.