How to be happy in the digital era: a talk with Tal Ben-Shahar

Is it getting harder to be happy? How can we become happier, more mindful people and team members in our fast-paced and increasingly distracted world?

As the digital era brings incredible change, you would expect our net happiness to improve along with it. After all, with instant global connectivity, round-the-clock services, safer communities, and more fulfilling professional lives, our every desire can be met at a moment’s notice. We have everything we need to be happy. Right?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that. Yes, almost every aspect of our lives is measurably better than it’s been throughout history, but depression and anxiety are exhibiting a worrying upward trend, especially among younger generations. 

It seems the digital era is affecting our happiness

But the beauty of trends is that they simply tell us what’s happening. Once a problem has been identified, the world’s best minds jump on the case, finding ways we can increase our well-being. One of these pioneering minds in the field of happiness is Tal Ben-Shahar, who recently gave a talk at IE University about his research. 

Tal is a lecturer at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, and famously taught the prestigious institution’s most popular course—Positive Psychology. When asked about the source of its popularity, he was quite matter-of-fact, saying, “Students were telling their roommates and friends that the course was making an actual difference in their lives.”

Thankfully (for our sakes) the talk didn’t end there, and he went into more detail about the necessary mindsets and steps you can take to lead a happier, more balanced life. 

It’s a science of the times

It’s crucial that an antidote comes out of a prestigious university.

This was a statement that Tal made at the beginning of his talk. But why is that true? Does it really matter where the cure for our happiness comes from? 

If the source of happiness were a magic elixir, it really wouldn’t matter. The problem is that nothing like that exists. To seriously combat depression and anxiety, we need to approach it in the right way—scientifically. As Tal put it:

“Happiness has always been a big topic, but the difference it that now, social scientists and neuroscientists have begun to explore the field. We have research that shows that after an 8-week meditation program, the brain changes. We can see from brain scans that happier people have more activation on the left side of the brain, whereas depressed people have more activation on the right side.”

This scientific recognition of happiness is hugely important. It stops the subject from being a fringe pursuit and gives it the opportunity to be taken seriously, affording it all the necessary resources to make an actual difference. With this foundation in science, the topic of happiness can now enter the world of academia through innovative initiatives like the IE Center for Health, Well-being, & Happiness

But what do these centers teach?

SPIRE: Stepping stones to happiness

According to Tal, our quest for increased happiness can be represented by the acronym S.P.I.R.E. Each letter represents one of the key elements of well-being that we need in order to live more fulfilled lives. The areas are:

Person with red shoes walking up stairs

The spiritual

Finding spiritual satisfaction is unique to the person, and doesn’t necessarily imply religion. It comes down to being present, mindful, and finding meaning in your day-to-day life.

The physical

From sleeping and eating well to getting enough exercise, taking care of our bodies is essential to maintain our levels of happiness. 

The intellectual

We are naturally curious individuals, and this is something that should be encouraged. Intellectual challenges are important to keep us sharp and satisfied.

The relational 

Whether romantic, familial, or platonic, the relationships we have in our lives are a key element to our net happiness.

The emotional

Emotions are a natural part of being human and we need to be prepared to deal with them in a healthy way—regardless of which one you’re experiencing. 

Leading the new wave of happiness

When Gallup developed a set of 12 questions to predict business success, the nature of their questions were very revealing. One of those questions was, “Do you have a best friend at work?” Those who couldn’t answer that question performed worse on average than their peers with strong work relationships.

Across the board, happiness is quickly becoming a key issue in companies as it directly affects employee performance. As leaders in the digital era, inspiring your workforce to be happy should be ingrained in your ongoing managerial style. As Tal says:

Happiness is a continuum, not a binary. You can keep reaching new levels of happiness throughout your life. If you become just 3-4% happier, you become more innovative, a better listener, more engaged… This is extremely important for twenty-first-century leaders.

Be happy—in moderation

Wall with inspirational writing

Finally, it’s important to recognize happiness for what it is: a point on the spectrum of human emotion. Tal places careful emphasis on this, highlighting a danger of positive psychology: becoming addicted to happiness. “It’s easy to forget that sorrow, fear, and anxiety are all important parts of life. But if we ignore them, they only intensify.”

To be happy is to be balanced. Happiness isn’t a line you can cross. As Tal says, “Sunlight is very important, but when you look at it directly, it hurts. However, when you break it down into a rainbow, you can look right at it and it’s lovely.” 

This talk is part of IE University’s larger mission to help students develop life-long habits that allow them to be happy and healthy. To learn more about the IE Center for Health, Well-being, & Happiness, visit its official webpage. Motivated to use positive psychology to become a better leader? Check out HST’s Executive Master in Positive Leadership & Transformation.