Friday, February 1, 2008

Harvard's Positive Psychology Course

For those of you who haven't heard yet, there is a class being taught at Harvard called "Positive Psychology" (commonly known as the Happiness Course) that has become one of the most popular classes at Harvard, with over 800 students enrolled in Spring 2006.

The NY Times (1/24/08) wrote a blog post/article "Teaching Happiness, on the Web" on how the popularity of the course is so widespread that Harvard will now offer it online as well.
The class, taught by Tal Ben-Shahar, focuses on the psychological aspects of a fulfilling life, including topics such as happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality and humor. But happiness doesn’t come cheap. Those taking the course noncredit or for undergraduate credit must pay $700. Graduate credit costs $1,625.
Needless to say, the class is stirring up some controversy about why they're teaching a class like that at Harvard and why it costs so much. The instructor for the class, Tal Ben-Shahar, recently appeared on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" and Jon offered his standard skepticism and deadpan opinion on the class. Check out the interview here (embedded in the NY Times article).

I personally think this class is great and I'm excited to say that a good friend (and fellow coach), Sara B. Frederick, will be a Teaching Fellow for the class for the upcoming semester. The NY Times article prompted me to write a comment on the site about the importance of the class. Here's my response:
This course is important because:

1. Just by being offered at Harvard means the faculty is willing to acknowledge it as a growing trend (among students and in a broader sense).

2. Its popularity shows that the subject matter is both relevant and valuable. Students are telling other students or registering after reading the course description and syllabus. It is something that resonates with them and they are flocking to it.

3. It is helping to shape future leaders, offering a broader perspective on life and personal mindset at the outset of their careers. The bright minds at Harvard will go on to be VPs and CEOs in Corporate America, start businesses, do groundbreaking research, present before the Supreme Court, invent new technologies, invest in new companies, and generally be on top of their field. We want them to be self-aware and interested in personal development so they can lead, manage, and achieve in a more effective (and "enlightened") way.

Offering these highly-talented individuals a chance to investigate different perspectives on life, happiness, and balance will certainly have an impact on their lives, and in the lives of the people around them.

It won't be seen right away, but in 5-10 years, as they grow into roles of prominence and responsibility, their attitude and perspective will impact countless people as their sphere of influence grows. Wouldn't it be nice to work for a boss/CEO/director who understands the importance of balance, family, personal fulfillment, challenge, and the other aspects of "life"? Intelligent, well-rounded, and positive people are hard to find these days, and the best companies will scoop them up quickly.

If this class can reach just one future leader and provide him/her with a valuable perspective on life, the class been an incredible success.

Tal's course brings to mind Michael Ray's class for Stanford business students, "Personal Creativity in Business." It also raised some eyebrows at the time, but the impact was far-reaching, as seen by the alumni of the course who went on to be future business and thought leaders (Jim Collins- "Built to Last", Jeff Skoll- first president of Ebay, just to name a few).

As a personal/career coach for OVERACHIEVERS, I help young, driven people find meaning in their career and life. By positively impacting these talented individuals, I know they will go on to do great things with their potential and make a difference in their personal relationships, in their workplaces, in their communities, industries, and society overall.

Tal, this class makes a difference.

Lee Knight

  • What do you think? Is a class like this important?
For more info on the course, there are a ton of articles about it on google.

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