Happier - how to enjoy lasting change with Dr Tal Ben-Shahar - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

Happier – how to enjoy lasting change with Dr Tal Ben-Shahar

Written by on April 2, 2016 in Happiness with 0 Comments

Tal-Ben-ShaharThe most difficult part of becoming happier is making change last,” says Tal Ben-Shahar. He quotes Socrates, who said ‘To know the good is to do the good.’ “Very wise”, Tal says, “but very wrong”. We know what we should be doing – at work, at home, for your health, but the question is: once you know the good, how do you make it happen on a consistent, daily basis? Lasting change is anything but easy.

Studies have shown that lasting change is incredibly difficult to achieve. “We spend a great deal of time and money trying to change,” he says, but despite our efforts, change only occurs for a ‘honeymoon period’, after which you go back to your old ways. Tal’s hope is not to give us more information, but to create transformation.

Tal describes three different responses to the experience of learning new, inspiring information. Some people don’t have much of a response, and do nothing to change. The majority of people are very inspired to make change, but after the honeymoon period, they go back to where they were before. The last group has the same honeymoon effect initially, but they end up at a higher, more self-motivated level than before learning the new information.

The second group relies on self-discipline and willpower, but the third, more successful group, relies on rituals. Tal tells us that self-discipline is finite: you can’t get more of it, and it runs out quickly. “But it’s just enough to bring about lasting change,” he says, “if you know how to use the little self-discipline that you do have.”

He tells us about an experiment in which people were asked to solve a very difficult, virtually unsolvable problem. In the first group, there was a bowl of chocolate chip cookies on the table that participants were asked not to touch. The second group were asked to solve the same problem, but instead of cookies, there was a bowl of baked red beetroots. The group that persisted much longer was the red beetroot group. Why? Because their willpower had not been exhausted trying to resist the delicious cookies!

Tal tells us about a meeting that his mother went to, Overeaters Anonymous. The most important thing she learned that night was ‘Don’t bring enemies home.’ Tal tells us that his enemy is ice-cream. It speaks to him. In resisting the ice-cream in his freezer, he is using up valuable willpower. If the ice-cream were not in his freezer at home, he’d be able to use his willpower to do something else, like go for a run.

Tal asks the audience how many people fulfil all of their New Year’s Resolutions. Nobody in the auditorium raises their hand. He asks how many people brushed their teeth this morning. Everyone (we hope!) Tal asks if anyone needed to motivate themselves to do this. Did you need the music from Rocky playing behind you as you used your visualisation techniques to get yourself to the bathroom and pick up the toothbrush? “No, you just did it!” Tal says. “Why? Because it’s a ritual.”

The group of people who are most successful at creating change are also very good at creating rituals.

Rituals involve precise behaviours that are performed at specific times, motivated by deeply held values. Tal tells us about some of his rituals. At night before bed, he writes down three or four things he is grateful for. He knows the science behind this: gratitude can make you happier and healthier. Tal knows the benefits of exercise, so he exercises three times a week at specific times, even when he is jetlagged. Another important part of Tal’s life is his relationship with his wife. So, every Wednesday night he goes on a date with his wife. Some friends of his say that they should be more spontaneous, but for Tal, having the ritual ensures that the date will happen and not be pushed aside in their busy lives with three small children and their jobs.

Negative rituals are also important to look at. Tal says he’s a news junkie, but he didn’t enjoy having an hour-and-a-half of his time sucked away first thing in the morning. What was more important to him was to write after waking up, so he introduced a new positive ritual, pushing back his news reading habit until the afternoon.

We make our habits, and our habits make us.” Tal says that habits are addictions: they can be positive or negative.

What about creativity?” Tal asks. We usually link creativity to spontaneity, however, many artists have strong rituals around their creative practice. They might do something totally different in each session, but having precise times that they turn up to their studio, lab or writing pad helps them to increase their productivity and creativity. Knowing what you will do at every moment of the day can help you become highly successful.

There’s a problem, though,” Tal says. “It takes about 30 days to ritualise a behaviour.” This means doing something every day for 30 days. “The first 30 days need self-discipline.” Tal says the key to creating lasting change is to introduce one or two new rituals at a time. You want to ensure that you have enough self-discipline to set your ritual – to get it to the place where your new ritual is just as natural to you each day as brushing your teeth.

Tal invites us to open our calendars or daily planners and put in, three times a week for one month, on specific days at specific times, something you would like to introduce to your life. Regular physical activity, date night with your partner, writing first thing in the morning – whatever is most important to you now.

You will enjoy lasting change.”

Introduce real, immediate change – after you know the good, follow up and do the good.

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar, Israel, acclaimed positive psychology lecturer who taught Harvard University’s most popular and life-changing course and best-selling author of Happier: Learn the Secrets of Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment presented this at Happiness & Its Causes 2016.


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