Stating the Obvious | Value of the Obvious | Chipping Away

Chipping Away

In his introduction to the Positive Psychology class that ran at Harvard University in 2006, lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar inserted the following disclaimer; “You’re going to learn very few new things in this class … but [I hope to] provide you the opportunity – create the conditions – for you to chip away some excess stone …”

Shahar’s course was a master-class in stating the obvious, hence his well placed disclaimer. He elucidated, amongst other things, the benefits of getting enough sleep, of doing regular exercise, of meditation, of keeping a diary; he examined the dangers of perfectionism, surveyed techniques for becoming more productive, and expounded on the value of positive emotions. In all this he was true to his word; very few ‘new things’ were divulged.

So what then, was the value of his course?

It may be helpful to call to mind a maxim from American writer Henry David Thoreau; “The soul grows by subtraction, not addition.” We’ve already seen how we can become mindless to the frameworks that we are constructing in our minds; those commitments that we make without even realising that we are doing so. As we grow older we may have adopted many pervasive mindsets based upon un-examined information; we may be accepting things that we needn’t accept, placing limitations where they needn’t exist, or denying ourselves experience based upon insignificant fears.

In examining commonplace ideas, Shahar allowed his students a re-entry to them. The clue to the emphasis of the course is in the title; his explicit project was to provide insight into the field of Positive Psychology, which itself is concerned with examining and elucidating happiness (within Psychology, it can be seen as the positivist Yang to the traditional pathology-oriented Yin). In laying out these familiar ideas, Shahar invited his students to examine their approach to them, and to re-assess any troublesome assumptions or mindsets that they may have formed without noticing. In doing this they were able to break down (and subtract) negative or unhelpful frameworks, as well as put certain thoughts and ideas in perspective.

Psychologist James Hillman talks of this process – he describes it as “Shedding pseudoskins, crusted stuff that you've accumulated. Shedding dead wood. That's one of the big sheddings. Things that don't work anymore, things that don't keep you - keep you alive. Sets of ideas that you've had too long. People that you don't really like to be with, habits of thought, habits of sexuality … Or put it another way: Growth is always loss.”3

Crucially, the Positive Psychology course offered the chance to re-examine familiar ideas, but within an environment that facilitated the thorough consideration of those ideas. We can contrast this environment with the kind of day-to-day experience that brings about the dog-thought referred to by Ricard earlier. Shahar’s students were allowed to behave like lions: to (re)capture their thoughts, and, if necessary, re-frame them. Through looking at what was already there, already close at hand, and known, they were given the chance to shed what was not needed.