Tal Ben-Shahar taught two of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history: Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership. Having listened to some of them years ago I’ve kept an eye on his research. And today I took up the opportunity to listen to his presentation “Resilience 2.0: The Science of Happiness in Difficult Times.”
In this presentation, he talked about resilience and antifragility establishing a concept designed to grow from hardship. It is based on the idea that people and organizations can be enabled to emerge stronger after a crisis and become more able to deal with future adversity.
To lead into the topic, he invited taking a different perspective on stress explaining how stress as such is necessary for growth. Everyone who goes to the gym knows that training comes along with stress for the muscles, without that stress they would not develop. For Ben-Shahar the problem thus isn’t the stress itself but how people expose themselves to regular or constant stress. Any effective training happens with breaks between the training units, they allow for some rest and thus restoration. For Tal Ben-Shahar the logical consequence is that part of our resilience and ability to bounce back from stress is to establish islands of restoration in our life.
He suggested aligning them within three different time dimensions: Micro (minutes, hours), Mezzo (nights, days), and Macro (weeks, months). He also established the link between caring for oneself and giving sharing a few studies. These studies serve to describe three ways to give: charity, kindness, and listening. All of which lead to something coming back, however not necessarily in a transactional manner.
Kindness is something one can always give, or as Anne Frank stated it: “You can always give something, even if it is only kindness.”
Listening, that is being fully present to the other, is an act of giving for many reasons. One is the presence and emotional availability given to the other, and thus the possibility for that person to express themselves. To Tal Ben-Shahar, this is especially relevant when it comes to emotions. In this, he explained that suppressing difficult emotions will always also block the positive ones. If envy is blocked, for example, love can’t flow either. Similarly, whenever anxiety is suppressed, excitement will not be able to flow either. Letting other people express themselves and listening to it, thus becomes a way to help others accept their emotions and allow them to flow freely. In doing so, emotions leave as they come, instead of remaining stuck where they contribute to the sense of stress.
To back up these ideas Ben-Shahar also brought up the study on giving and taking done by Adam Grant. A remarkable element of that study is the importance of giving for performance. However, the study highlighted, that giving can as well lead to top performance as to low performance.
In general, givers are all about the other. They focus their efforts on the other. According to Grant’s study, the ones who stick to only giving to the other are the low performers. The top performers acknowledge the necessity of restorative periods and have learned to also give themselves. They care enough about themselves to build their resilience. in this, they give themselves the permission to be humans. This includes having the needed restorative moments as well as caring for their environment and shaping it knowing what it is in the environment that makes it easier for them to be high performers.