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New Year's Resolutions

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Thinking about the new year, and the year that just ended, I was reminded of a talk that Tal Ben-Shahar gave to independent school parents here in San Francisco a couple of years ago. His book Being Happy: You Don’t Have to be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life had just come out, and he was a featured lecturer at our SPEAK series.

Ben-Shahar, who is known for teaching two of the most popular classes at Harvard University (Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership), began by talking about the level of stress faced by students today. 45% of American college students experience depression to the point of not being able to function, and 94% feel overwhelmed by pressure. I worry about our eighth-graders and the stressors involved in the high school placement process in San Francisco, along with the amount of time they spend on social media.

His research shows that, when people leave their email on while trying to complete other tasks, the effect on their mental state is equivalent to losing ten IQ points or being awake for 36 hours straight. People who focus on one thing at a time are much more productive.

This fall, CDS offered two showings of the movie Screenagers for middle school parents, and last year we hosted Jim Steyer of Common Sense Media. The message from both sources was the same: adults as well as children spend too much time texting, emailing, and keeping up with friends on social media. Recently, one of our parents dropped off his child at the yard gate and began texting on his phone as he was exiting the CDS driveway. He very nearly hit a third-grader. Does our increased desire for connection make us more productive? Happier? Safer? His message is that we need to simplify our lives, to do less and not more.

According to Ben-Shahar, the number-one predictor of happiness is the amount of time we spend with people we love and who love us. He notes that stress is not the problem; lack of recovery time is the problem. He advises us to take a 15-minute break at work every once in a while and to get a good night’s sleep. And he reminds us that even God needed a day off.

So, if you are looking to make a change, here are his recommendations:

Six Tips for Happiness

Advice from Tal Ben-Shahar

1. Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions — such as fear, sadness, or anxiety — as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness.

2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning.

3. Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well being is determined by what we choose to focus on (the full or the empty part of the glass) and by our interpretation of external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity?

4. Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much.

5. Remember the mind-body connection. What we do — or don't do — with our bodies influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.

6. Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.


The presenter at our next SPEAK lecture will be Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes and Masterminds and Wingmen. Mastering communication breakdowns with our children and navigating clique territory is no easy task, especially in the age of social media. Rosalind Wiseman will discuss the ways in which social group dynamics influence kids’ interactions and offer step-by-step advice on how to teach young people to treat each other with dignity. San Francisco School will host this lecture at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, February 8, and it is free to parents of member schools. Register at