Why Older Individuals Are Happier On Average  

The world’s first master’s in happiness program is attracting some students in their 80s, says its director.

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

“Forget your troubles and just get happy
Ya better chase all your cares away!!
Sing Hallelujah, come on get happy
Get ready for the judgment day!’’

Apparently, there are plenty of people out there who would be, well, happy to follow that song’s exhortation. It was written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler four months after the catastrophic stock market crash of 1929 which signaled the beginning of the Great Depression.

Nearly 100 years later, academic and author Tal Ben-Shahar was sitting in a plane flying from London to New York when it struck him that it was time to craft a program that would help people bring happiness into their lives and the lives of others.

With business partner Yuval Kutz, he founded the Happiness Studies Academy in 2018. Now Centenary University in Hackettstown, N.J., will offer the world’s first Master of Arts in Happiness Studies, in a full virtual format for its Fall 2022 semester. Ben-Shahar, a Harvard graduate and a Ph.D., will direct the program.

“Registration is going great; hundreds are applying,’’ Ben-Shahar tells Rethinking65. “We have students in their early 20s as well as students in their 80s.” He says the happiness program appeals to a wide range of ages.

“Recent research in neuroscience points out that our brains are susceptible to change throughout our lives, and therefore it is not surprising that young and old are attracted to our program.  They want to make a difference in their lives and those of others,” he says.

“There really isn’t a typical student.  Some want to, and actually do, change career, while others are merely taking the course to learn more about themselves and the world,’’ he said.

The Happiness Studies Academy’s website features photos of smiling faces which are overwhelmingly young; and yet, Ben-Shahar says he has learned that one gets happier as one ages.

“The reason why, on average, older individuals are happier is because they are more accepting of themselves.  The ability to accept ones’ painful emotions — like fear, sadness, anger, frustration, and so on — is the foundation of a full and fulfilling life,’’ he said.

Perfect Timing

Well before the COVID pandemic, war in Ukraine, rising inflation and nationwide racial unrest, Ben-Shahar taught one of Harvard University’s most popular classes: His course on positive psychology attracted more than 800 students in 2006.

He has also taught a similar course at Columbia University and has written the international bestsellers “Happier,’’ and “Being Happy. He also co-wrote two children’s books in Hebrew about real people who applied the principles of positive psychology to cope with difficulties.

In announcing the new master’s program, Centenary University president Dr. Bruce Murphy said, “To be sure, we are in trying times — pandemic, depression, war—but these are not unique times. We have had such challenges throughout history and we have sought to find ways to weather these storms.

“At Centenary, we sought to develop a curriculum to address this need and we’ve tapped the expertise of our own talented faculty, as well as one of the great minds on the subject of happiness studies.”

The timing couldn’t be much better: The American Psychological Association’s March 2022 national poll found that 87% of respondents reported that they felt there had been a constant stream of crises in the last several years, with no break. Americans are feeling extreme stress, loss and grief, the poll said.

Master’s Program Announced at World Happiness Summit

Dr. Murphy made the announcement at the World Happiness Summit in Miami, Fla., to mark the United Nations International Day of Happiness in March.

In 2020, Ben-Shahar conducted an online course in happiness for the University of Miami, which combined several disciplines and science on the issue of happiness. He said that the master’s program being taught at Centenary University is a much more extensive program that covers more than the material covered in the certificate program. The master’s degree is accredited as well, he said.

The Centenary program is aimed at students from various disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, finance, business, literature, coaching, religion, and music, to explore how happiness affects individuals, workplaces and the world at large.

Ben-Shahar says students will study scientific research in all courses and will be shown how this research can be applied in families, at work, in schools and in therapeutic and coaching settings.

An introductory course examines what philosophers and thinkers such as Aristotle and Maimonides say on the subject, and there’s a course on economists, historians and political leaders who have applied these ideas to their work.

The 18-month Master’s program is $17,700.

Ben-Shahar, who has discussed his ideas on happiness on “The Daily Show’’ with Jon Stewart, on the BBC and CNN, and the “Today’’ show, is Israeli-born and has taught “The Science of Happiness’’ at Reichman University, in Herzliya, Israel.

But his sensibility isn’t all rosy. He’s said that one of the first lessons taught at the Happiness Studies Academy is that a happy life is not devoid of pain, suffering, disappointment and struggles, and that “the first step towards happiness is allowing in unhappiness.’’

The Benefits of Being Happy

Ben-Shahar says learning the art of being happy has multiple positive effects.

“There is a great deal of research showing that if we increase happiness levels, we become more creative, productive, and focused.  With more happiness comes improved physical health and relationships, as well as better academic and professional performance.

“It is for these reasons that a degree in happiness studies — which is about increasing our own and others’ well-being — is relevant for managers, teachers, parents, coaches, therapists, doctors and nurses, lawyers, and the list goes on.’’

Murphy of Centenary University said the online master’s program “is a 30-credit graduate degree is an interdisciplinary program designed for leaders who are committed to personal, interpersonal, organizational, and societal happiness. Grounded in science and research, this new degree will study happiness and resilience to prepare graduates to make an impact in a wide range of fields.’’

The program is approved by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Techniques to be used include meditation, goal setting, yoga, physical exercise, breathwork and different forms of journal keeping.

The course brochure says that students will probably spend up to four hours weekly on studies, over a year and a half. Refunds are available within 30 days if students are, well, unhappy with the course.

Individual classes in the program will not be available, says Ben-Shahar.

“The program is one interconnected whole, and students either enroll for the entire program, or not at all.’’

Happiness Students

Students from 60 countries have taken Ben-Shahar’s happiness courses, with the largest groups coming from the United States, South America, Western Europe, Australia and Asia.

“Happiness is a universal phenomenon and its pursuit is natural and important.  The one common characteristic we find in the happiest countries in the world is focus on relationships.  Countries where people put a lot into their relationships, who invest in their relationships, are happier,’’ Ben-Shahar says.

“For example, countries like Finland, Denmark, Israel, Colombia and Australia enjoy high levels of well-being because their culture values relationships.  In the United States and in many other wealthy countries, relationships have taken a back seat to material success, prestige, and such.  It’s not that the conventional form of success is not important, but when it comes to what I’ve come to call “the ultimate currency” — the currency of happiness — relationships matter a great deal more.’’

Intriguingly, when asked what thinkers have influenced his philosophy, he names one of the greatest writers in the English language, but doesn’t use her pen name.

“I see Aristotle and Lao Tzu as the fathers of modern happiness studies.  I read them and many other great thinkers, like Shakespeare, Mary Ann Evans, Robert Nozick, and others,’’ Ben-Shahar said, using the real name of George  Eliot.

Centenary University has about 1,100 undergraduate students and 830 graduate students. The school opened in 1867 as a co-educational prep school, then became a girls’ prep school, a women’s junior college, a women’s four-year college, a co-educational four-year college, and, in 2016, a university.

Murphy of the school said that he was “a little skeptical at first,” about the program, but he became convinced that the Master’s of Happiness Studies would be a practical degree.

“We see that as strengthening the brand, helping us get our name out there,” Murphy said.

As for Ben-Shahar, what makes him happy?

“Freud was at least partially right when he said that ‘Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.’ Spending time with my loved ones — family and friends — makes me happy, and working on those things that are meaningful to me makes me happy.’’

More information is available from Centenary University at www.centenaryuniversity.edu or (908) 852-1400.

In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.

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