Tal Ben-Shahar – Human Enhancement and the Importance of Hardship

Close to a year before I enrolled at UPENN for Martin Seligman’s Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program, I had first heard of the term “positive psychology” from a man teaching Happiness at Harvard. The class was a tremendous hit, and in addition to oodles of news coverage, including an appearance of the “Daily Show,” Prof. Ben-Shahar’s books Happier and Being Happy have been translated into 25 languages.

I corresponded with Prof. Ben Shahar recently via email with regard to my interests of applying the lens and lessons of positive psychology to transhumanism and human enhancement. His reply and my reflections are below.

The Brief Perspective from Tal Ben-Shahar

DF1: With the advent of Brain Implants potentially being used in a “green cape” (enhancing human capacities / cognition) and not just a “red cape” (fixing blindness and brain diseases) way, how might the study of Positive Psychology help guide / put a check on efforts to improve the human condition by “re-wiring” or “enhancing” the brain?

TB1: One concern that I have is that interventions like these will prevent people from learning and growing, because they’ll help people circumvent struggle and hardship. There is potentially much benefit to difficult experiences.  What positive psychology does is help us reframe and grow from these experiences, rather than avoid them.

DF2: From a psychological standpoint, if you HAD to enhance any one element of the “fulfillment algorithm” through technology (whether or not we’re going by Marty’s PERMA) – which would you aim to enhance and why?

TB2: Resilience. The ability to bounce back from hardship, and overcome challenges.


Considerable Danger: I believe that there is great truth in the fruit of struggle – and that the advent of technology and “bettering” life has always tended to warrant thought of a life too easy (from the horse and buggy to the mobile phone this notion has been echoed). With actual advent of enhancements to the brain – and in turn – mental / conscious experience itself, this inkling of an “enhanced” life of too much ease might rightly come to the forefront even more-so than today.

Enhancement of the Good: If done, correctly (not that I am a proponent, per say), it would seem that the enhancement of our brains and conscious experience might also be done in a way to completely bolster our volition and ability to learn and grow through challenges we face. Rather than merely being happy or having all become easy to us, we might aim instead to have a richer, more full experience of life if the proper aspects of our experience are “enhanced.” Similarly, we might – with further capacities – set further goals, objectives, and standards to even further stretch our enhanced faculties.

Transcendence: It also seems as though thinking within what we know now as the “human experience” might in fact be limiting. Self-overcoming is fulfilling to man given his current constitution, but might be suppose that a different constitution could feel the same if not a much deeper and more complex RICH kind of fulfillment as is earned from the self-overcoming that many of us see as core to reaching the heights of our human potential and happiness (I happen to hold this view myself). This may not involve a softening, but a re-programming that doesn’t recognize “hardship” at all, but merely objectives and inputs – not in a less RICH way – but potentially in a different way that implied no negative emotional effect in the first place – and simply a continual kind of action toward a highest ideal (another very human concept) which may be potentially more productive and (assuming we are the architects of this new consciousness and experience) more fulfilling that what we as mortals could now know.

With all of that being said, the enhancements of tomorrow are likely not going to be the kind that overhaul the entirety of human experience, but rather augment it – and I believe that bearing in mind the value of this trait of resilience is something the technologists in the future will want to bear in mind.

All the best, and thank you, Professor,

-Daniel Faggella