Positive Psychology 1504: Harvard’s Groundbreaking Course

Positive Psychology 1504: Harvard's Groundbreaking CourseHarvard’s Positive Psychology 1504, taught by professor Tal Ben-Shahar Ph.D., will enter the books as the most popular course in the history of Harvard University.

In the spring of 2006, over 1400 Harvard students enrolled in both Positive Psychology 1504 and Ben-Shahar’s Psychology of Leadership course.

Positive Psychology 1504 consists of 22 lectures lasting around 75 minutes each, with a guest lecture on humor by Harvard graduate and professor Shawn Achor. The course’s focus is on the psychological aspects of life fulfillment and examines empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, spirituality, happiness, and humor.

The aim of this article is to provide you with the materials you will need to follow the course.

Be sure to also check out our page on positive psychology courses and positive psychology degrees as they present you with all the different online and offline positive psychology courses that are out there.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

Who is Tal Ben-Shahar?

positive psychology 1504 harvard tal ben shaharpositive psychology 1504 harvard tal ben shaharBorn in 1970, Ben-Shahar is a renowned teacher and writer in the areas of positive psychology and leadership.

He completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University in Organisational Psychology, writing his dissertation on “Restoring Self-Esteem’s Self-Esteem: The Constructs of Dependent and Independent Competence and Worth.”

Ben-Shahar taught two of the most popular classes in the history of Harvard University – Positive Psychology 1504 and The Psychology of Leadership – and continues to share his knowledge of topics such as leadership, ethics, happiness, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, and mindfulness around the world to multinational corporations, the general public, and at-risk populations.

In 2011, Ben-Shahar joined Angus Ridgway to cofound Potentialife. This leadership-development program uses science to help organizations develop ideal leadership behaviors, and bring positive psychology into daily life.

Ben-Shahar is also the co-founder, instructor, and chief learning officer of the Happiness Studies Academy, which offers a year-long online academic course in Happiness Studies. While the program is primarily designed to enhance the skill set of coaches, therapists, managers, and teachers, it is also relevant to individuals who are interested in becoming happier, healthier, and more successful.

Happier.TV is yet another initiative introduced by Ben-Shahar. Created as a resource to help individuals & communities flourish, Happier.tv provides videos, articles, tips, and advice on how to achieve and maintain a happier, more positive lifestyle.

Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness, therefore, is not about making it to the peak of the mountain, nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain: happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.

Tal Ben-Shahar

Harvard’s Positive Psychology 1504

Taught by Ben-Shahar between 2004 and 2008, the primary focus of this unique and innovative course is the question of how we can help ourselves and others to become happier.

The course curriculum is based on a cross-disciplinary selection of topics that are central to positive psychology, including happiness, gratitude, flow, relationships, strengths, humor, mindfulness, and optimism, and the mind-body connection.

Rather than simply memorizing information, Positive Psychology 1504 is about transformation, thus the content is delivered in two interconnected yet distinct ways: by incorporating both action and reflection.

Like any other class, students must read recommended academic papers and complete assessments, but they must also apply this newfound knowledge to their personal lives. Indeed, for healthy growth, one must act upon one’s reflections and reflect upon one’s actions (Russo-Netzer & Ben-Shahar, 2011).

The translated course content has since been taught in Israel, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Europe with remarkable success. Interestingly, the same ideas and principles seem to appeal regardless of cultural differences, suggesting that the material taught is relevant across cultures.

Harvard’s Positive Psychology 1504 Syllabus and Reading List

The syllabus for Positive Psychology 1504 – which covers topics including happiness, self-esteem, love, friendship, and creativity – is still accessible in PDF-format, as is the full reading list.

This contains all the relevant resources required to complete the course and links to online sources. It is worth noting, however, that some of the readings may not be freely or easily available online.

Positive Psychology 1504 Lecture Videos and Transcripts

While Ben-Shahar no longer teaches Positive Psychology 1504, the lectures for this course are available online so that people all over the world can learn about and develop an interest in positive psychology and its scientific branches.

Transcripts of the first 12 lectures are also available. Please note that these transcripts are from lectures held in 2008 and the videos above are from 2006, so while there may be some small variations they include the same course content.

Besides these, here is a sample midterm paper as well.

Some of My Lecture Notes:

a matter of interpretation lecture slidea matter of interpretation lecture slide
exercise the unsung hero patrick callaghanexercise the unsung hero patrick callaghan
happiness in positive psychology vs unhappinesshappiness in positive psychology vs unhappiness
optimism positive vs negative eventsoptimism positive vs negative events
studying our personal beststudying our personal best
top 11 1504 tipstop 11 1504 tips


Harvard’s Positive Psychology 1504 – Reviews and Feedback

Often described as groundbreaking, Positive Psychology 1504 focused on the psychological aspect of a fulfilling and flourishing life: a concept that individuals appear to have an authentic connection with, regardless of gender and cultural differences.

When asked in interviews why more people signed up to take the class than any other, Ben-Shaher’s answer is simple, more people want to be happy than want to be rich (as cited in de Anca, 2012). Indeed, twice a week students would attend the class in droves, so what made it so popular? The overwhelmingly positive impact the course had on others can be seen from the feedback below.

Extremely inspiring and it’s a privilege to be able to benefit from them.

I can really say that this class can be life-changing. I can’t wait to share what I have learned with more and more people.

A wonderful experience that will improve my life.

I enjoyed so much throughout the whole course and learned a great deal of things that will help me to become a happier and useful person in this world.  Thanks Tal.

The course can change how you see yourself and your life. A lot of people are just not accustomed to asking, ‘What do I have going for me?’ and ‘What did I do right today?’

Shane Lopez

Students tell me that the class is making a difference or has made a difference in their lives. When they tell me they are happier or able to understand something about themselves or their lives better as a result of the class… this to me is priceless.

Tal Ben-Shahar

Books by Tal Ben-Shahar

In addition to his work at Harvard, Tal Ben-Shahar is also a best-selling author of several books. Based on his positive psychology lectures, Ben-Shahar has published two books on happiness and life fulfillment.

  1. Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. (2007). Buy the book online from Amazon.
  2. The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. (2009). Buy the book online from Amazon.

Ben-Shahar is also the author of a number of other best-selling books including:

Even Happier: A Gratitude Journal For Daily Joy And Lasting Fulfillment (2009)

Inspired by the groundbreaking principles taught at Harvard University, this week-by-week guided journal includes techniques and exercises to inspire meaning and happiness every day over the course of 12 months.

Buy the book online from Amazon.

The Joy of Leadership: How Positive Psychology Can Maximize Your Impact (and Make You Happier) in a Challenging World (2017)

The Joy of Leadership looks at the difference between leaders who flourish and leaders who flounder by examining the relationship between leadership, happiness, and success. The authors describe how to maximize your impact as a leader by focusing on five key areas of the SHARP framework: Strengths, Health, Absorption, Relationships, and Purpose.

Buy the book online from Amazon.

Short Cuts to Happiness: Life-Changing Lessons from My Barber.

In our fast-paced lives, are we moving so fast that we miss out on our own happiness? In his latest offering, Ben-Shahar’s explores this question from the seat of his barber’s chair. Over the course of two years Ben-Shahar and his barber, Avi, shared their words of wisdom and reminded one another that happiness can be found in the most surprising places.

Buy the book online from Amazon.

Share Your Course Experiences

Harvard’s Positive Psychology 1504 made quite an impact and continues to do so over a decade later. Topics within the innovative course address fundamental aspects of the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment, concerns that are inherent to human nature.

In acknowledging and embracing the personal-experiential aspect of learning, Ben-Shahar created a course that is grounded in empirical research and that people can truly connect with.

How can you help yourself – and others – to become happier? Harvard’s Positive Psychology 1504 might just be the place to start.

We would love to hear about your experience with this course via the comments. Which resources were most useful to you?

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.


  • De Anca, C. (2012). Beyond tribalism: Managing identities in a diverse world. Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Russo-Netzer, P., & Ben-Shahar, T. (2011). ‘Learning from success’: A close look at a popular positive psychology course. The Journal of Positive Psychology6(6), 468-476.