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TEDTalks and Keys to Happiness

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I began my blog journey with a desire to understand my own reaction of irritation in the face of the “positive psychology” movement and to explore what motivates me in contrast to an obsession with turning personal happiness into yet another competitive achievement.

Today I bring to you two TEDTalks on the subject of happiness. For me, these two talks demonstrate the gulf in quality among those connected to “positive psychology.” Dan Gilbert (above) I can respect, even though I don’t necessarily agree with all the conclusions he draws from his data. Shawn Achor, on the other hand, I find the twenty-first-century version of a snake-oil salesman.

There is much that overlaps in their TEDTalks—the jokes, the anecdotal examples that render their data amusing, their clunky Power Point slides. Most important, though, both talk about the ways in which we can or do recast negative events in our lives to render them more positive.

But I see differences:

Dan Gilbert notes toward the end of his talk that some things that may happen in our lives are actually better or more desirable than others. Though he insists that we overrate the impact of one result over another in terms of our happiness, he is not disconnected from reality. He is interested in what humans share in terms of how they react to life events, and he asserts that reframing unfortunate events is a human trait we all participate in.

Shawn Achor unfortunately ends his talk otherwise: with a list of ways in which we can retrain ourselves to be happy. His talk is oriented around our deficits, even as he makes fun of psychologists for wanting to diagnose illnesses in order to keep “sick” people coming back for more treatment. Happiness is something that requires treatment and training just as much as getting over any depression or other “below average” state. Achor’s talk is full of logical conflicts like this—and he even admits that the data he puts on the screen is nonexistent—he uses it just to make a point about the evils of averages. Right before this exhortative end, Achor throws out a bunch of numbers but doesn’t really tell us where they come from.

Both Gilbert and Achor rely on a connection to Harvard University for their status as experts, and both have published popular books on happiness (Gilbert’s is Stumbling on Happiness, 2006, and Achor’s is The Happiness Advantage, 2010). And this leads me to something that’s a big difference for me, but evidently not for others. Dan Gilbert really is an expert.

Though Shawn Achor has made himself a guru, he has no degree in psychology at all. His bio on his corporation, GoodThinkInc., says that he “spent over a decade at Harvard University where he won over a dozen distinguished teaching awards,” and here and there he is referred to as “Professor Achor.” Yes, he has a bachelor’s degree in English and Religious Studies from Harvard and a master’s in Divinity in “Christian and Buddhist ethics.” However, he never held a position above that of “teaching fellow,” which this link makes clear is basically a teaching assistant.

He also claims that his company conducts research into happiness, and it contains a “Research” page. But go to that page and what you find is pretty thin. There is a link to yet another business that Achor has “founded,” which, even though it is called the Institute for Applied Research, clearly involves only coaching courses, no research at all, though it does boast of several large business clients. And there is a link to an 800-word column Achor wrote for the Harvard Business Review that, though it does cite some research, notes only one “study” his company performed, which was a post-experiment assessment of the company’s employees and apparently has never been vetted for its experimental legitimacy. In other words, Achor performs “studies” to prove to the corporations who have bought his coaching services that it was worth the money.

Gilbert, on the other hand, has a PhD in social psychology from Princeton (and a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Colorado), and is actually on the faculty and runs a research lab at Harvard. This is not to say that he doesn’t have a stake in the tenets of positive psychology, but his approach is more balanced and therefore less punishing. For instance, in the Harvard Business Review’s coverage of his work, he notes, “Much of the research confirms things we’ve always suspected. For example, in general people who are in good romantic relationships are happier than those who aren’t. Healthy people are happier than sick people…. Rich people are happier than poor people.” Note that he doesn’t say that “happy people are healthier than sad people.” Nor “Happy people are richer than unhappy people.” He doesn’t reverse the equations of causality in destructive ways.

Therefore, even though I have questions about some of the implications of the research results that Gilbert mentions in his TEDTalk, I feel that it’s at least based on research and not on pure gloss designed to sell a service to line his pockets. I hope it doesn’t seem as though I am splitting hairs. These things make a difference to me as I try to understand what sources of advice and inspiration are really that and what ones are potentially damaging shams.

What makes a difference to you in a happiness guru? Which ones irritate you and which ones make sense, and why?


7 responses »

  1. Terry Ann Thaxton

    This post is right on time. Did you see the news yesterday about the 21 people who walked over hot coals at a Tony Robbins talk?

    On the NBC News, one participant who did not get burned noted that the people who did get burned had only themselves to blame for not being confident enough.

    I don’t think of this type of blabbering to be “research.” I think of it as amateur philosophy cloaked in research rhetoric.

    Thanks for posting on this subject again Lisa!

    • Thanks so much for this, Terry. It’s so funny when someone says, “It seemed abnormal that so many got hurt.” As though what’s strange is fire burning. I’m grateful that this article included the information from David Wiley, the physics instructor who noted that it isn’t “faith” that makes this possible, but a range of conductivity issues. And yet, we know that the “believers” will keep on believing, no matter what. I’m not sure how that can be counted as anything but delusional and sad. And I’m not sure how these things can be seen as anything but cults-for-pay. Why are people so desperate?

  2. The life of quiet desperation hasn’t gotten any less desperate than in Thoreau’s day, although it has gotten less quiet–even if that desperation often assumes the aspirational form of people who glom onto some obscure “expert” who will lead them to happiness.

    People want the one easy-to-understand piece of information that will transform them from losers to winners. They want the secret. They want The Secret.

    When I heard about the recent Tony Robbins thing, what amazed me was not that people got burned or that the people who got burned were blamed for not being positive enough, but rather how skinny, old, and haggard Robbins now looks.

  3. .This man is a miserable man just like the rest in this economically downgraded druge of a unstable market….. s. So what was on my public televison station….. a very long , Smoke and mirrors agenda sweeping up this rediculous mess we are in… can we chime together long enough to sustain even that of our own happiness. Please any other to bleet about the mind programing that has been occuring as of late????? I… are we to not be sad? Happiness is contingant upon both inner and outter circumstantial differentiating fatcs and mixtures of emotion… it is them eventing us…. we r deffinately occupied america. And do we have an idea what that effect has cost us… I believe men like this kind hopefull and able to smile while we suffer and do with out. And live on nothing soon will be popping up from all over. Try to remember one thing only In the words spoken from time to time. Know the meaning and intent with one states something. By my great granfathers sweetness and tender mercies greaciously in his life time he tought me that of anothers mans thought. Many he spoke happily and highly of Jesus Christ…. and often very quietly say “don’t sweat the small stuff kid.” Or the big stuff will take you over .” The beauty in wording things can help . But the package and the spirit in which it is delivered is just as relevant. We are not cattle n sheep although it would be much easier if we were. And why can’t we just go back to being ourselves and doing that which is our best. we can too manage! And not any blasted fellow that can afford a tv spot on a tv channel.. a private one which claims it isn’t a public…. oh I see…. appreciate it. That’s the answer! Whell I will … I love the music the science . The space. The arts. Fine I even like the man with a jersey accent working word in my front room…. because Ilike to learn. As basic as Iam . Why does shawn achor . And the like make me feel trapped. Because Iknow Ishould be happier and my claims to myself will only bget steeper if Ilie to myself…. please don’t lie to your self. You’ll get through it… it’ll pass as they say…. ride out through the sunset. It may as well be as easy as this…. what we make we’ve found whatweve found we understand or do not….. pass on the christmas spirit if you have children please.even if u gain the 8 pnds it would take to drink the dang egg nog…. we are happy damnits… lol

  4. marla vannieuwenhoven

    So i just heard about this achor guy the other day so i google him this is the first article i read and i got to say this guy is such an asshole how dare he profit if of someones happiness and become super successful without any expertise purely on happy thinking that prooves it works wow, for once someone who isent profiting off of misery of idk like pharmeceutical companies that desighn addictive drugs that ruin lives or a politician or tobacco company sombody should explain to him that in order to be a success he has to profit from the deaths of at least half a million people….how dare he fucking sell smiles and meditation what a dick, get real, atleast he is trying to help ppl get out of bed not digging. The grave for them, s.ob if he cures.ppl of depression and anger hate and vengance gun. Tobb, drug and the federal gov will lose billions and we will not have to work 60 hours a week to buy shit that is killing us faster, …what a sneaky motherfucker huh…lol why dont u find me a real bad guy to bitch about this is equal to picking on idk Elmo ….happiness equals evil got it, maybe ur just mad u didnt think of it first…..

  5. I am also an avid TED watcher ~ I fell in love with Shawn’s perspective immediately. I shared his talk with everyone I care about.

    I think that people are connecting with Shawn’s view because of his obvious joy with sharing his info. And I also believe that the beauty of FAITH that attracts people. Shawn’s message is only confirming and reviving what those of us with Faith have known in our hearts all along.

  6. Your analysis, in short, made me happy. I routinely feel pangs of guilt when I, too, am irritated by those spouting their science of happiness. I consider myself a happy person, overall. Are there areas in my life that could use some improving? Of course! I cringe at the notion of someone “selling happiness”. And the only ones buying are large corporations, it seems. Rather than enlisting “gurus” who tell your employees how to be happy, it would be better for an employer to take an active hand in employee happiness by offering life-enhancing benefits such as paid family leave and more flexible hours.


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