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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?

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