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What Do We Value?

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Image of the U.S. pointing to Justice with Hope alongside, on the East Pediment of the U.S. Capitol Building. Original sculpted by Luigi Persico, 1825-1828, called Genius of America.

I was thinking the other day about our pervasive pursuit of personal happiness (as distinct from the public good). When I started this blog, I noted that I thought the unrelenting focus on something called “happiness” is not only not the way to find it, but is… er, well, kind of tacky. In other words, I worked from the assumption that something “higher” or “loftier” than personal happiness must be at work in someone’s life for them even to deserve to be happy. Not that we always get what we deserve.

I’ve been contemplating lately what those higher or loftier values might be and how they are related to living the good life.

Here’s my initial venture into a list, but I would love to hear from you, too, about what drives you beyond a self-centered desire for a selfish kind of happiness or success.

Compassion

Justice

Integrity

Service to Others (in work or other activities, even personal ones, such as “be a good mother to my children” or “be a good friend”)

As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve also come to realize where so many of us today encounter our inspirational ideas: from TEDTalks, which have become a defining phenomenon of our time. They have become as all pervasive as the pursuit of happiness, and their stated purpose is to introduce to larger audiences “ideas worth spreading.” In other words, TED has an organizational goal of improving human life. It occurred to me that examining the TEDTalks at least a little bit systematically might lend some insight into what we perceive to be important to that endeavor.

Maybe I thought of this because so often the TEDTalks I see posted or that someone sends around have to do with “happiness.”

Search for the term “happiness” in the index of the TEDTalks, and you get 7,136 hits. By comparison, if you search “compassion,” you get 2,090 results. “Justice” garners 3,487 results. “Integrity” 5,911.

The phrase “service to others” garners a mere 33 hits, only 4 of which seem to link to TEDTalks themselves; the other hits are in bios and the like. “Happiness,” on the other hand links mostly to talks on happiness and quotes about it. Only 2 of these hits link to bios—those of happiness/success gurus Srikumar Rao and Martin Seligman.

Does this perhaps indicate that, though we want others to believe that we are invested in service to others, we really find personal happiness more important? Or does it mean that service to others is more important to people’s self concepts, but what they believe others are interested in is personal happiness? I’m not sure—and maybe it even means nothing important—but these numbers reflect what is to me an odd imbalance.

These results are for any tiny mention of each term, but even when we look at the TED “themes,” we note that “What Makes Us Happy?” is a popular theme with 87 talks devoted to the topic. Of the 47 themes, the happiness one ranks just above the middle of the pack at 20th. “The Charter for Compassion,” on the other hand, boasts only 8 talks, the lowest of any category. Even food beats it out at 23 talks, and the ocean at 43. There are two education categories with a combined total of 107 talks. “Not Business as Usual” garners 162 talks. TED, like every other organization, must play to its audience—in this case largely business people. Its sponsors are all mighty corporations such as Prudential, IBM, Pfizer, American Express, and Johnnie Walker. Interesting bedfellows when it comes to saving the world.

TED does have a theme called “Rethinking Poverty,” which seems to be the one mostly devoted to issues of justice, at least that of an economic variety. It contains 96 talks, ranging over a wide array of subjects, from “Breakthrough designs for ultra-low-cost products” to “How Mr. Condom made Thailand a better place,” to “Hidden hotbeds of invention.” Many of these talks focus on the experiences of poor women (sex trafficking, infant and post-partum mortality, malnutrition, etc.); many others focus on technological innovations to help people, especially in poor countries. Technology is one of the foundational topics of TED, the other two being Entertainment and Design, so this is no real surprise.

TED talks, have, also not surprisingly, been criticized on a number of counts, including their corporatization, their being a “massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism,” for “low-grade intellectual fraud” masking as smartness, and for the fact that the statistics and science used in them are frequently quite questionable.

So, there’s what TED provides to us for its own perhaps blinkered needs, but there’s also what people watch. The single most-watched one is Sir Ken Robinson on “schools kill creativity,” the title of which is, I should add, quite misleading. If you look at the list of the “20 most-watched TEDTalks (so far),” you will see the technological emphasis of the TED audience, as well as its desire for positivity—“insight,” “thrilling potential,” “astonishments,” “best,” “magic,” “breakthrough,” “nurturing,” “genius,” “happy,” “success,” “orgasm,” “great,” and “inspire” are all words that appear in the titles of the top 20. “Kill” and “danger” are the only remotely negative words.

One TED speaker, Sebastian Wernicke, went so far as to do a statistical analysis of what facets of a TEDTalk make it more or less popular (see below). When he did the original talk in 2010, “happiness” came in at the second most popular term, after “you.” In a June 2011 update, “you” was still at the top, but “choice” had edged happiness into the number 3 position, emphasizing, I suppose, that there is even more talk about how we’re responsible for choosing our own happiness.

Of course, Wernicke gives this talk with much good humor—and laughter from the audience. This kind of deprecation of the TED endeavor is part of the purported sophistication of its speakers and its audience. What’s interesting to me is that Wernicke can make the kinds of solid statistical observations he makes without commenting on or evaluating them at all. In other words, it’s fine with him that “happiness” is the top topic or, as he puts it, if you’re going to give a TEDTalk it should be on a topic that “we can connect to both easily and deeply.” (I’m not sure what he means by deeply, when the maximum for a talk is 18 minutes long and since Wernicke developed a tool called the Ted Pad to give people the formula for creating a good or bad talk.)

Wernicke has since also given a second TEDTalk that boils the entire endeavor down into a single 6-word sentence. He did this through “crowd-sourcing,” that is, paying people on the web to summarize various groups of TEDTalks to come to a complete summarization of 1000 talks. Though Wernicke found the original summarized submissions “flat” or “lacking” or only partial in their insight into what the TEDTalks were all about, here’s what he came up with when combining and shifting the words around : “Why the worry? I’d rather wonder.”

Wernicke stops there, as if this insight is enough. And for me, this TEDTalk sums up what is wrong with the entire genre: the smug, secure, positivity of those who are already well-off and largely satisfied with their lives but still looking for more personal fulfillment.

What else matters—to you or those you see around you?