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Tag Archives: TEDTalks

Don’t Worry…

One of the effects of doing this blog has been that I really have thought about positive psychology and my disaffection for it more consistently than I would have otherwise. I do believe that this has led me to a better understanding than I had before, and one thing that I’ve realized is how much the people who turn to positive psychology may be suffering from depression and pain themselves, though they unfortunately sometimes turn their own pain into a superior fake blitheness that they use against others. Even though they “doth protest too much, methinks,” I sympathize with what led them to try to find better ways of living.

Of course, this has been much on my mind in the past few days as I re-enter the classroom (okay, fine) and the maelstrom of university politics and budget cuts (grim, heinous, and ugly, ugly, ugly). I have felt the need to cheer myself up by any means possible, and my friends have offered advice, poems, tips on stretching in my office to reduce tension, etc. etc. All this good will and understanding has moved me quite a lot, actually, because–Jesus!–I am coming back from a year where I worked on my own terms, in other words, from a great gift and privilege. I deserve no pity. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need the transitional help–maybe even the long-term help in coping with an unhealthy work environment.

What I do insist on, however, is–in my own head–a continuing acknowledgement that the cheering is necessary because there are bad things in my world. I am not going to pretend that I am transforming reality by cheering myself up–I acknowledge both the very real causes and the limits of my ability to change that reality. This distinction is very important to me. I don’t want to throw out the baby of happiness with the bath water of enforced or oversimplified positivity.

Bobby McFerrin‘s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” is a good anthem for this purpose. The song, at first listen, seems like a simple, merry ditty. But there are a couple of things that make me enjoy this song beyond that surface.

One is the inevitable irony in it. McFerrin’s lilting voice is sincere (and he’s quite a jubilant fellow in general), but there’s a huge contrast between the advice given and the numerous miseries listed in the song–being robbed, lacking a home, potential lawsuits for unpaid back rent, general financial insolvency, lack of love. Perhaps this song even participates in the long African-American tradition of the coded song; it is certainly akin to the blues in its sense of encouragement in rough times if not in its musical brightness.

But I also like the utter simplicity of this song. If, as I noted in my analysis of TEDTalks, Sebastian Wernicke has boiled all the TEDTalks down to “Why worry? I’d rather wonder,” why, then, do we need the elaborate edifice of all those talks with their complex charts, graphs, and illustrations? Why not just listen to a cheerful song and get on with the day?

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.




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?

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?