TED Talks on happiness

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Last Friday, August 15, the theme of National Public Radio’s “TED Radio Hour” was “Simply Happy,” and carried the message that “finding happiness may be simpler than you think.” Narrator Guy Raz reviewed the ideas of five speakers whose TED presentations focused on happiness as something that can be cultivated.

Matt Killingsworth, a researcher at UC San Francisco, gathered real-time input from 35,000 people via a simple smart phone app one can register for at trackyourhappiness.org. Several times during the day, volunteers receive three questions on their phones:

1) How do you feel right now?  (on a scale from very good to very bad).
2) What are you doing? (check one of 22 choices).
3) Are you thinking about what you are doing? (as opposed to “mind wandering”).

Killingsworth discovered that 47% of the time, people are thinking of something other than what they are doing (ranging from a high of 65% when taking a shower, to an interesting 10% whose minds wander while having sex).  His finding, across all activities is that “people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering.”  This includes even unpopular tasks like commuting to work.  He concludes that mind wandering is a cause rather than a consequence of unhappiness.”

Though he doesn’t cite the growing interest in mindfulness meditation practice, it’s significant that recent articles in Scientific American have mentioned studies of this practice, including Is Mindfulness Good Medicine, which appeared on the Scientific American blog the day before NPR posted Killingsworth’s findings.

Carl Honore is a journalist and the author of In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (2005). He claims our world is “addicted to speed” and living “the fast life rather than the good life.” He says his wakeup moment came when he realized he was speed-reading bedtime stories to his young son, compulsively rushing through one of the richest times of his day.

Honore says we are “so marinated in the culture of speed that we almost fail to notice the toll it takes on every aspect of our lives – on our health, our work, our relationships and our community.” For one thing, speed and adrenaline can be exciting. For another there is a strong cultural bias that equates slowing down with being a slacker. One common meaning of “slow” is “not very bright.”

Honore says he still enjoys the fast pace of life as a journalist in London, but he is now “in touch with his inner tortoise,” and doesn’t unconsciously overload himself. “I feel like I’m living my life rather than actually just racing through it. So is it possible? That’s really the main question before us today. Is it possible to slow down? And I’m happy to be able to say to you that the answer is a resounding yes.”

Graham Hill was an early ’90’s internet millionaire by the age of 30. He sold the company he had built with friends, and then filled “the void” he felt inside with stuff:  “I bought a 3,600 square foot home, Volvo sedan, tons of furniture, gizmos, technology, stereos, probably had one of the first MP3 players. You can’t believe how much stuff.”

Unlike most of his wealthy peers, Hill realized his stuff wasn’t making him happy so he got rid of most of it. He now lives in a custom designed, 420 square foot New York City apartment that is wonder of space efficiency:

Hill notes that Americans use three times as much space as we did 50 years ago, yet we have still spawned a $22 billion dollar, 2.2 billion square foot self-storage industry. Other consequences include, “Lots of credit card debt, huge environmental footprints, and perhaps not coincidentally, our happiness levels flatlined over the same 50 years. Well, I’m here to suggest there’s a better way – that less might actually equal more.”

Dan Gilbert, Harvard Psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness (2007), spoke in his talk of the many ways in which our happiness does not depend on circumstances or getting what we want. Humans are resilient enough, he says, to recover from serious trauma, though imagination generally tells us otherwise. Gilbert cited three cases, drawn from a single edition of the New York Times.

Jim Wright, Speaker of the House of Representatives before Newt Gingrich, resigned in disgrace after a scandal involving “a shady book deal.” He lost his position, reputation, and money, but now says, “I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally and almost every other way.”

Pete Best, The Beatles’ first drummer, was replaced by Ringo Starr just before the band became world famous. Still a drummer and studio musician, Best says, “I’m happier than I would’ve been with The Beatles.”

And most dramatic to me was Moreese Bickham, 78, released from prison because of DNA evidence after serving 37 years for a crime he did not commit. Upon release, Bickham said, “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”

Baring “extraordinary” people like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, we can hardly imagine prison as being worthwhile, let alone “glorious,” but Gilbert uses these and other examples to underline the power that “reframing” events has on our outlook. The stories we tell and the meaning we find in experience are critical. “It is wrong to say that we have no control over our happiness. It is wrong to say that we have complete control over our happiness. We have some input into how happy we will be…We can learn to see events in a constructive and positive way.”

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, has devoted himself to interfaith dialog and the interaction of religion and science. His TED topic was gratitude, as one might expect of a man whose home page is gratefullness.org. He says most people think we are grateful when we are happy, but the opposite is true: gratitude leads to happiness.

He outlines a simple way to cultivate gratitude, beginning with stopping our minds and our busyness to reflect that “You have no way of assuring that there will be another moment given to you. And yet, that’s the most valuable thing that can ever be given to us. We say opportunity knocks only once. Well, think again – every moment is a new gift, over and over again, and if you miss the opportunity of this moment, another moment is given to us, and another moment. We can avail ourselves of this opportunity or we can miss it. And if we avail ourselves of the opportunity, it is the key to happiness.”

Such a simple step, repeated, carries great weight, for Steindl-Rast reflects that grateful people are not fearful, and if we are not fearful, we will not be violent.  “If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not from a sense of scarcity, and you’re willing to share.If you’re grateful, you’re enjoying the differences between people and you’re respectful to everybody, and that changes this power pyramid on which we live. And it doesn’t make for equality, but it makes for equal respect, and that is the important thing. A grateful world is a world of joyful people, grateful people are joyful people. And that is what I hope for us.”

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The question of attitudes and habits that lead to wellbeing has emerged as the key theme of theFirstGates this year. I’ve posted ideas from Carl Jung, the Dalai Lama, and Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. Here are five more voices (and more to come) saying that happiness is not an accident, not given to a few select or fortunate people. It is a choice we can all make, a direction we can aim for at any given moment

Causes for happiness according to Carl Jung

Recently I thought of a chain of events in my life that I first considered unfortunate, though eventually they led to better results than I ever imagined. This got me thinking of “happiness,” and how wrong our ideas about it can be.

A few years ago I saw one of those lists of “10 factors for happiness” that both confirmed popular hunches (good health is factor #1) and contained surprises (children or no children makes no statistical difference in life satisfaction surveys).  Searching Google for “10 factors of happiness” led to 32 million hits.

I didn’t find the one I was after, but many of those I scanned were interesting.  None pretended to guarantee a sense of wellbeing – there are too many intangibles, such as personal outlook.  We’ve probably all known healthy, well to do, miserable people, as well as those who find satisfaction in overcoming adversity.

Public domain

Public domain

I am also attuned to Buddha’s warning, that any sense of wellbeing that depends on outside conditions is subject to change because those conditions are subject to change. I view these lists not as suggestions on where to look for the ultimate good, but as factors that can improve our odds of feeling satisfied much of the time.  The list I found most interesting gave five conditions for happiness according to Carl Jung.

  1. Good physical and mental health.
  2. Good personal and intimate relationships, such as those of marriage, the family, and friendships.
  3. The faculty for perceiving beauty in art and nature.
  4. Reasonable standards of living and satisfactory work.
  5. A philosophic or religious point of view capable of coping successfully with the vicissitudes of life.

I was especially interested to read “satisfactory work” in item #4, as “settling” for “satisfactory” work (rather than following my bliss) was the life choice I referred to at the start of this post. From what I’ve observed, following bliss is a slow, long term process, filled with trial and error, because most of us don’t know our bliss till we stumble over it in the dark – but that is a topic for another day.

In the Psychology Today article I’m quoting from, Jung observed that “No matter how ideal your situation may be, it does not necessarily guarantee happiness.” He also suggested that chasing happiness doesn’t work.  I agree in part. I think happiness is a by product of other actions rather than something we can grasp directly, but I know from personal experience that numerous actions and attitudes can improve or worsen my odds.  For instance, I find it helpful to limit TV news viewing to the PBS Newshour two or three times a week, and sometimes even that is too much. Dwelling on bad news we cannot change doesn’t appear on anyone’s happiness list.

Perhaps the best advice I received on happiness came from a high school English teacher, one the most important mentors I’ve had in this life. His was a one item list: “I think life is satisfying only when we’re committed to something greater than ourselves.” In the decades since then, I’ve found lots of elaborations, but nothing superior to that as a way to orient my inner compass.

What do you think?  What works for you or makes your glass half full and occasionally running over?