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The Surprising Science Of Happiness by Nancy Etcoff at TED2004

A TED Talk A Day, Day 66: Nancy Etcoff provides an overview of what science has shown us about happiness, and the various systems of the brain that are associated with it.

  1. We all to be happier. This might be trying to learn how through books, or through drugs, both legal and illegal.
  2.  Yet depression and anxiety are becoming more common; and even as incomes and standards of living increase, happiness hasn’t moved very much.
  3. Freud said that the pursuit of happiness is doomed, and that it was not “included in the plan for creation”.
  4. Negativity bias: We have both positive and negative “systems” in our psychology, and the negative system is extremely sensitive. For example: we detect bitter flavours at smaller proportions than we do sweet flavours; we hate losing more than we like winning.
  5. Emotions are not just feelings: They multiple systems of the body and can change what we remember, what kind of decisions we make and how we perceive things.
  6. The new science of happiness: happiness and unhappiness are not endpoints of a single continuum.
  7. Happiness is not simply an absence of misery. There are actually two parallel systems: we can both look for opportunity as well as protect itself from danger.
  8. We are born pleasure-seekers: babies have been shown to prefer sweet to bitter; they prefer smooth surfaces; they prefer to look at beautiful faces and listen to consonant rather than dissonant melodies.
  9. Reward and pleasure pathways in the brain are different. The reward pathway involves dopamine and has more to do with incentive/wanting (though it was previously thought to be associated with pleasure). The pleasure system involves oxytocin and is more widespread through out the brain when compared to the dopamine system.
  10. Biophilia: we all have a profound response to the natural world. Among patients recovering from surgery, those who faced a brick wall took longer to recover than those who could look out the window and see nature. We are also naturally social and cooperative creatures.
  11. Previously psychology focused a lot on the self (self-esteem, etc.), instead of the self-other and how we realte to the world. We later found that people are happiest when in flow and absorbed with other people and activities.
  12. Forget about yourself: we are happiest when we don’t just focus on ourselves. Computerised text analysis of suicidal poets found an greater use of first person words like “I”, “my”, “mine”. This suggests a focus on loneliness rather than hopelessness.
  13. The sexual side of our brains, which drives our desire to reproduce, is composed of 3 parts:
    1. lust — wanting to have sex, affected by  the sex hormones;
    2. romantic attraction — wanting to be with a person, related to dopamine; and
    3. attachment —  to do with a long-term bond, related to oxytocin and the opiates.
  14. So the above mean it’s possible to be in a long-term relationship, but feel attracted to someone else, and feel sexually attracted to a third person.
  15. Social status: In the animal world, social status simply involves dominance, and displays of power and submission. For humans we work in terms of prestige, where we freely confer someone status because they can do certain things.
  16. Money has a positive effect on happiness, but this is relatively small. One issue is materialism, where the pursuit of money/things causes us to forget the more basic pleasures. In some sense our dopamine system gets derailed.

Suggested action steps: Focus on others, focus on doing, rather than thinking about myself/the self.

Choice, Happiness And Spaghetti Sauce by Malcolm Gladwell at TED2004

A TED Talk A Day, Day 65: Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how Howard Moskowitz revolutionised both the spaghetti sauce industry, and also how we create products for people.

  1. We should look for “the perfect Pepsi”, we should be looking for “the perfect Pepsis”. There isn’t always one single type of thing that satisfies all people; there are often multiple types that satisfy different people.
  2. When analysing data to determine what kind of spaghetti sauce to make, researcher (and psychophysicist) Howard Moskowitz found that people fell into one of three groups. So there wasn’t one spaghetti sauce for everyone, but there were a few types of sauce that might work. The outcome of the research (which was for Prego) was this: they found that there were a group of people who liked their spaghetti sauce extra-chunky. So they launched an extra-chunky sauce, and went on to dominate the spaghetti sauce market.
  3. People don’t know what they want. During the consumer research focus groups conducted before this, no one ever mentioned they liked chunky spaghetti sauce.
  4. People don’t always say what they really want. Most people will say they want a nice, dark coffee, but the truth is that many people want weak, milky coffees — but most people will not say that.
  5. Moskowitz helped to invent the concept of horizontal segmentation. This was a change from prevailing marketing notions at the time which favoured inventing more expensive and higher-end products that people would aspire to. Instead horizontal segmentation was not about better, but about different and more equal choices.
  6. The “platonic dish”: The cooking world used to think that there was always a best way to make any dish. So we also thought that the best spaghetti sauce (that would make people happy and that they would embrace) was to make the most “culturally authentic” sauce, which at the time was what Ragu made — a thin, running sauce similar to Italian spaghetti sauce. But Moskowitz showed that was not the case.
  7. This wasn’t just true of the cooking world, but also in other fields of science, economics, medicine. We have always sought out universals that will apply to everyone, but this is changing. Think, for example, of customised medicine based on genetics.

Marcus Aurelius on being a good person

Waste no more time arguing about what a good person should be. Be one.
Marcus Aurelius

The Surprising Science Of Happiness by Dan Gilbert at TED2004

A TED Talk A Day, Day 64:

Note: The next 2 weeks worth of talks will be centred around happiness. I marked a playlist of these talks a few years ago and it’s time to finally watch it.

  1. In 2 million years, the human brain has tripled in mass, from homo habilis to homo sapiens. One of the reasons for this is the growth of the frontal lobe, especially the pre-frontal cortex.
  2. The pre-frontal cortex is like a “simulator”,  and allows us to have simulate experiences before we actually have them.
  3. If asked to pick whether we’d like to be lottery winners or paraplegics, the answer would seem obvious. But the fact is, a year after either incidents, actually lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.
  4. Impact bias: The tendency to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events. We tend to believe that different outcomes are more different than they really are, but this is almost always get this wrong. This applies to every from elections, to romance, to weight loss.
  5. Happiness can be synthesised. We have a kind of “psychological immune system” — a set of cognitive processes that help us change our view of the world so that we can feel better about the world we find ourselves.
  6.  We think “synthetic happiness” (what we make when we don’t get what we want) is not as great as “natural happiness” (when we get what we want).
  7. In an experiment which measured how much people liked a lineup of paintings before and after they owned one, both normal people and anterograde amnesiacs were shown to change their preferences in favour of the paintings they owned, while simultaneously changing their preferences against the painting they did not own.
  8. Choices impacts happiness: Students given a choice to keep two photographic prints they did were ultimately happier with what they had when they were not given the option to change their minds than if they were.
  9. Our longings are constantly overblown. We should have preferences, but not to the point where we exceed the boundaries of prudence.
  10. “We have the capacity to manufacture the commodity that we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.”

Suggested action step: I will be look at my own longings and desires with greater perspective, and not always select the path of more options.

How To Magically Connect With Anyone by Brian Miller at TEDxManchesterHighSchool 2015

A TED Talk A Day, Day 63: After so many day of TED talks, I have to admit I my focus and interest has been flagging; so this wonderful talk couldn’t have come at a better time. Brian Miller, a magician, talks about how the our differing perspectives underlie both magic and our relationships, and how we can connect with others (and perform magic) by understanding other peoples’ perspectives.

  1. “Our world is a shared experience fractured by individual perspectives.”
  2. The secret to magic is understanding and taking on different perspectives.
  3. In any magic trick, the magician is the only person who cannot see the magic because he knows how the trick works; so to do the trick well the magician has to take on the perspective of the audience.
  4. Before he does his Rubik’s Cube trick, he makes a connection first, so the audience feels understood, then he does the trick. Otherwise he would just seem like a showoff with a trick.
  5. It is not enough to care for someone or to understand them; they have to feel understood.
  6. Perspective taking — the ability to see the world from the view of another person. Easy in theory but can be difficult to do.
  7. There is visual perspective and emotional perspective.
  8. Visual perspective is more straightforward. Like magicians we can video ourselves or look at ourselves in the mirror.
  9. Emotional perspective is the crucial one in relationships. The easiest way is to ask questions, and, more importantly, listen to the answers. Listen to understand, not just to respond.

Suggested action step: I will learn to understand other people’s perspective.

Are You Human? by Ze Frank at TED 2014

A TED Talk A Day, Day 62: This most recent talk by Ze Frank is also his shortest, and is more performance than talk.

There’s also not much to say, except: watch it.

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