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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.

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.

Collaborative Psych 101 by Dan Lerner & Alan Schlecter at TEDxNYU 2014

A TED Talk A Day, Day 57: Interestingly, the first two-person TED Talk I’ve seen; thought it turns out that that format really distracts from the topic quite a bit.

In any case the talk covers why it’s important to care both about psychological illness, and also psychological flourishing (i.e. positive psychology), and how we need understand both in order to “be happy”.

  1. It’s important to understand both suffering and success. We can’t have one without the other.
  2. The usual medical model is based on happiness being the absence of illness. But damage repair is negative to zero. Positive psychology looks how we can go from zero to one (or positive).
  3. Many people (half of the room?!) will develop mental illness in their lives.
  4. Positive relationships help us buffer against stress.
  5. Though many college students are young and look great… a third of students will develop some kind of alcohol problem during their college years, many will suffer from poor sleep, and some will have eating disorders.
  6. “Information does not imply transformation.” – Tal Ben-Shahar. Knowing something doesn’t mean we will digest it and use it.
  7. When we’re happy our brains function differently than when we’re not. A study of 4-year-olds showed that those who were primed to be happy performed better at various cognitive tasks.
  8. We can prime ourselves with exercise, because it causes the release of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). BDNF stimulates brain cells to grow. Only if we exercise can we give our brain a chance to reach its potential.
  9. Traditional psychology was concerned with overcoming high amounts of stress; positive psychology is concerned with finding the optimal amount of stress. The latter is where we achieve high performance.

Suggested action step: I am now interested in finding out about their approach in combining both positive and traditional psychology.

The Paradox Of Choice by Barry Schwartz at TEDGlobal 2005

A TED Talk A Day, Day 26: Largely based on his book of the same name, Schwartz  talk about how choices has become the holy grail of society, and how its effects are in fact counterintuitive. If anything we have more choice since this talk was given in 2005 — that was before the explosion of iPhone and touchscreen smartphones, tablets, mobile apps and social media really took off.

  1. “If want to maximise the welfare of our citizen, we maximise their freedom.” – this is what he called the “official dogma” of industrialised countries. This is because freedom is seen as good in itself, and because when people have freedom, we can decide for ourselves instead of having someone decide things for us. And the way to maximise freedom is to maximise choice.
  2. The idea that we should maximise choice is deeply embedded in our lives. Just think of supermarkets, electronics stores, and even the choice of handphones we have (and now smartphones). Even in healthcare we have a variety of choices of how to treat our conditions! We also get to choose our identity — who we want to be.
  3. Choice has two negative effects on people. First, choice causes paralysis. The more choices we have, the harder it is for us to choose. He quotes a now oft-quoted study where employees who were offered more choices in mutual funds to invest in were less likely to pick one to invest in.
  4. The second effect is that when we have more options, we are less happy even after we have made the choice. If we decide we didn’t make the best choice, it’s now easier to imagine that one of the options would have satisfied us instead, so we are less happy. Opportunity cost can detract from our choices, even if they are terrific.
  5. The explosion of choice creates greater expectations. Then we begin to expect and fixate on perfection rather than seeing that what we have is good.
  6. So… “the secret to happiness is low expectations.” Because when we have low expectations, then it increases the chances of a pleasant surprise!
  7. Additionally, when people make bad decisions, they blame themselves.
  8. Some choice is better than none, but it does not mean that more choice is better than some choice. What is harder to figure out is how much choice is the right amount.
  9. What enables choice is material affluence.
  10. The numerous choices we have not only do not work; they harm us. So what we need to limit the choices in the things we do.

Suggested action step: I will stop seeking out so many choices, and be happy with whatever I have. (This already feels hard to do as I type this.) 

Hardwiring Happiness by Dr Rick Hanson at TEDxMarin 2013

A TED Talk A Day, Day 14: A talk about turning our passing experiences into useful structures like happiness and resilience, using neuroscience.

  1. We all have needs to be cared for, to feel cared about. We are a social species. If we don’t get the supplies we need, we can survive, but we feel a hollowness inside us.
  2. While in school, he realised that as he experienced things, if he let initial negative feelings pass until better feelings to arose, this increased the amount of good experiences he had in his life.
  3. As neuroscientists say: “neurons that fire together, wired together” and “passing mental states, become lasting neural traits”.
  4. Stress changes the structure of the brain such that we become progressively more sensitive to stress.
  5. “The mind can change the brain to change the mind.”
  6. The inner strengths (like confidence, kindess, etc) that help us cope with life are built from positive experiences of those strengths. To be more confidence we need to practice being more confident. To be kinder, practice kindness.
  7. But we have to overcome the brains negativity bias. We are good at learning from bad experiences, but bad at learning from good experiences. This is because our ancestors had to learn how to survive. The question is: how can we overcome this?
  8. Long-term relationships need a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions to work.
  9. We need to learn how to take in the good.
  10. Experiences  have to last long for them to transfer from working memory to long-term storage, including emotional memory. It may be a small step, but bit by bit this can change us.
  11. Use this acronym — HEAL:
    1. Have a good experience: our brains record things through experience, like recording music by playing it.
    2. Enrich it: Let it last, give yourself over to it, help it grow in our body, let it activate.
    3. Absorb it: this will prime and sensitise our memory systems.
    4. Link positive and negative material (optional): be careful not to get hijacked by the negative, but we can train our brains to help soothe the negative. We can help it to heal old pain.
  12. Have it, enjoy it. This is not about covering over the good. It is about taking in the good so it is easier for us to handle the bad.
  13. The next minute is an opportunity for us, and the most important minute of our lives. We can’t do anything about the last minute, and the following few minutes is out of our influence.
  14. “Think not lightly of good, saying, ‘It will not come to me.’ Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.”– Buddhist saying.

Suggested action step: I will work in each moment to take in the best experience possible, and let the larger picture work itself out.

The Habits Of Happiness by Matthieu Ricard at TED 2004

A TED Talk A Day, Day 11: A subtle but compelling argument for us to train our minds through meditation, to get in touch with what Ricard calls our “cognitive quality”, that inner consciousness on which thoughts and emotions glide through. Even though I meditate daily, I found this talk to be a great reminder about what it is I am trying to do when I meditate.

  1. We all have a deep desire for well-being or happiness. Few of us wake up thinking we want more suffering.
  2. But what exactly is happiness? Some philosopher have left this open so that we define it ourselves, but that doesn’t work. But if it is going to determine the quality of every moment of our lives, we must have an idea of what it is.
  3. Happiness is not the same as pleasure. Pleasure is dependent on time, place and circumstance. We might like chocolate cake, but try eating it every day, and our opinions will change. Pleasure seems to use itself as we experience it.
  4. The Buddhist view is that well-being, or happiness, is not just a pleasurable sensation; it is a deep sense of serenity and fulfilment. It underlies all emotional states. It is like the ocean: the surface my have waves, highs and lows, but the depth always remains.
  5. We often look outside ourselves to get happiness. But “our control of the outer world is limited, temporary, and often illusory.”
  6. Yet it is the mind that translate our outer conditions into happiness or suffering. We may be in fantastic conditions but be unhappiness inside, and vice versa.
  7. There are certain conditions that are conducive to the flourishing of this state of mind. There are also some that are averse to this flourishing: anger, hatred, jealousy, obsessive desire, strong grasping.
  8. We must ask: what is the nature of mind? Consciousness is like a mirror that allows both beautiful and horrible images to appear, but is itself not altered by the images. If it was then it would be “stained” permanently.
  9. This pure cognitive quality is separate from the storm of emotions, which are fleeting. So we can base mind training on the idea that we cannot hold on to two opposite mental factors (responses?) at the same time. It is this cognitive quality that we can explore.
  10. Every time we go back to the mental objects that are problematic, it reinforces that obsession or annoyance. Yet like a thundercloud, what looks menacing is formless and not solid. If we experiencing this enough, then it becomes harder for these emotions to take hold.
  11. We used to believe that the brain doesn’t change after a certain age, but we now know that this is not true; the brain continues to change as we grow older. So we can actually train our minds.
  12. In scientific studies of adept meditators, they show a higher degree of left pre-frontal lobe activation when meditating on compassion (the left PFL is associated with expressions of happiness, creativity, etc). Meditators could also control their emotional response more than average people during experiments (which sometimes required an intimidating amount of restrictive equipment).
  13. We love to spend our time on our education and on exercise, yet we spend little time on taking care of our minds and the way they function.

Suggested action step: I will (continue to) train and explore my mind through meditation.

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