I seem to have an abundance of time on my hands. Rather than keep eating shit on Facebook, I figured I’d tie together some of my favorite TED Talks with my philosophy for becoming enlightened, or at least, happier. Hope you get some use out of it.
I’ll have a Psychology Today post published this weekend (5/18) about how many people aren’t ready to hear the messages that have been clearly stated for centuries. There is a way out of suffering, and into peace and happiness. The information has been there. What most of us authors do is just keep saying it in a different way. I guess this is another attempt to do so.
I always start my philosophy with an understanding about the mind, and how much of what we think, what we believe, what we remember is inaccurate. A great TED talk about the memory is, “The Fiction of Memory” by Elizabeth Loftus. In this talk Dr. Loftus discusses how fallible memory is, and how it cannot be trusted with as much faith as we put in it.
There are several great Ted Talks about perception, and how it can be manipulated and distorted. “The Art of Misdirection” by Apollo Robbins is a good start. In this video Mr. Robbins, a pickpocket for a majority of his life, demonstrates how our attention is, and can be, erroneous. Our mind often works against us, and we see only what we want to see. In an excellent video on context and how it shapes who we are, (Optical Illusions Show How We See) Beau Lotto uses optical illusions to show that even what we think we see cannot be trusted. As he says, “there is no inherent meaning in information, it’s what we do with that information that matters.” A truer statement in psychology could not be made. In “Perspective is Everything”, Rory Sutherland demonstrates how the illusion of control changes your perspective and thereby, your mood. Besides the illusion of control, he discussed how the meaning we give change (or, the meaning that is provided us by a company or other authority) matters as much as any other solution business applies. In other words, when people believe they have more information and control, and have a more positive meaning provided, we look at it differently. Again, our thoughts aren’t as objective as we like to believe. They are skewed by our perspective.
In a discussion of behavioral economics, Dan Ariely asks, “Are We in Control of Our Decisions?” It is obvious from the talk we are not. Though I philosophically disagree with his proposition, I reconcile his finding with my philosophy that until we understand ourselves and how our mind skews things, we aren’t in control. Unlike Dr. Ariely, I believe we can overcome these obstacles with work. In fact, later TED Talks in this post will argue that.
From another perspective, Barry Schwartz, in “The Paradox of Choice”, Dr. Schwartz discusses how too many choices are leading to less happiness. One of the important lessons in this is, again, first, how we tend to trust our thinking too much, and second, how opportunity cost can lead to unhappiness. He also, in sort of a flippant way, discussed how being in the present is a solution (but more on that later). The point here is an existential one to me: we have choices (perhaps sometimes too many). We have to make, and take responsibility for our choices. And additionally, we benefit from understanding how our thinking sometimes, unconsciously, works against us.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find, or haven’t come across, many TED talks that deal directly with defense mechanisms. I believe because of them, we barely see reality as it is. As such, and with the support of the TED Talks above, we cannot trust our perception of reality, our thinking about reality, or our memory of how reality was. But where does that leave us?
Before I venture into where we are left, I’d like to discuss another aspect of my philosophy, that death looms and we are better off embracing that fact. In, “The 4 Stories We Tell Ourselves About Death”, Stephen Cave discusses how we have certain defense mechanisms that keep us from feeling the full weight of our impending death. As such, we don’t live as fully. He says in regard to the theory of terror management: “We develop our worldviews, that is, the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it, in order to help us manage the terror of death.” We fear death, and it affects how we view our lives. Unfortunately, for many, they are blind to this, and as Otto Rank said, “Some refuse the loan of life, to avoid the debt of death.” (Yalom, 2008).
In line with philosophies I have adopted, (and often call my own), he says, “Now, I find it helps to see life as being like a book: Just as a book is bounded by its covers, by beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death, and even though a book is limited by beginning and end, it can encompass distant landscapes, exotic figures, fantastic adventures.” He goes on to say, “And so it should be with us. Imagine the book of your life, its covers, its beginning and end, and your birth and your death. You can only know the moments in between, the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”
Now that is a powerful ending to his talk. But I can’t end there. In another excellent video about using the idea of death to create a better life, Kathleen Taylor encourages “Rethinking the Bucket List”. She discusses how it is important to live genuinely, authentically. She suggests that when people face death they live more courageously, become more open-minded, share more intimately, “apologize and forgive… and find joy in the smallest moments”. She goes on to suggest we needn’t wait to live like this, that our lives would be improved immensely by living more authentically now.
In my philosophy (and that of those like Aristotle and the Dalai Lama) the purpose of life is happiness. I believe life is absurd, (you can read about that more in my Psychology Today posts). But even in its absurdity, the point is to be happy. Some argue the point is a purpose, and I think they are drawing arbitrary lines. Finding your purpose is certainly a way to happiness. But if happiness is the purpose, how do we get there?
To answer this question I’ll bring us back to the other question, where are we left? We are now in a place where we can’t trust our thinking, but will benefit from realizing we are going to die, and thereby we should create a great story, but one that is authentic. To begin, I start with your ability to create yourself in every moment. Julian Baggini, in “Is There a Real You” does an excellent job of suggesting we do not exist outside of this moment. After demonstrating how there is not a congruent “you”, but simply a “you” in the moment, he leads to how we can create ourselves anew. We can, within our limitations, be who we desire to be (personality wise). Like much of my writing, this is geared at overcoming our conditioning.
Jill Bolte Taylor, in a discussion of “My Stroke of Insight”, demonstrates how the brain separates us from reality. When discussing her stroke, she discusses how euphoric the feeling of connectedness was at times. She had to fight to come back to reality, to survive. This encapsulates my philosophy. Science shows we are just atoms, and there are atoms all around us. Additionally, we can’t survive without the environment. We breathe, need sunlight, need water, etc. Yet our survival also requires our ego to negotiate our environment. However, often we only focus on this latter aspect, and neglect our connectedness.
In his TED Talk “The Habits of Happiness”, Matthieu Ricard discusses feelings, and how to train our mind to find more happiness, serenity, and fulfillment. He discusses brain neuroplasticity, and how we can alter the connections in our brain, and thereby make our default mode of functioning more serene, compassionate, and, overall, happy. Of course, meditation and mindfulness are the main suggestions for this training. For some additional tips on meditation, watch Andy Puddicombe’s TED Talk, “All It Takes Is 10 Mindful Minutes“.
In an effort to show several ways to begin this, I offer my favorite TED Talk. I show this talk to almost every class, and in therapy with clients call the strategies “The Achor Five”. Shawn Achor, a positive psychologist, in his TED Talk, “The Happy Secret To Better Work” offers evidence and suggestions to change the way we think, perceive, and, as such, how we feel. The suggestions from his studies demonstrate how people became happier:
[W]rite down three new things that they’re grateful for for 21 days in a row, three new things each day. And at the end of that, their brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world, not for the negative, but for the positive first.
Journaling about one positive experience you’ve had over the past 24 hours allows your brain to relive it. Exercise teaches your brain that your behavior matters. We find that meditation allows your brain to get over the cultural ADHD that we’ve been creating by trying to do multiple tasks at once and allows our brains to focus on the task at hand. And finally, random acts of kindness are conscious acts of kindness. We get people, when they open up their inbox, to write one positive email praising or thanking somebody in their social support network.
And by doing these activities and by training your brain just like we train our bodies, what we’ve found is we can reverse the formula for happiness and success, and in doing so, not only create ripples of positivity, but create a real revolution.
As you can see, the path to a happier life is clear (or perhaps there are many). What’s keeping you from being happy? And that, I believe, is the appropriate place to end.
Copyright William Berry, 2014
All TED Talks are Linked above.
Yalom, Irvin; 2008; Staring at the sun: Overcoming the terror of death