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Home » Being Positive is Not for the Faint Hearted by Lea Waters at TEDxMelbourne (Transcript)

Being Positive is Not for the Faint Hearted by Lea Waters at TEDxMelbourne (Transcript)

Lea Waters

Here is the full transcript of Lea Waters’ TEDx Talk: Being Positive is Not for the Faint Hearted at TEDxMelbourne conference.


I want to start by sharing with you two events that radically altered my life 12 years ago, and really are the reason why I’ve become a professor in positive psychology.

The first was giving birth to my son, totally life changing. I went from spending my days at university writing a book, to spending my days at home wiping a bottom, and I loved it.

The second event is a bit confusing, really, because, unlike giving birth, it wasn’t really the kind of event that you would classify as life-altering. It was just watching the news. I was so tender-hearted from becoming a new mom that when I watched the news, I burst into tears. And you know these really messy tears where you get the red, swollen, puffy eyes and where your nose turns into an instant snot factory? I’m talking those kinds of tears.

And I’m a psychology researcher, right? So when I have these unexpected reactions, I automatically start to analyze myself. And I’m sitting there thinking, “Huh, why am I crying? It’s just the news”. But then this other question bubbled up, and I thought, “Why haven’t I cried before?” And that’s when it hit me. I’ve been manipulated by the media corporations. They’ve desensitized me, and I’ve grown to accept a news corporation’s version of human nature.

The meaner, darker version I thought, this is wrong, this is not the version of human nature that I want my son growing up to believe in. Because, actually, the vast majority of us are good and decent, that’s why we refer to ourselves as a ‘human-kind’. And it got me thinking, “What would happen if the news decided to show more stories of the positive qualities in human nature, and what impact would this have on my son’s life?” That question was transforming for me because the minute I asked that question of myself, I knew I had to be part of a solution. I had to start doing something that was creating a more positive life for my son and for all the young people in Australia.

And there is so much good news to share. For example, did you know that since 1990, we’ve lifted 11 billion people out of poverty? That’s more than three times the population size of the United States of America. And in that same time frame, we’ve provided clean water services to 26 billion people, more than the combined population of China and India.

The world is becoming a better place, but you’re not going to hear about that on the nightly news. Let me ask you a question: Would you let someone come into your house every day, and tell you that the group that you belong to are greedy, selfish, violent, and murderous? This is exactly what the news corporations do to us on a daily basis, and we believe what we’re told about ourselves. The labels that other people give us, we internalize those labels, and they shape our identity. So whether you know it or not, the news is shaping your identity. It’s infecting you.

12 years ago, I decided to stop watching the nightly news, and you may well do the same, but even if you are not actively seeking out the news, it is still having a negative impact on you because the media corporations are everywhere. You walk down the street, you’ll see the newspaper headlines plastered to the shop windows. The news is on the phone, it’s on your radios, it’s on electronic billboards at the side of the road.

A few weeks ago, my eight-year-old daughter was unwell, and so I took her to see our local doctor. We’re sitting in the waiting room, TV’s on, it’s showing the nightly news. I’m looking around the waiting room, thinking, “All of these people are sick, they’re miserable enough, let alone having to see more bad news.”

I’m not saying that we should ignore the bad stuff, I’m just saying that it’s not all we need to know about, and that the news should be sharing with us the stories of the bad and the good events that are occurring across the globe that day. I hope you all agree with me on this, but I wouldn’t blame you if there are a few people out there wondering about this, and kind of thinking, “Really? Do we really need to hear more good news?” My answer to that, as a research psychologist, is, “Absolutely, yes”.

Firstly, because as I’ve just explained, the news is shaping your identity. But secondly, because psychology researchers have shown us that when you watch negative news, it triggers in you symptoms of worry and depression. And speaking firsthand, as someone who has suffered from depression and had therapy, I can tell you, it sucks – not the therapy actually, the therapy is quite good – but depression itself is beyond awful.

And for me, suffering from depression, it felt like I had been hollowed out from the inside, that there was nothing left on the inside of me. I was just this fragile outer shell with this scream of pain just bouncing, and echoing, and reverberating through the insides; this vast emptiness and unfathomable darkness I couldn’t eat properly, I couldn’t sleep properly, I couldn’t think properly.

I’m a researcher; I think for a living. So, as you can imagine, I’m feeling a little bit vulnerable right now, having stood up on stage and shared with 1,200 people that I’ve suffered from depression, but I’m feeling particularly vulnerable because I’m also standing up on stage criticizing the media.

And now I feel like I’ve just handed them this retaliation information, and sometime this week, the newspapers are going to have some little story in a corner that says, “Positive psychology professor fails to take our own medicine.” But this is what I can tell you. The more and more that I’ve learned about and come to understand the positive qualities in human nature, the less and less depressed I’ve become.

In fact, it’s rare these days that I have a symptom of depression at all. If you would have told me in my mid-30s that I would be depression free, almost, by my mid-40s, honestly, I would not have believed you. But learning about the best in us, that’s made me a better mom, a better wife, a better friend, a better colleague, a better person. And it’s done this in three really concrete ways. Learning about the best in us has helped me to clarify the type of person that I want to be: a woman who is brave, and kind, and persistent, and ethical.

Learning about the best in us has helped me to clarify the type of person I want to be in relationship with. And learning about the best in us has helped me to walk away from some unhealthy relationships in my life. I started this journey in order to help my son and my daughter. It turns out it helped me too, and not just helped me, transformed me. Because what it did was it injected hope into my bloodstream, and now I walk around every day with this healing pulse of hope.

If the news corporations were to show more positive news stories, they too could be agents of hope. We need to be asking the media to share more good news with us, and better yet, I personally think we should be demanding a whole new form of journalism, one that shows TED content on the nightly news, for example. Yeah!

But, you know, I’m a realist and I do understand that the media corporations aren’t going to change what they report to us anytime soon. So rather than asking the media to change their news, I think we need to start changing our news. We need to take on the responsibility of sharing the stories of the positive qualities in human nature.

When we share good news, we inject the healing pulse of hope into our families, our friends, our neighbors, our schools, our workplaces. Have you ever wondered why it is when the Olympics are on, you see so many more people out running on the street? And have you ever taken out running when the Olympics are on? I know I have.

Psychologists explain this phenomenon using the elevation effect, and simply put, the elevation effect occurs when we witness excellence in another. It inspires and elevates us to also want to strive for excellence. So when we’re watching the Olympics, and we’re seeing all these examples of physical and athletic excellence, it inspires us. It elevates us to also want to become fitter and stronger, and so we take up exercise.

Well, here’s the interesting thing. Psychologists have also found that we don’t just have the elevation effect when we witness physical excellence, we also have the elevation effect when we witness moral excellence. When we witness great acts of kindness or courage, it inspires and elevates us to also want to be kinder and braver ourselves. There are lots of examples of the elevation effect being triggered by moral excellence, but one example that we all know about is Nelson Mandela.

His moral excellence, his capacity for forgiveness elevated an entire country, and shifted them from an apartheid regime to a democratic government. I’m not saying that we can all be like Nelson Mandela, I’m not even saying we can all know someone like Nelson Mandela, but what I am saying is that you can all train yourself to look for the examples of everyday excellence that are all around us; that every day moral excellence when we see the people around us being brave, and kind, and acting with integrity, and honesty, and teamwork, and leadership.

We can train ourselves to look for the examples of moral excellence, and we can share those stories. A few weeks ago, I caught public transport, and in the space of ten minutes, I saw three young people stand up and offer their seats to senior citizens. That’s everyday moral excellence, and I tweeted about that.

If you share those examples of everyday moral excellence, you are triggering hope, and you are triggering the elevation effect. But you’re doing more than that because researchers have also found that when you share positive news on your social media sites, 64% of your network will respond with happiness. So if you want to make people happy, share good news. And the research goes further than that because we’ve also discovered, in the field of positive psychology, that positive emotions are contagious. We literally catch positive emotions of other people.

So when you post good news up onto your social media site, the researchers have found that those positive emotions spread through your networks by up to three degrees of separation. What that means is if you share positive news, you’re making your friend happy, you’re making your friend’s friend happy, and you’re making your friend’s friend’s friend happy. Your one simple act of sharing good news sets off a positive ripple effect beyond what you could imagine.

I’m not advocating for blind optimism, and I’m not saying we should ignore the world’s problems, but what I am saying is we will have a better understanding and a better perspective of the world’s problems if we also understand the world’s strengths. The media corporations are not going to share with us the stories of our strengths because it’s not in their interest to do that; but we can share those stories with each other.

And when we do, we trigger hope, we trigger the elevation effect, and we trigger happiness; this is science. So what I’m asking you to do is to become a positive detective, to go out into the world and commit yourself to finding at least one example every day of moral excellence and share that example with others. And parents, please share that example with your children. Our children need to grow up knowing that the vast majority of us are good and decent. They need to grow up knowing that they’re part of a human-kind. And they need to grow up with hope.

So my invitation to all of us is to become a positive detective. But I also need to let you know that with that invitation, I’ve also attached a warning label. And the label reads like this, “Warning, being positive is not for the faint-hearted”. My experience as a positive psychology researcher? In that experience, I’ve been on the receiving end of scorn, mockery, derision, and outright aggression.

There are people who have been hostile towards me because I’ve chosen a career as a positive psychologist. And to give you a recent example, I joined Twitter two months ago – finally got with the program – and in a space of two months I have two trolls. I know, what’s up with that? – When I first told my colleagues that I was shifting my research focus over to positive psychology, I had a number of my colleagues treat me as if I had also just automatically dropped 20 IQ points. And it’s weird because these were the researchers, who, the year before, had awarded me a prize for excellence in research. You know that t-shirt that says, “I’m with stupid,” and it has an arrow that points to someone else? I felt like when I was walking into the faculty staff room, they were looking at me as if I was wearing that t-shirt, it said “I’m with stupid,” but the arrow was pointing at me.

And here’s the crazy thing: when I was studying stress in the workplace, I was deemed to be a rigorous researcher. But when I shifted my focus across to study gratitude and virtue in the workplace, I was classified as an academic lightweight even though I was using the same scientific methodologies and publishing in the same high-quality journals. I was devalued because I chose to focus on the positive.

Now luckily for me, five years ago, I teamed up with professor Field Rickards at the University of Melbourne, and he’s transforming education in Australia. He also understands the importance, and the meaning, and the value of taking a positive approach.

So, with his help, and with the help of some significant other people at the university, and outside of the university, over the last five years, we’ve now been able to build a center for positive psychology at the University of Melbourne – Yes, yes! – Thank you. So persistence pays off, but I want to bring us back to this warning label. Being positive is not for the faint-hearted, and it’s hard to stay positive when there is so much negative news around us. If you choose to take my advice, if you choose to become a positive detective, if you choose to spread positive news, be prepared for a negative backlash.

And I thought about this a lot, given my own experience in the last ten years, and this is what I’ve come to understand. If you choose to be a person who shines light on the good things in the world, you are actually acting in a way that is counterculture, you are going against the dominant message of fear and scarcity. And if you act in a way that’s counterculture, you will receive a backlash. But for me, I think this is even more reason why we need to share positive news; because the more positive news we share, the less dominant those negative messages become.

And for me personally, I can tell you that in the last ten years, every time I’ve been at the receiving end of scorn, mockery, derision, hostility, every time I’ve bounced back, and I thought, “This is even more reason why I need to keep doing what I’m doing.”

The other thing that I’ve discovered, in closing, in reflecting on why I’ve received this negative backlash – when in the first ten years in my career, I was studying the negative phenomena, and I never received any of this stuff – is that there are people out there who genuinely believe that our negative qualities are somehow more real and more important than our positive qualities. I have to say to you, I will never understand that mentality; because how can this version of human nature be more real and more important than this version of human nature?

My call to action is simple: if every single one of us commits to being a positive detective, to sharing our own good news and to spreading the good news of others, we set off hope, we set off the elevation effect, and we set off happiness, and we really can make a collective difference to the world. If we are truly committed to the ideas worth spreading, we need to start spreading a few of our own.

Thank you.

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