Dr. Mark Holder: Three Words That Will Change Your Life at TEDxKelowna (Full Transcript)

Full transcript of Dr. Mark Holder’s TEDx Talk: Three Words That Will Change Your Life at TEDxKelowna Conference.

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Dr. Mark Holder – Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about something I’m really passionate about: happiness.

I lead a research team at the University of British Columbia that studies the science of happiness. Lead a research team? How arrogant is that? What? Let me tell you what I really do.

What I really do is I work with really bright undergraduate, graduate students and professors who do just terrific work that I shamelessly take credit for. And that’s what I’m going to do now, just another example of it. And I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years.

In the last 10 years I’ve identified three words. Three words that will change your life: by increasing your happiness. But like a timeshare talk, you’ve got to wait till the very end before you get the reward, which is the three wards.

So when I found out the theme of this talk was: What I want to be when I grow up, I thought it was a perfect fit. It’s a lovely fit, because for most of us near the top of the list, at the top of the list, we want to be happy. And it reminded me of a story — a story by John Lennon, former member of the Beatles. John Lennon said that when he was a young boy, growing up, his mum said to him, ‘John, the most important thing in life. The most important thing is to be happy’.

So when John was in grade school, the teacher assigned a task to the class and asked each child a question. And the question was: ‘What you want to be when you grow up?’

And John Lennon said, ‘I want to be happy.’

And the teacher said, ‘No, John, you don’t understand the question.’

And John Lennon said, ‘No. You don’t understand life.’

And I think that criticism that John Lennon leveled at his teacher is a criticism that can be leveled at health researchers and health care practitioners, can be leveled at people like me, because we kind of miss out on what life is about, about happiness. Let me demonstrate that in the following quote: ‘Much has been gained if we succeed in taking your hysterical misery and turning it into common unhappiness.’ Really? I hate this quote. And the reason I dislike this quote so much is, first off, it’s wrong.

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We’ve now measured happiness in thousands and thousands and thousands of children, adolescents and adults. We’ve measured happiness in people from Zambia to New Delhi, from Dubai to Western Canada. And what we find: it’s happiness that’s common, not unhappiness.

And the second reason I dislike this quote is, because it sets the bar so low for us. It says we’re successful if we take people from the emotional dregs and raise them up a smidgen to unhappiness. Really? We can do more than that, and we can do better than that. And part of doing more and better are the three words that can change your life.

Well, this is actually a quote by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalytic theory, and tells us about the roots of psychology are through such a negative lens and it’s not just the roots of psychology, it’s current psychology. In my office, I’ve got a dictionary. It’s a great big fat dictionary of all the words psychologists use. So I took that dictionary and I looked up the word ‘depression’ in it and there are 18 different definitions of depression. We know a lot about depression.

So then I looked up ‘happiness’. 18 definitions of depression. Happiness? It wasn’t in it. It’s like it’s not in the vocabulary of current psychologists and it’s not just a criticism of psychology — psychology medicine, psychiatry, neural science. They’ve all traditionally focused on what’s wrong with you and how do we fix it. They are about deficits, disease and dysfunction. And that’s a really good thing. It’s a good thing because of it, we’ve got new approaches and ways of identifying and helping people with mental health and physical health challenges. It’s a really good thing. I just don’t believe it’s the only thing. And again we can do more than this and we can do better than this.

And one way of doing more and better is a newly emerging field of psychology, a field called positive psychology. Positive psychology isn’t about what’s wrong with you and how do we fix it. Positive psychology is about what’s right with you and how do we promote it. What’s right with you — what’s right with you is your ability to love and be loved by others. It’s your kindness. It’s your gratitude. It’s your strength, your courage, your bravery. It’s about what contributes to your thriving and your flourishing. It’s what makes life worth living. And of course, that includes your happiness.

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One of the things that the research in positive psychology has shown us over the last 20 years is there’s no one-size-fits-all model for happiness. What makes me happy is quite likely different from what makes you happy. And what makes you happy now is different from what made you happy 10 years ago or 20 years in the future. There’s no single recipe that will increase your happiness at all times and for all people.

But the other thing positive psychology has taught us is that happy people share one thing in common. They have strong high quality personal relationships. It’s really difficult to find somebody who is happy who doesn’t have good personal friendships and/or are engaged in a satisfying romantic relationship.

So who benefits from these personal relationships? Well, the literature and science is full of examples of how adults are happier if they have personal relationships. In our own work we’ve looked at children and we find that children are happy if they’ve got friendships and people they see, friends they see regularly.

In fact, even imaginary friends help. Children with imaginary friends are happier, they laugh more, they smile more, they’re happier. And it’s not just people from the general population. We’ve also looked at people in vulnerable populations. For example, we’ve looked at people with acquired brain injury, people that have brain damage from a car accident or from a stroke. And they’re not as happy. Not all of them, some of them stay happy and those that stay happy with brain injuries, those that are sort of buffered or immunized against the deficits are the problems of a brain injury are those with high quality social relationships, they protect them from unhappiness.

We’ve looked at people with emotional processing disorders. One of them is alexithymia. Alexithymia is a disorder where people have difficulty identifying and communicating the emotions of their own and others. If you were on a date with somebody with alexithymia, and you said, ‘How are you feeling?’ They’d say, ‘I’m going to the store later today’. And you go, ‘No, it doesn’t seem quite right.’ So you say, ‘What, no, no, I mean inside! Inside, how are you really feeling?’ And they might say, ‘Well, I’m a little hungry.’ They don’t get the emotional world and they’re unhappy and their unhappiness is explained in part by their poor social relationships.