Full transcript of Dr. Mark Holder’s TEDx Talk: Three Words That Will Change Your Life at TEDxKelowna Conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Three words that will change your life by Dr. Mark Holder at TEDxKelowna
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.
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.
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.
And we looked at psychopathy and happiness. Psychopaths are the Ted Bundys of society. They’re not nice people, they manipulate, they cheat, they use others, they feel no remorse, they feel no empathy, they use people. And I thought maybe people that are psychopaths would be really happy. After all they get what they want. And they don’t feel badly about it in terms of using others. On the other hand, I thought maybe they’re really unhappy. After all they’ve got really poor social relationships that are characterized by manipulating others.
Well, it turns out psychopaths are really unhappy, and their unhappiness is explained by their poor social relationships. So this is how we normally see it. We see that relationships, personal relationships make us happy. And yes, this is what the research literature tells us. And it’s the opposite to that, happiness increases — improves our relationship. So given the tight connection between our personal relationships and our happiness, we should be looking at happiness when we’re developing relationships. If you’re courting somebody, if you’re wooing somebody, if you’re online dating and you see a profile of an attractive person and you go, ‘Wow! Add to Cart’. When you do these things we need to take into account happiness.
So a survey was done of undergraduates and they were asked: What do you look for in your relationship with a partner — a romantic partner, a long lasting enduring romantic partner? Well, these are undergraduates. So you have to explain to them. You say, you know, the undergraduates would say a long term romantic relationship? Do you mean like for the entire weekend? And that’s not what we really mean here, we mean a long term relationship where you think about may be having children with the person, spending the rest of your life with them. And this is what the undergraduates say when they get it. 53% of them say, love is important’. 32% say companionship is important’. 4% recognize romance, 2% recognize financial security and 1% — Just 1% of them say sex. And these results are important for two reasons.
The first thing it shows us is that only 1% of the undergraduates are honest. And the second thing it shows us is we got it wrong. One of the single best predictors of your happiness is the happiness of your romantic partner. Other people matter. So I know what you’re thinking right now. I can actually read your minds, comes with the psychology background.
You’re thinking, yeah, relationships and happiness are well interconnected. And you’re golden. You’re golden because you have 6318 Facebook friends but that’s not what we mean here. It’s the quality of your relationships that count, not the quantity. Think of the beautiful Scottish saying that you can count the true friends in your entire lifetime on the fingers of just one hand. And that’s what we’re referring to.
Twenty five years ago when people were asked: List your friends. The friends you could go to in case of a serious setback, like you had a mental health illness, who could you go talk to? Twenty five years ago, people listed three friends. But now it’s different. Now we have Facebook, now we have SnapChat. Now we have Twitter and tweeting and email and it’s gone from twenty five years ago from mere three friends, now it’s gone all the way up to one and a half friends. We’ve gone in the wrong direction.
You know that on Facebook you post, on Twitter you tweet and on eHarmony you lie. But I don’t think it’s a big of a stretch for us to recognize that the social platforms can actually get in the way of our communication, which is essential for relationships as illustrated here.
So given the importance of personal relationships, what do we do to nurture them? What has science told us about this? Well, finally, this is where the three words that will change your life come into play.
These three words were developed in interviews with people with chronic diabetes. These are hospital patients. The researchers went to the hospital patients and by using three simple words, the patients felt much more connected, much more attached, much more bonded to the interviewers. Just with three simple words and those three words are: TELL ME MORE.
When you’re in a personal relationship talking to somebody and you lean forward and you look them in the eye and you see TELL ME MORE. It means I’m not going on to my own story. I’m not interrupting you. Your story is valid means something to me: Tell me more. And it comes from the value of listening.
When I ask my undergraduates: Why do you listen in a conversation? They talk about the value to the listener. They say we listen to somebody to get information and they’re right. That’s a good reason. But if that’s the only reason you listen, then once you know the information, once you think you know what the person’s going to say, you stop listening and you interrupt.
But there’s also value to the speaker when we listen. When we listen to the speaker, it allows them a chance to express their thoughts and their feelings. When we listen, it validates the speaker to tell them that their story is important. When we listen, it gives the speaker a chance to find their solutions just by talking. When we listen, it allows us to celebrate the success of the speaker and allows us to console them if they’ve had setbacks.
Tell me more. Tell me more is a way that you can give the speaker all that value. And there’s three bonus words. It’s a good thing you’re here this afternoon because we can’t do this deal all day. There’s three additional words that they used. What happened next. It’s served the same purpose validating the speaker.
Tell me more. What happened next? Two phrases, each with three simple words, three simple words that will change your life. It will change your life by improving your personal relationships. It’ll change your life by making you happier.
Three simple words. Tell me more and what happened next are three simple words that you can use to improve your relationship with strangers, people who just aren’t friends yet, to improve your relationship with your children, with your coworkers, with your family, with your loved ones, with your friends.
Three simple words that will improve your relationships, increase your happiness. Three simple words, you can do right now so that you can do more. And you can do better.
Thanks so much.