Summary analysis

After watching the collection of talks on Understanding Happiness, read a thoughtful recap of the major points in this TED Study, and learn where experts believe things are headed.

Positive psychology: The wrap-up

The field of positive psychology has already helped us to better understand happiness. As Martin Seligman explained, traditional psychological theory, therapy and medications were aimed exclusively at reducing negative symptoms, but the new 'science of happiness' is concerned with interventions to understand, build and sustain positive emotions such as pleasure, compassion and gratitude. This change was sparked by the acknowledgement that happiness and unhappiness are not endpoints of a single continuum, and that as a result it is possible to make people happier, rather than just curtailing misery.

While philosophy has long been concerned with happiness and the pursuit of a 'good life', the development of this into a field studied with scientific rigour has sparked a seismic change in how we understand the subject. Modern science has provided the techniques to decipher which areas and pathways within the human brain are stimulated during different emotional states. This has enabled researchers like Helen Fisher to better understand the reasons why we feel happy and why we intuitively know that liver-and-onion ice cream will not taste very nice! Positive psychology has also developed a great toolkit of practical interventions, such as Martin Seligman's 'Gratitude Visit' and 'Strength Dates', which are easy-to-administer and have long-lasting impact on our happiness. The effects of these have been proven to stand in the face of scientific experimentation (longitudinal measures, randomized double-blind placebo design, etc).

The TEDTalks you've seen have explained what we now understand about what makes us happy, from genetic disposition to lifestyle choices via our personal beliefs. You'll also have learnt about how the way we respond to things affects us as much (if not more) than the events themselves — this makes 'synthesized happiness' possible. Researchers like Dan Gilbert believe this is why major life traumas can have little or no impact on happiness. For example, 'impact bias' is the tendency to believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact they really are — things like getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have.

Crucially, we need to understand that happiness is multi-faceted; Martin Seligman describes this as the happy life, the engaged life and the meaningful life. There's general agreement within positive psychology that we're at our most happy when in 'flow', deeply absorbed in an activity, using our sub-conscious and at one with the task. This is distinct from pleasure (which feels raw and we know it's happening), but when we can make more time in our lives to intensely concentrate on meaningful tasks, especially when they draw on our signature strengths, then we can truly improve and sustain our happiness.

What's next?

National and international efforts

But while there's been tremendous growth in our understanding of happiness, there's still a lot of work to do in order to facilitate greater levels of individual and collective happiness: the latter has remained constant over the past half-century. The amount that has been learnt in the past few decades has turned the topic on its head, but we have still not reached a consensus on the subject — and more importantly — on how we can use this knowledge for the greatest good. We need to redouble our efforts to explore how our national and international institutions can facilitate happiness.

However, as Barry Schwartz noted, these relationships are complex and there are a number of possible contradictions and alignments that need further study. How does the goal of increased happiness interact with desires for equality, economic growth and environmental sustainability? Is there an 'optimum point' where we are able to meet the fundamental needs of all, without moving through to unsustainable material consumption that brings its own set of problems? Happiness is becoming an issue at an international level, particularly in light of its relationship with sustainability; a high level UN level meeting took place in April 2012 on 'Happiness & Wellbeing: Defining an new economic paradigm' the outcome of which was fed into the Rio+20 summit of international leaders. The relationship between absolute and relative happiness and the limitations of measuring subjective well-being are being tackled by some governments already, but will be an ongoing task.

As reflected in this call for a new economic paradigm, the interest in happiness is closely bound to our other national and international goals. In light of our ongoing global economic difficulties there seem to be two opposing schools of thought. For some it has sparked a desire for greater meaning, a different way of doing things, as existing systems and processes fail us. For others the desire to focus on tackling unemployment, increasing GDP and reducing government deficits pushes happiness further down the agenda. The success of one side or the other will be tied up with whether we return to normal, or whether a 'new normal' emerges.

Workplace and personal happiness

What is certain is that individual organisations are increasingly interested in positive psychology because of its potential impact on employee engagement and well-being. As well as being of interest as a source of competitive advantage, there is also a bottom-up demand from new employees, the so-called millennials, who consider flexible working and other initiatives as essentials, rather than perks. A highly competitive job market may keep them in their seats for now, but will not keep them emotionally engaged — causing problems for the individuals and the businesses which ignore their demands.

Inevitably, all this progress comes with warnings; we need to be aware that in solving one problem, we may be creating others. Helen Fisher warns that "when you tamper with one brain system, you're going to tamper with another." In this case she was talking about the effect of anti-depressants on our relationships (or more technically, that raising serotonin suppresses the dopamine circuit), but researchers will also need to be alert to other unintended effects of taking action.

There's a belief in some circles that 'happiness' research has already peaked. This may be true in the 'pop psychology' sense of the term, but positive psychology is still an active and growing subject. The work of the speakers featured in these talks has moved on even since they were recorded. One important area that requires further study is in determining the causality of happiness correlations that have been identified. But the next steps do not solely rely on furthering the evidence base. We now need to raise awareness of this research among individuals, helping to overcome cynicism and apply the knowledge to our everyday lives. There are a number of institutions that are devoted to this: Action for Happiness and Delivering Happiness are UK and US examples respectively. As well as spreading the word, these groups also need to bridge the gap between academia and day-to-day life, taking into account that humans are irrational beings, who may not take the best course of action even when it is presented to them!

Relevant talks