Today on the TED (technology, entertainment & design) website, I came across the same twenty minute Seligman presentation, which Kathryn Britton also referenced.
It dates from way back in 2004 although it’s just been made available. In it Seligman outlines his three paths to happiness (pleasure, engagement and meaning), describing each one in some depth before summing up by comparing psychology’s problems to those which exist for technology, entertainment and design.
It’s ironic, given the current controversy over the details of training his learned helplessness theory to the American military (see this link, and then this one which details Seligman’s response), that one of the problems he refers to is the use of one’s expertise for destructive purposes. Clearly the same applies to technology. It too can be used for bad as well as for good.
The second issue he talks about is the error of thinking that using one’s skills, knowledge or experience (in whatever field) to alleviate suffering or misery is the same thing as using them to create happy and thriving individuals. Seligman refers to the -10 to +10 continuum, in which traditional psychology has concerned itself with helping people who are below zero on the scale, i.e. those who are depressed, anxious or otherwise mentally ill.
This, he argues, is very different to helping those who are already above zero; it requires different skills as well as different interventions, which is how Positive Psychology came into existence. In the presentation he suggests that people who work in the TED fields also need to think about how their expertise could be used differently depending on whether they’re in the business of relieving human misery, or building human happiness.
I have a slight problem with the -10 to +10 argument in relation to entertainment. It’s a matter of taste. One man’s misery is another man’s happiness; how else can we explain the huge popularity of so-called slasher and splatter movies?
As for the design field, well architects are already embracing Positive Psychology principles in their work, hence the rise of green and “biophilic” design in the built environment over the last five or ten years. But perhaps there are other uses of Positive Psychology in design that we haven’t yet thought of. The same goes for technology. Watching our son with his PSP (PlayStation Portable) is all the evidence you need that technology can create a flow state, but surely there are other applications which can, to quote Seligman, ‘increase the tonnage of human happiness’ in the world. His call for new ways of thinking in technology, entertainment, and design is just as valid for other fields.
Watching the Seligman presentation reminded me of another I’d seen on the TED website about a year ago, from an Austrian graphic designer, Stefan Sagmeister. Sagmeister talks compellingly about the influence of happiness on his work, and vice versa. It turns out that as well as being a talented designer he’s also a great list-maker. His list of things he likes about his job includes:
- Thinking about ideas and content freely without having to worry about deadlines (Autonomy; Positive Emotion)
- Working without interruption on a single project (Flow)
- Using a variety of tools and techniques (Autonomy)
- Traveling to new places (Positive Emotion)
- Working on projects that matter to me (Meaning)
What I particularly like is that it covers all of Seligman’s three paths to happiness. On his list of the happiest moments in his life, the vast majority are design and people-related. He also has a list of “life’s lessons”, such as ‘over time I get used to everything and start taking it for granted’ and ‘money does not make me happy’; he turns these insights into graphic design:
But the real learning for me from these two presentations is that relieving misery and creating happiness are not the same thing, and that thinking about how to incorporate the latter into your job may cause you to approach it in a new way. Seligman goes further and states that you also need a different skill set and different interventions.
I’m not sure that the division is so clear-cut, but thinking about how to take a Positive Psychology approach in unrelated fields, like technology and design, certainly raises some questions worth considering.
Sagmeister, S. (2004). Happiness by design. TED Talk.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). The new era of positive psychology. TED Talk.