For twenty years my dear friend Ann and I have been watching the Oprah Winfrey show, so it seemed appropriate that we watch Oprah’s last show together. Ann was two hours away in Norwood Ontario while I sat in my living room in Toronto, both of us on the phone, calling each other at every commercial break. (All the grey boxes below are quotations from Oprah.)
“Thank you for being such a sweet inspiration for me as I have tried to be for you.”
Over the years, the Oprah show became a positive intervention for us – our daily dose of inspiration. After learning about Barbara Fredrickson’s positivity ratio, I stopped watching the ‘sad’ Oprah shows – the ones where she interviewed pedophiles or moms who had lost children. I realized I was just filling myself up with unnecessary negative emotions. And when Oprah wanted to fill you with positive emotions she was the master – day after day I sat in awe as she filled my bucket.
Through the power of storytelling and television, Oprah brought to life many lessons taught by positive psychologists around the world. She used her final show to share her greatest lessons from 25 years of the Oprah show. Here they are…
You have the power to change your life.
This was the common theme of every Oprah show. If an African American girl born in Mississippi in the 50’s could rise to Oprah’s level, anything was possible. Oprah’s final guest was a Zimbabwean woman Tererai Trent, who embodied everything the Oprah show stood for. Tererai’s story was one that showed us the power of hope and how it can propel people to overcome insurmountable obstacles and emerge triumphant. See Tererai’s inspiring story here.
You are not alone.
Oprah interviewed ordinary people and shared their stories. It wasn’t until I started watching Oprah that I realized that all families had some dysfunction. And knowing this brought me great comfort. Often, when we see that there are many people just like us, our challenges seem less daunting.
Happiness is contagious.
After interviewing Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who could feel other people’s energy after she survived a massive stroke, Oprah realized that all of the energy you put out into the world – whether positive or negative – comes back to you. Dr. Taylor gave Oprah a sign for her office that read, “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space.” Just as Jane Dutton, Barbara Fredrickson and others have found, positive energy in the workplace, at home, or in our community, is contagious.
“You and this show have been the great love of my life.”
Other people matter.
The first day Oprah showed up in Chicago to do her show, she found she did not have a studio audience. Suddenly, she didn’t have other people to gauge how things were going during the show – if it was good, if it was bad, if it was funny. We are co-creating every experience in our lives. Oprah surrounded herself with loving viewers and through that profound connection she understood what people needed and delivered a show that struck a chord with millions of viewers in 150 countries.
“Everybody has a calling, and your real job in life is to figure out what that is and get about the business of doing it.”
Everybody has a calling.
Whether it’s to clean drain pipes or conduct an orchestra, we are all called to something bigger than ourselves. Just as Amy Wrzesniewski, Yale researcher, discovered, any job can be a calling and for those of us lucky enough to call our work our calling, it can be a foundation for a lifetime of fulfillment and happiness.Giving is better than receiving.
While she shocked us with incredible give-aways, the most inspiring shows were ones when she reunited loved ones or gave homeless people a home. I remember on one show she asked everyone in the studio audience to bring a pair of pajamas for a woman who donated pajamas to children living in homeless shelters. The audience of 300 brought over 30,000 pairs of pajamas to the show! Through her acts of kindness, she inspired us to give more of ourselves. Jonathan Haidt wrote, “Elevation is elicited by acts of virtue or moral beauty; it causes warm, open feelings in the chest; and it motivates people to behave more virtuously themselves.”
“There is a difference between thinking you deserve to be happy and knowing you are worthy of happiness.”
You are worthy.
We often block our own blessings because we don’t feel inherently smart enough, pretty enough, or just plain good enough. It is what Dr. Martin Seligman discovered when people felt helpless. Realistic optimism and a strong belief in ourselves can have a profound impact on our lives.
“…I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?”
Everyone wants to be heard.
One person- Mrs. Duncan, Oprah’s 4th grade teacher, validated her at a young age, and this changed the course of her life. This is why Shelly Gable’s Active Constructive Responding technique is so powerful. It demonstrates to people that ‘we are listening’ and ‘what you say matters to me.’ Mrs. Duncan reminds us that every single one of us can make a difference in someone’s life.
Her final message is one of gratitude; gratitude for her viewers, her staff, her friends, her loved ones and God’s everlasting presence. Robert Emmons demonstrated the power of gratitude through his research and Oprah brought it to the masses by encouraging people to keep a daily gratitude journal. She didn’t need a PhD to know the power of appreciation.
Ann and I speculated about how she would end the show. Will she turn out the lights like Mary Tyler Moore? Will she have some final dream giveaway hiding under everyone’s seat?
No…instead she somberly walks off the stage, through the audience and walks right over to Stedman, her lifetime love and partner, and kisses him right on the lips. She waves as she walks out of the exit and embraces several staff members as she passes them in the long narrow hallway. Finally, with her high heels in her hand, she picks up her dog Sadie, gives her a big hug, and walks off into the distance.
Her show ends with this final act of love.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Gable, E. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). Capitalizing on Daily Positive Events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87.
Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. Keyes and J. Haidt (eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Rath, T. (2004). How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life New York: Gallup Press.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Snyder, C. R. (2000). Handbook of Hope : Theory, Measures, and Applications. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Taylor, J. B. (2009). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Plume.
Wrzesniewski, A. (2003). Finding positive meaning in work. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, and R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 296-308. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.
Oprah Winfrey headshot courtesy of Unboxed Writers
Bending colors courtesy of spablab
Tourism Australia courtesy of RubyGoes
On Oprah courtesy of RubyGoes
Nice one Louisa. What this woman has done for millions in terms of happiness, well-being, and optimizing their potential is IMHO absolutely mind-boggling. As you outline, a real case of Positive Psychology in Action. Well done, both!
I applaud Oprah for her authenticity, positive intentions and vulnerability over the years. It took courage to stand up and give her testimony like that. It reminded me of Randy Paush, whom she had on the show years ago. Oprah is a phenomenon!
I didn’t watch it, but I feel like I watched it through a positive psychology lens. What a nice tone to the last program that I can feel in your article.
Hi Louisa – I thought the following quote from an article about oprah in our Saturday newspapers was interesting
In 1988 came an epiphany. Winfrey invited a group of neo-Nazis from California to Chicago. They had become belligerent. One of them called Winfrey a ”monkey”. There was an ejection. The skinheads walked out en masse.
Winfrey played the clip and then addressed the camera, telling her audience it had changed the way she did television forever. ”I thought I was exposing the hate and the violence,” she said. ”Actually … I’d given them a platform.” And from that point on, Winfrey said, she had no more skinheads, no more haters on her show. It instead became a personal empowerment zone.
Nice article Louisa, I never watched Oprah’s show regularly but I believe she has been a positive force in the world. I had a chance to meet her once and she was just as loving and genuine in person.
Thanks for this Louisa. I do miss Oprah. It’s been quite a while since Oprah was screened on mainstream channels here in the UK. It was through Oprah that I first came across the concept of a ‘gratitude journal’ in 1996 which has since become a main player of positive psychology interventions. Likewise I first came across ‘paying it forward’ through Oprah and random acts of kindness. I remember one show where she gave each member of the audience a $1000 dollars so that they could pay it forward to a stranger – it was one of the most uplifting shows ever. She wanted her audience to understand the benefits of altruism, giving over receiving. She truly gets ‘eudaimonic’ well-being, that sense of serving a cause bigger than oneself which brings meaning and purpose into life.
Thank you Amanda and Annette,
Yes, there are very few people in the world who can claim to have given back as much as Oprah has over 25 years. And I do agree it was her authenticness that made her so relevant to so many people. She wasn’t afraid to screw up or share her mistakes over the years. She openly talked about her struggles with weight and did not judge others. I think that’s why she resounded with so many of us.
Thank you Senia,
I often thought that Oprah should have a positive psychologist in the wings to highlight some of the great work going on in universities around the world on the very topics she talks about. Oprah magazine has highlighted more incuding Diener & Biswas Diener, Ellen Langer, Martin Seligman and Valorie Burton to name a few.
Yes, I loved that she realized this early on. I’m not sure if you know, but those same skin heads came on the show in this final season to apologize for their rude behavior on her show so many years ago. One of the gentlemen explained that after promoting his hatred to a group of young people, they actually went out and killed a young Ethiopean student. It was then that he realized the power of his words and he completely turned his life around. It’s great Oprah has them back on the show so they can publicly apologize. Perhaps others will see this and turn their lives around too.
I can’t believe you actually met Oprah in real life. I’m so jealous! I’m not surprised she is the same on the show as she is off the show.
Yes, I think Oprah really brought home this concept that giving is better than receiving and revolutionized the way people thought about altruism. I loved that show where she gave everyone $1000 and I was amazed at how some people turned it into a huge donation by getting others involved. It brings home how powerful just one person is. I will miss Oprah too. Thanks Miriam.
Dear Louisa, I love your article, it shows the beauty of Oprah’s 25 legacy.
Thank you for doing such a good job. I have shared it with some friends and they loved it too!!
Hugs and blessings, Maria