TED talk – The New Era of Positive Psychology

Lecturer: Dr. Martin Seligman, an American psychologist, educator, and the author of numerous self-help books (e.g. one of the best-sellers, the “Authentic Happiness”). His theory of “learned helplessness” and “positive psychology” are very popular within the scientific community.


Dr. Seligman answers the questions of why psychology in the past 60 years was “not good enough” and how it may become “good enough” in next the decade.

In past 60 years, the field of psychology was going through the phase of “disease model”, where most researches were carried out on psychological disorders and their corresponding drug or psychological treatments, so that psychology was able to make miserable people less miserable. However, the down side of this movement accentuated the generalization that human psychology was all about pessimism and disease, forgetting what role psychology could possibly play in improving normal lives and make people happier other than just repairing damage.

More importantly, relieving misery is not equivalent to increased happiness in life. Absence of sadness does not necessarily make people happy.

Positive psychology, which emerged in recent decades, on the other hand studies human strengths. It explores and classifies the strengths that make people successful and happy, as well as tackling questions like “how do extremely happy people differ from the rest of us” (by the way, the answer was that extremely happy people are extremely social, most of them are engaged in romantic relationship and have a repertoire of friends).

So… How can we live a happy life? First of all, what is a happy life?

There are three types of “Happy Lives”.

  • The Pleasant Life (having much pleasure as possible, savouring positive emotions)
  • The Good Life (engagement, experiencing “flow” where you are so concentrated to such a degree that time stops)
  • The Meaningful Life (knowing your highest strength, and use them to serve something bigger than yourself)

Research found that in terms of life satisfaction, the pursuit of meaning gives people the strongest satisfaction of life, pursuit of engagement also shows some degree of life satisfaction whereas pursuit of pleasure does not affect life satisfaction at all. In other words, “meaning” is the sponge cake, “engagement” is the cream and “pleasure” is only the cherry on top. What matters most to people are actualising one’s value and worth, be grateful for what you have and helping other evidently creates happiness, happiness that last longer than pleasure.