What is it that makes us happy? We’re told that money that doesn’t buy it, or success, or even love. Can happiness be created, or must it be discovered? Does the path to a happy life require certain ingredients—self-discovery, confidence, a loving group of family and friends, spiritual guidance, the opportunity to fulfill one’s dreams—or can anyone be truly “happy?”
We spend our entire lives on the pursuit of this elusive state, which we so often think we recognize in others, and which we constantly struggle to find for ourselves. Thousands of years of philosophy, psychology, and sociology have studied what it means to be happy, but what if it could be a whole lot simpler than that?
I’ve chosen three TED talks about the path to happiness and self-fulfillment that will enlighten and inspire you in unexpected ways. These short lectures explore why we’re often unhappy, why we feel happy when we do, and how we can overcome the many opposites of happiness so that we can live every day of our lives in a positive, enriched, and deeply fulfilling way.
The first talk, by Matt Killingsworth, a doctoral candidate at Harvard who studies the nature of human happiness, is “Want to be Happier? Stay in the Moment.” Though the title might recall the clichéd “live in the moment” philosophy, Killingsworth is actually referring to the fascinating research he has done on studying the moment-to-moment happiness of research subjects to help him and other scientists learn what makes us happy and unhappy. Through his website trackyourhappiness.org, Killingsworth has made a research tool that allows him to track people’s responses to questions such as: “How do you feel?” “What are you doing?” “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” His research has shown that 47 percent of the time, people are thinking about something other than what they’re doing in that moment, and that there is a direct correlation between people’s “mind wandering” and their feelings of unhappiness. In other words, no matter what we’re doing, we’re substantially happier when we’re aware of and engaged in the moment than if we’re cluttering our minds with other thoughts. In this short, concise lecture, Killingsworth shows us how his statistics have the power to reveal when we’re the happiest, and how maybe being happy is a lot easier than we think.
The second talk is “The 3 A’s of Awesome” by Neil Pasricha, author of the blog 1000awesomethings.com, which has inspired three books, including his first and most famous, The Book of Awesome. While Pasricha (who is, by the way, hilarious) isn’t concerned with finding some ultimate spiritual or scientific truth about the nature of human happiness, he has demonstrated the simple power of optimism, and how it can be the little pleasures in life that bring us moments of pure happiness. In his TED talk, Pasricha discusses how there was a time when his life had hit such a low point that he never thought he could find happiness again. To overcome this, he decided to refocus his life on the positive things, even if these things were as small as the smell of bakery air, the feeling of hanging your hand out the car window, putting on underwear right out of the dryer, or the excitement of a snow day. By focusing on the happiness and pleasure we feel at these little moments that make us smile, Pasricha says, we can consciously work to put ourselves in a better mood. Pasricha also defines his “3 A’s of Awesome,” which are Attitude, Awareness, and Authenticity. In his charming, heartfelt lecture, Pasricha shows us how we can apply these basic rules to how we live day-to-day, and how, by taking the time to experience and appreciate all the little things that makes life so sweet, we can all learn how to live a richer and more satisfying life.
Finally, it’s worth it to watch “The Surprising Science of Happiness” by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness. While Gilbert’s is the most “scientific” of these three talks, he manages to combine scientific jargon with enough humor and colloquialisms that the average viewer can easily follow his thoughts and research processes. Gilbert’s hypothesis explains how our brains work as “experience simulators,” in that they have the ability to imagine future events before they occur, which causes us to overrate the difference between the futures we imagine and the futures that actually occur, leading to our unhappiness. However, our brains and psyches also contain a “psychological immune system,” a consciousness that, Gilbert states, allows us to construct better views of the world than the world we find ourselves in. In his fascinating discussion that applies the concrete facts of psychological science to the seemingly unanswerable question of happiness, Gilbert show us how accepting the things we cannot change—and choosing to be happy regardless of our disappointment of certain outcomes—is just as authentic a happiness as is the “natural” feelings of happiness we happen to stumble upon. Happiness, he says, can be synthesized, revealing the truth we’ve all been hoping for: that happiness doesn’t need to be found. We can, with the incredible power of our bodies and minds, create a happy life.
TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a nonprofit organization that spreads ideas and inspiration through conferences, projects, and innovations. And thanks to their TEDtalks video website, you can enjoy free access to a vast archive of ideas and inspiration from the best speakers, thinkers, and leaders of our time. Watch and learn more at ted.com.