7 TED Talks on Happiness That Will Make You Smile From Ear to Ear
Fact: Bad days happen to good people. Even when you give up those old habits to be happier, switch up your morning routine, and do that one thing all female leaders do to be successful, sometimes the world has its own way. You can either see it as a hurdle or use the mess to your advantage and flip the script. It's as Tim Harford writes in his best-selling book Messy:" Life cannot be controlled. Life itself is messy."
So what should you do when life throws you a curveball? There's one thing that always helps us gain perspective: TED talks. Tuning to the positive stories of others who have overcome adversity and personal struggles not only inspires gratitude but makes us realize how darn lucky we all are. Not sure where to start? These are best TED talks on happiness to watch when you're having a bad day.
If there's one inherent fear many of us have, it's being in a plane when it goes down. Ric Elias was on the Flight 1549 that crash-landed in the Hudson River in New York in January 2009. While panic rushed through his veins as he braced for impact on the way down, there was a moment of clarity as he reflected on his life, not knowing he would still be alive at the end or not.
In this inspiring TED Talk, Elias reveals three things he learned that day. Lesson one: It all changes in an instant. "We have this bucket list, we have these things we want to do in life, and I thought about all the people I wanted to reach out to that I didn't, all the fences I wanted to mend, all the experiences I wanted to have and I never did," he told the crowd.
"As I thought about that later on, I came up with a saying, which is, 'I collect bad wines.' Because if the wine is ready and the person is there, I'm opening it. I no longer want to postpone anything in life. And that urgency, that purpose, has really changed my life." You'll have to watch the talk to hear the other two, but we seriously recommend that you do.
The Takeaway: Don't wait. Do it today.
Your life can be moving along perfectly fine until one day a moment that's completely out of your control changes it forever. This talk is a reminder that while we can't control our experiences, we can change how we see them. At just 19, Joshua Prager became a hemiplegic after a terrible bus accident in Israel. But he didn't let that stop him: Prager walked with his cane, ankle brace, and a backpack on trips in six continents. But for a long time, he was angry, especially after reading the bus driver's testimony that he gave the morning after the crash. So he went on a mission to find the driver and confront him face to face.
He returned to Israel to write about the crash and complete his book, Half-Life. But rather than an altercation or confrontation, the two of them shared a conversation that changed his perspective and thus his life. "If you are mindful of what you do not have, you may be truly mindful of what you do have, and if the gods are kind, you may truly enjoy what you have," he told the audience from the TED stage. "That is the one singular gift you may receive if you suffer in any existential way. You know death, and so may wake each morning pulsing with ready life."
The Takeaway: Embrace life, and rise above bad fortune.
Throughout his childhood, author Andrew Solomon suffered terrible bullying. He was labeled Percy by one child and taunted by his peers for his sexual orientation. He survived those years by avoiding bullies and discovering the power of endurance. But rather than allow this pain to destroy him and set him on a destructive path, he found meaning from his biggest struggles and forged a new identity.
"You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you've come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt," he told the TED audience. This TED Talk forces us to reconsider our struggles and recognize pain but not let them take us down; instead, we should consider how they changed us into powerful, resilient individuals. You'll burst out crying when you hear what his son said during his birthday celebration. This is incredibly moving and motivational.
Takeaway: Turn your struggles into your strengths.
Rather than sinking into despair after losing both of her legs below the knee at 19, Amy Purdy turned her disability into a physical attribute. Now she is a pro snowboarder (she was the 2014 Paralympic bronze medalist), actress, professional motivational speaker, clothing designer, and author. Purdy's story is proof that we can overcome the worst. But first she had to let go of the old Amy and learn to embrace the new Amy.
"It was this moment that I asked myself that life-defining question: If my life were a book and I were the author, how would I want the story to go?" she told the audience. "And I began to daydream. I daydreamed like I did as a little girl, and I imagined myself walking gracefully, helping other people through my journey and snowboarding again. And I didn't just see myself carving down a mountain of powder: I could actually feel it. I could feel the wind against my face and the beat of my racing heart as if it were happening in that very moment. And that is when a new chapter in my life began."
Because Amy dared to dream and face her fears head on, she triumphed over adversity and broke down the mental barriers preventing her from achieving greatness. She let her imagination imitate life. So do as Amy does, and challenge yourself to look at your challenges and limitations as blessings, and not something negative or bad. See them as "magnificent gifts that can be used to ignite our imaginations and help us go further than we ever knew we could go."
The Takeaway: You can overcome life's obstacles and triumph.
Why do we loathe failure so much? Our inherent fear of falling short and not attaining perfection is actually crippling us. Take note from Lidia Yuknavitch: The author shared her story of loss, shame, and the slow process of self-acceptance on the TED stage, and how not getting it right the first time should be seen as a blessing. "Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful," she told the audience. "You don't know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That's your beauty."
Raised in an abusive family, Yuknavitch had two failed marriages, flunked college twice, went to rehab for drug abuse, and even spent time in jail. But her dream of being a writer prevailed, and in her early 30s, she won a giant literary prize for a short story she'd written. But despite being flown to New York, mingling with best-selling authors and agents, and even being offered representation, she didn't feel worthy. She has since overcome that shame, and now as a woman over 50, she is a professional writer, mother, and a teacher. Yuknavitch realized she did deserve to be there and be successful.
This talk serves as a reminder that everyone's story deserves to be heard and that at any moment, you can change your story. You can be a misfit and still be successful and wonderful. "You can be a drunk, you can be a survivor of abuse, you can be an ex-con, you can be a homeless person, you can lose all your money or your job or your husband or your wife, or the worst thing of all, a child," she shared. "You can even lose your marbles. You can be standing dead center in the middle of your failure and still, I'm only here to tell you, 'You are so beautiful. Your story deserves to be heard, because you, you rare and phenomenal misfit, you new species, are the only one in the room who can tell the story the way only you would.' And I'd be listening."
The Takeaway: You are more than worthy.
Just like her instant number one New York Times best seller Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk will change your life. In this inspirational presentation, Gilbert asks us to stop seeing the rare person as being a genius and realizing that all of us have a genius. After penning her first book, Eat, Pray, Love, many people told her she was doomed and asked if she was afraid she might never top it.
But this kind of fearful questioning has followed Gilbert throughout her creative life, from the moment she decided as a teenager she wanted to be a writer—questions like Aren't you afraid you're never going to have any success? Aren't you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you? While Gilbert certainly did feel these rational fears, she refused to let them hold her back.
So in order to continue doing the work she loves, she decided to create a "protective psychological construct" to distance herself from her writing and her anxiety. She told the audience: "What I have to sort of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that is don't be afraid. Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance."
The Takeaway: Believe in yourself. Believe you are great.
Diana Nyad was the first 64-year-old woman to swim from Cuba to Florida. Just reading that line in of itself makes your jaw drop in disbelief, doesn't it? This was Nyad's lifetime goal and she stopped at nothing to achieve it. Even swimming 100 miles during the pitch-black night, being stung by jellyfish, and hallucinating. This is an absolutely unbelievable and inspiring tale of one woman's perseverance against all odds to go on this epic journey and realize her dream. Her one mantra? "Never, ever give up."
While this amazing achievement resulted in amazing opportunities like sitting with Oprah and being invited into President Obama's Oval Office, nothing compares to the pride she feels in herself. "All of that's great, and I don't denigrate it," she told the crowd. "I'm proud of it all, but the truth is, I'm walking around tall because I am that bold, fearless person, and I will be, every day, until it's time for these days to be done."
The Takeaway: You can do anything you put your mind to.
In a world of strikingly negative headlines highlighting everything from natural disasters to the worst of humanity, it can be challenging to stay positive and view life's misfortunes with silver linings. New York Times best-selling author Neil Pasricha came to this realization shortly after dealing with the devastation of the economic crash of 2008, his wife admitting she was no longer in love with him, and a dear friend taking his own life. After finding it difficult to see anything good in the world, he decided to start a blog called 1000AwesomeThings.com.
"I was trying to remind myself of the simple universal little pleasures that we all love but we just don't talk about enough—things like waiters and waitresses who bring you refills without asking, being the first table to get called up to the dinner buffet at a wedding, wearing warm underwear from just out of the dryer, or when cashiers open up a new checkout lane at the grocery store and you get to be first in line," Pasricha said.
The website turned into a wild success, giving Pasricha a Webby for the Best Blog in the World, a best-selling book, and a new lease on life. Now he lives by the three A's: attitude, awareness, and authenticity. To him, having a great attitude is necessary to move forward in life, being aware of all the beautiful aspects of everyday things can change your perception of the world, and being authentic to who you allow you to follow your heart and feel fulfilled.
The Takeaway: There is joy in anything if you take the time to notice it.
There's no avoiding it: We're all getting older. It's the ultimate reality that many people have the most trouble coming to terms with—except for author and activist Ashton Applewhite. "It turns out that the longer people live, the less they fear dying, and that people are happiest at the beginnings and the end of their lives," she says.
Applewhite takes a witty approach to shutting down ageism, keeping her audience laughing all the while. She doesn't see aging as a problem; instead, the problem is a culture of holding prejudices against the elderly. The key, she believes, is to focus on the positives without worrying so much about what negative things could come with old age, and there's research to back her theories.
"People with more positive feelings towards aging walk faster, they do better on memory tests, they heal quicker, and they live longer. … What did they have in common? A sense of purpose."
The Takeaway: A positive attitude can change everything.
In her moving TED Talk, wellness specialist Elizabeth Lesser discusses lessons learned in her time spent as a midwife in her 20s and how those lessons helped her deal with a sister's illness later in life. Though the subject matter of her talk focuses on difficult topics like death and broken relationships, her insights on how to bare your soul and be open even when it's painful are truly inspiring.
She decided to work on healing her relationship with her sister after learning she was a match for the bone marrow transplant her sister desperately needed. The two decided that working through their issues would help ensure that their cells would accept one another instead of attack or reject each other. Through this experience, Lesser learned how to be her authentic self and speak her truth. Now she calls for everyone to invest in the time it takes to put aside pride and be vulnerable with others.
"You don't have to wait for a life-or-death situation to clean up the relationships that matter to you. … We can all do this. We can be like a new kind of first responder, like the one to take the first courageous step toward the other."
The Takeaway: Be open, and learn to forgive.
Which TED Talk on happiness do you find most inspiring? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
This post was originally published in 2016 and has since been updated.