These TED Radio Hour Talks Will Change Your Life

Updated 09/23/16
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

Were you aware that beauty is essential to human survival? Or that our brains are hardwired to be optimistic? How about that fortune cookies don't come from China? Really, it's true. These are just some of the questions that are examined and resolved in the fascinating TED Radio Hour series compiled by NPR. In it, host and editorial director Guy Raz fuses various TED Talks into a common theme, bringing some of the speakers back to discuss their research and beliefs in further detail. We've listened to most, if not all, of these insightful compilations for you, dissected them, and sorted them into essential life hacks and quintessential quotes to enhance your knowledge, happiness, and well-being. Despite our astute condensed version, we guarantee you'll want to listen to them all too. Just make sure you bring some tissues along for the ride because these will trigger some powerful emotions.

Life Hack: We are hardwired to be positive.

While the case for optimism might not seem like the easiest to make, especially given the significant impact of climate change, even Al Gore believes the future is bright. "It's not as if nothing bad has happened or will happen, but the most extreme forms of damage that can threaten the end of our civilization as we know it can be controlled and can be dealt with," he said. If Gore can be optimistic about climate change, then perhaps there is a reason to be positive even when things seem hopeless, and maybe it's the only choice we have.

In fact, science says optimism might even be hardwired into our very nature. Cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharat, who has been studying optimism for more than a decade, believes we are equipped with an "optimism bias" and that we all see our future selves as better off than we are today. "Most of the people on earth are optimists, even if they don't know it," she said. "The reason for this is that people believe we have more control over our life than we actually do." In almost all areas of our lives, she believes, we expect the future to be brighter than the past. "In general, people expect to be more professionally more successful and healthier than we end up being, and that's true around the world," she adds. "It's true in different ages, it's true in females and males, so it's quite a general thing."

So why are we programmed to think things will always be better in the future when things don't always pan out that way? Shouldn't we follow the logical path and stop expecting greatness? Then we'll never be disappointed but, rather, pleasantly surprised when good things do happen to us. But Sharat says this isn't the case. Contrary to what you might think, optimists are actually happier because they can reframe bad news. "Regardless of the outcome, the pure act of anticipation makes us happy," she says. This is why people prefer Friday to Sunday: "It brings with it the anticipation of the weekend ahead," she explains. "All the plans that you have and that anticipation enhances their well-being."

Life Hack: Not everything is as it seems, so question everything.

Is there something you always believed but then found out it wasn't? For example, did you know that fortune cookies aren't served in China? Or that the Brontosaurus never existed? These are just two of the many things we thought we knew to be true but, in reality, are not. The "Misconceptions" episode aims to move us beyond these conventional wisdoms and question what we think we know to be true.

Take our understanding, or misunderstanding, of Chinese factory workers. We have come to believe, thanks in large part to explosive media reports, that their work conditions are oppressive and inhumane. Leslie Chang, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in China, spent significant time with them to find out what their lives are really like. Ultimately, she discovered that this narrative is not only inaccurate but also disrespectful.

"Everyone always assumes, Oh these poor workers, they're suffering; they're slaves all for the sake of making our iPhones and iPads and iPods, and I was thinking before I went down to these factory towns, that can't be true," she said. "There can't be millions of people who are leaving their villages and going to the cities purely to suffer. I mean, that isn't how things work." So where does this negative narrative come from then? Surely it isn't just made up by the media? Chang says it's all about perspective. "When you only write stories about the abuses and the injuries, it really gives people an impression that these people are just suffering 24/7," she said. In reality, Chang says these workers are just like us, planning their lives toward a brighter future, and that the jobs are just a means to get them there.

Life Hack: Our childhood doesn't define us.

"Growing Up" is for all the moms-to-be and anyone who's endured a challenging childhood—which arguably is all of us, right? This moving hour details the one major plight in life we all endure and survive: growing up. What makes us who we are? Are children's future happiness and success dependent on their parents? Do we give today's kids the adequate tools to problem-solve their future?

One fascinating part of this episode is the revelation offered by Tinkering School founder Gever Tulley. He believes that "when kids are given sharp tools and matches, their imaginations take off and they become better problem-solvers." At his summer school, kids are allowed, even encouraged, to do dangerous things. "The truth is, in an environment where the children realize this is the opposite of being overprotected, we suddenly see the children take more responsibility for themselves," he says. "We cut off our children from valuable opportunities to learn how to interact with the world around them."

So what can we do to raise our kids to be confident, creative, and in control of the environment around them? Tulley says we should let them play with fire, own a pocket knife, throw a spear, deconstruct an appliance from your house, and drive a car. Wait, what? Well, what he really means is let them do it like we did in the old days. Remember when you sat on your parent's lap and steered the vehicle while they did the rest? We all did it, and it was so much fun.

Life Hack: Change is a choice.

Are you ready for that poignant moment in your life when everything changes and your perception does a complete 180? If it happened tomorrow, would you be ready for it? Our life can be confronted with illness, depression, divorce, and accidents that have the power to change the course of our life in an instant. "Turning Points" interviews several people who experienced this pivotal change to discuss how it impacted them and those around them.

Just take surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland, who after a successful career found himself enduring electroshock therapy in a mental hospital for an entire year, until one morning he just decided to "get over it." He explains, "I thought why don't I just blow it away? And I said I know the formula." So what was the formula? "Well, I don't want to shock your listeners, but I'll tell you what is was," he continues. "On one of my walks, I had walked over to a service station, and it was right near the hospital, and I was just joking around with a fellow who pumped gas who said to me, 'You know, doc, you can get better—just say Ah f*ck it,' and I laughed. But that morning I thought, Ah f*ck it—I can do that. It was very hard at first. It was very hard to drive obsessional thoughts outside of my head, but I was just determined that I was well enough now that I could control it, and I did that. After that, it was just a few months later that I was out of the hospital. Thirteen months I'd been there." And that was it.

Similar turning points also happened in this episode, to a former Islamic radical, a crash survivor, and a half-paraplegic writer, who each look back on their lives and think Who was I? Each of them describes the moments their lives radically changed. Ultimately, their stories teach us about the resilience we all have to overcome any adversity. Their stories remind us that sometimes you have to go from one place to get to the next, that in order to appreciate all the beauty within your own life, you have to feel and go through that dark time.

Life Hack: Human beings need beauty to survive.

Did you know that human beings are hardwired to crave and respond to beauty? In fact, science suggests that we actually need beauty just as we need oxygen and water. This TED Radio Hour delves into the fascinating concept and how our survival might actually depend on it. Host Guy Roz investigates philosopher Denis Dutton's provocative theory that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but rather a "core part of human nature with deep evolutionary origins." In his research, Dutton stumbled upon a landscape image that people all over the world almost universally describe as being beautiful, even by those who don't have it. "The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar individual experience," he told the TED crowd.

Psychologist Nancy Etcoff, who studies the science of beauty, echoes Dutton's theory. "I believe that beauty is a very fast, instinctual response. It's a very inspiring response," she says, "from our basic motivations to live and survive to our need for experiences of awe and pleasure and sense of aspiration of what might be perfect in the world. Beauty draws us in. We can't stop looking or listening or touching or thinking about the beautiful, and it takes us outside of ourselves and it motivates us. And so I believe that beauty is essential to life and to happiness."

But do we actually think beauty, or do we feel it? Richard Seymour believes we feel it first before we think it. Through his design work, Seymour explores our response to beauty and the surprising power of objects that exhibit it. "I like to look at people's faces when they're reacting to things," he said. "When someone's reacting to something that they often think is exquisitely beautiful, their face isn't doing what you think it would do. You'd think Wow, they'd be sort of loving this, so there'd be a big smile on their face, but it's not like that. You've usually got steepled brows and more something that looks like pain than that looks like beauty. I think it's the bitter sweetness, the tension between the sweetness and the bitterness, that often creates this heightened sense of beauty in something."

So do we need it in the same way we need food and water? "I think we need beauty to the most astounding level," he tells Raz. "I think if we deprive ourselves of the appreciation and the contact with beauty that it diminishes our existence quite considerably, and that's what makes me suspicious about it."

This intriguing hour will have you questioning beauty, what it means, and why we need it. You'll even shed a tear or two.

Life Hack: Death is inevitable, but that's okay.

Do you have a hard time accepting that everyone eventually dies? What can we do to deal with death and understand it as a normal part of life? "Rethinking Death" asks the hard questions and helps us get one step closer toward accepting the inevitable end we all face.

In this riveting TED Radio Hour, Raz talks to doctors, an EMT, artists, and people who have lost their loved ones or faced death themselves. In each conversation, they all discuss how death can be an important reminder for all of us to truly live, to realize how precious it is, and to cherish every moment.

When death eventually takes someone you love, sharing that grief can bring comfort. This is what grieving artist Candy Chang discovered when she turned an abandoned house into a giant chalkboard with an unfinished prompt: "Before I die, I want to ____." By the next day, the wall was entirely filled out, and it kept growing with words such as "sing for millions," "plant a tree," "hold her one more time," and "be completely myself." The power of this wall is that it didn't make people think about death; quite the opposite, it made them think about life.

"I think contemplating it [death] can lead to a lot of great things," said Chang. "If you bring it up, people often say Don't go there or It's too sad or You don't need to think about it until you're older; none of us know how much time we have left, and it's easy to postpone our deepest needs, it's easy to take the people we love for granted, and it's far too easy to neglect our relationship with ourselves. Death itself isn't negative. Death just is and death is going to happen to all of us, but I think we all carry around a lot of anxieties, and there's great power in knowing you're not alone. You're not alone as you're trying to make sense of your life."

Do you think about death? Does it scare you, or are you at peace with the inevitability that life will one day come to an end?

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