Happiness at Work

Best TED talks about Happiness at Work, Reviewed and Curated for 2024

As you plan for 2024, watch these must-see TED Talks: Happiness at Work. From evolutionary biology to what Freud got wrong, here's what you must know.

In February 2024, nearly two decades ago, cognitive researcher Nancy Etcoff takes the main stage of the TED conference and says:

“The pursuit of happiness is obligatory. We are wired to pursue happiness and to want more and more of it.” 

This, and the rest of the talk, grabbed the attention of Chris Anderson, the head of TED, who listed it as one of his five all-time favorites.

I believe that pursuing happiness extends to work, where we spend most of our lives and face opportunities and challenges.

And as Chris mentions, there is an entire playlist of TED talks with all kinds of takes on happiness to help us along.

So, in our quest to bring more happiness at work, let’s dive into the three best TED Talks on this topic. 

Bonus: If you want to build stronger bonds with your team, you can use our TED Together team activity, watch the video together, and share key lessons amongst each other.

Also check out our 8 Secrets to Happiness at Work.

1: Shawn Achor: The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance

Best for: People wanting to understand how we can take charge to be more successful

Many years ago, Shawn’s talk introduced me to the world of positive psychology and happiness at work. It inspired me to quit my job, focus on what motivates me, and build my life around it. 

The talk offers a compelling look at how positivity can enhance productivity and performance. Importantly, Shawn introduces the idea that happiness is a precursor to success, not just a result of it

He challenges the conventional belief that hard work leads to success, which leads to happiness, suggesting that this formula is backward. Instead, he argues that nurturing a positive mindset can significantly increase our productivity and chances of success.

The talk is a refreshing and optimistic perspective on achieving personal and professional goals, making it a must-watch if you’re interested in the intersection of psychology, productivity, and happiness. The fun anecdotes, including one about his sister becoming a unicorn, are the cherry on top.  

Featured quote from “The Happiness Advantage”: 

"Instead of the formula being success leads to happiness, it's actually happiness that leads to success." – Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance

2: Nancy Etcof: "Happiness and Its Surprises" 

Best for: people interested in the scientific and psychological aspects of happiness

Chris’ favorite, Nancy Etcoff's TED Talk, "Happiness and Its Surprises," offers a deep dive into human happiness, exploring its relationship with our biological and psychological systems. 

For one, Nancy challenges Freud's idea that happiness and unhappiness are opposite ends of the same spectrum. Instead, she posits that they are separate entities, each with its distinct influence on human behavior and experience.  

What I love most about this talk is how she explores happiness's neural and evolutionary underpinnings. 

For example, Nancy delves into the role of dopamine in the reward system and how our emotions are complex responses to opportunities and challenges rather than just feelings. Who would have thought that?

She also touches on the social aspects of happiness, emphasizing how much we need human connection (see my article about the importance of work community) and the negative impact of focusing too much on the self. 

Nancy’s TED Talk stands out in how it examines happiness from a biological, evolutionary, and social perspective. She challenges conventional views and encourages a deeper understanding of what truly constitutes happiness in human life.

Featured quote from “Happiness and Its Surprises”: 

“Happiness and unhappiness are not endpoints of a single continuum. The Freudian model is really one continuum that, as you get less miserable, you get happier. And that isn't true -- when you get less miserable, you get less miserable. And that happiness is a whole other end of the equation.” – Nancy Etcof, "Happiness and Its Surprises." 

3. Dan Gilbert: "The Surprising Science of Happiness"

Best for: Those curious about how our brains perceive and create happiness

Dan Gilbert's TED Talk delves into the cognitive science behind happiness. 

Like Shawn’s talk, he challenges the notion that happiness comes solely from external circumstances, highlighting how our brains can synthesize happiness. 

Dan emphasizes the remarkable ability of the human brain, particularly the pre-frontal cortex, to imagine, predict, and interpret our experiences in ways that shape our sense of happiness.

Gilbert's approach is unique in focusing on the brain's role in constructing happiness rather than just responding to external events. 

The secrets of Happiness at Work, according to Dan Gilbert
Not the Secrets of Happiness at Work, according to Dan Gilbert

He discusses the concept of "synthetic happiness," where we create happiness. According to Dan, people mistakenly think that the happiness we can create is less quality than the happiness we get naturally. 

Dan argues that synthetic happiness is a worthwhile pursuit and that our brain can create quality irrespective of external circumstances, challenging the common belief that happiness comes only from achieving specific goals. 

Featured quote from “The Surprising Science of Happiness”:

"What is it about a big brain that nature was so eager for every one of us to have one? Well, it turns out when brains triple in size, they don’t just get three times bigger; they gain new structures. And one of the main reasons that our brain got so big is because it got a new part, called the frontal lobe, particularly, a part called the pre-frontal cortex." – Dan Gilbert, "The Surprising Science of Happiness."

The Bottom Line

I hope that watching one or more of these TED Talks about Happiness at Work will help you agree with me that happiness is in our hands. And that we can and should actively pursue it.

Gen Z and Millennials are more stressed than ever, and work plays a huge role in this. Practicing the right habits and having a mindset primed for happiness will help us get there.

How about you?

What’s your favorite TED Talk about Happiness at Work? Message me on LinkedIn or send me an email here – I’d love to include it. 

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