The secrets to finding happiness, in 5 great TED talks

Issariya Morgan

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Recently, there’s been a growing movement afoot – ‘positive selfishness’. It might sound paradoxical, but it’s about celebrating the self, doing things that make you happy and championing your own wellbeing. 

In fact, against all conventional notions of the term ‘selfish’, caring for yourself is an essential part of caring for others. Tune into these five TED talks to uncover new ideas on how we can reimagine the self.

Finding happiness through flow 

Best-selling author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi rose to fame with his self-help book Flow: The Secret to Happiness. One of the leading proponents of positive psychology, Csikszentmihalyi lets us in on a secret: if you want to fuel your creativity, productivity and wellbeing, it’s all about finding your flow.

What is ‘flow’? It’s a mental space that opens up a wellspring of creative energy, taking you out of the arena of the everyday. Csikszentmihalyi compares this to ecstasy – an experience central to all great civilisations. ‘Ecstasy’, a word originally meaning to be taken out of one’s proper place, is a way of stepping into an alternative reality which reveals new layers of the psyche.

Sound intriguing? Tune in to find out more about this fascinating concept.

Read more: 6 ways to create a major life-change

Help others to help yourself

What makes us feel good about ourselves? Psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn gives strength to something we’ve long known to be true: we feel good when we make others feel good.

Dunn highlights a study carried out by herself and her colleagues, where a group of toddlers were given Goldfish crackers. The researchers, examining the emotional responses of the toddlers, found that they were happy when they got the crackers for themselves – but even happier when they were able to give them away.

This inbuilt drive for altruism stays with us into adulthood, explaining why many of us give to charity and will go the extra mile to make people happy. Because acting selflessly, ironically, is the best way to feel good about ourselves. 

Read more: How to recover from a mid-30s burnout

Eat, pray, succeed

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, talks us through her personal journey. She charts her development from dreaming of being a writer, through her waitressing years and finally to her breakthrough moment.

She explains how the experiences of failure and success shape our inner lives in strange ways:

“For most of your life, you live out your existence here in the middle of the chain of human experience where everything is normal and reassuring and regular, but failure catapults you abruptly way out over here into the blinding darkness of disappointment. Success catapults you just as abruptly but just as far way out over here into the equally blinding glare of fame and recognition and praise… The only thing that your subconscious is capable of feeling is the absolute value of this emotional equation, the exact distance that you have been flung from yourself. And there’s a real equal danger in both cases of getting lost out there in the hinterlands of the psyche.”

What’s important, in both of these psychologically extreme cases, is having a sense of home to return to – a point within the self.

Read more: In the age of single, is marriage overrated?

Embracing myself

Actor Thandie Newton delves into questions about the self and the other, and how our sense of identity evolves through our lives. After birth, ‘our fundamental sense of oneness’ with our surroundings is lost very quickly, as we’re socialised into our identities. But what happens when our sense of self clashes head-on with the idea of self imposed by society? Suddenly, we become aware that we are seen as the ‘other’.

Newton talks about what it was like growing up on the coast of England in the 1970s, born to a black mother and white father.

“The self likes to fit, to see itself replicated, to belong. That confirms its existence and its importance… Without it, we literally can’t interface with others. We can’t hatch plans and climb that stairway of popularity, of success. But my skin color wasn’t right. My hair wasn’t right. My history wasn’t right. My self became defined by otherness, which meant that, in that social world, I didn’t really exist. And I was “other” before being anything else — even before being a girl.”

What’s the antidote to the feeling of otherness? Newton says it’s all about reconnecting to the sense of oneness, realising that our small fragile identities form a web of infinite connections.

In embracing this powerful notion, the barriers between self and other are broken down, allowing us to realise how interconnected we truly are.

Read more: Smash the art of self-confidence with these TED talks

Raw, strange magic

In a similar vein, Casey Gerald dives into what it means to truly embrace yourself in a society which keeps telling you that you don’t fit in.

“We’re taught to turn ourselves and our work into little nuggets that are easily digestible; taught to mutilate ourselves so that we make sense to others, to be a stranger to ourselves so the right people might befriend us and the right schools might accept us, and the right jobs might hire us, and the right parties might invite us, and, someday, the right God might invite us to the right heaven and close his pearly gates behind us, so we can bow down to Him forever and ever.”

When you’re met with hostility against your innate sense of self, how do you reconnect with your essence and channel the magic within you? It’s all about courage. The strength to have faith in yourself, to stand with the ‘wretched of the earth’ and build a better society together. 

One clear thing emerges from all of these talks: by reconnecting with the deeper levels of the self, not only will we find happiness on a personal level, but we can also bring happiness to those around us. This is the power of positive selfishness.

Read more: Six TED talks to fuel your self-development


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