I watched a TedTalk about happiness at work every day for 14 days. What did I learn?

Kelly McGonigal speaks at TEDGlobal 2013: Think Again. June 12-15, 2013, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: James Duncan Davidson / TED

by Lucas Swennen

Every time it happened, I realized: It’s so easy to spend half an hour or more on your Twitter feed just looking at posts, scrolling through comments, learning nothing. So I decided to use that time differently. In the two weeks before the end of the year, I watched at least 1 TedTalk every day about happiness at work or related subjects. And then briefly comment about it on LinkedIn. My #TedTalkChallenge was born. I searched TedTalks about Happiness at Work, went through the most viewed TedTalks and got tips from connections on LinkedIn. That led to the list that you can see at the bottom of this post.

Of course it was nice to spend my day a little different, get inspiration and post something about it. But what are my insights after those 14 days? Below is an attempt to clarify this in 4 points.

1. There is a lot of scientific evidence for happiness at work.

Almost all TedTalks I viewed refer to scientific research that has been done. Of course I also selected the presentations for that :). Martin Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, discusses the start of positive psychology and the foundation of happiness (at work) in his presentation. At the end of his presentation, Shawn Achor quickly lists some of the benefits. If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present:

  • your brain functions better
  • your intelligence goes up
  • your creativity level rises
  • you are more energetic
  • you are better at sales
  • doctors are faster and more accurate at giving the correct diagnosis

2. Purpose, Flow, Fun & Friendship are the pillars of Happiness at Work

In the various presentations, topics are being discussed that we have bundled together in our P3F-model: Purpose, Flow, Fun & Friendship.

That is not entirely illogical, since we based that model on, for example, the scientific insights of Martin Seligman. In his presentation he talks about Meaning, Engagement and Positive emotions. Later he added Relations and Achievement to this, which resulted in his PERMA model.

I will link insights from the presentations to the three components:


Dan Ariely tells in his presentation (see day 6 below) about the importance of meaning in work. Using great examples from experiments, he indicates that it is important for managers to invest time and effort in giving attention to meaning, so that employees are more involved in their work. He concludes that in a knowledge economy, meaning has become more important than efficiency.

Amy Wrzesniewski talks in her presentation about Job Crafting and what it does for employees, including the meaning and purpose of the work. She discusses the benefits of job crafting for employees and organizations. Employees are happier at work, more committed to work, productivity increases and they are more involved in the organization.

Dan Pink indicates in his presentation that the system of carrots & sticks is not only outdated, but not even scientifically substantiated (for the type of business of today’s Western society). He contrasts this with intrinsic motivation and this can be stimulated by looking at Autonomy (the urge to direct our own lives), Mastery (the desire to get better at something that matters) & Purpose (the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves).


Martin Seligman indicates that positive psychology is about, among other things, looking at when people flourish, when they can make use of their strengths. Amy Wrzesniewski defines job crafting as: “what employees do to redesign their own jobs in ways that foster engagement at work, job satisfaction, resilience and thriving”. Things that lead to more satisfaction.

Appreciation & recognition are very important. In his presentation (day 6), Dan Ariely discusses an experiment in which the participants complete an easy task. Thereafter there were three options: The person receiving the paper looks at it, says “aha” and puts the sheet on a stack. In the second option, the sheet is placed directly on the stack. With the third option, the sheet of paper is passed directly through the shredder. If you look at how long the participants go on, options 2 and 3 are almost the same. Not giving attention or recognition feels almost the same as destroying your work immediately.

Fun & Friendship

Robert Waldinger is very clear about this in his presentation. What insight provides 75 years of research about what makes people happy: ‘Good relationships keeps us happier and healthier. Period. “

Brené Brown also indicates it in her presentation: “Connection is why we are here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. She also points the opposite: shame makes us think there is something about us that makes us unworthy of connecting with others. That you are not good enough. So we have to create an environment where you can be who you are (imperfect, vulnerable).

The most remarkable and unexpected for me was the insight from Kelly McGonigal’s presentation who indicated that it is precisely in times of stress that we need each other. The hormone oxytocin ensures that, precisely in order to be able to deal with stress better, we seek connections with others.

And how do you seek connection with others? Celeste Headlee gives 10 tips in her presentation on how to really have a conversation with others.

3. Employee Experience is still in its infancy

At the HappinessBureau, we believe that the happiness at work medal has two sides: that of the employee and that of the organization. Above, using the P3F model, I described the employee side. The other side, that of the organization, is called Employee Experience and has 5 parts: the HEART model.

Given the challenge of 14 days, I have seen fewer presentations that – afterwards – fit the parts of the HEART model. In the talks I did watch, two things were relevant from this perspective: Leadership and How to ensure a good experience. These presentations were not new, they have been around for years. Apparently it is difficult to apply things that are substantiated, that we know work, that we believe in, in daily practice.


Simon Sinek makes it very clear in his presentation that you as an organization can create the environment, enabling employees to do remarkable things. And that’s where leadership can make the difference: “it’s the leader that sets the tone”. It is the way to enable trust and collaboration, which ensures that people will use their best qualities. Stanley McCrystal points out that new circumstances and working with new generations of employees, including those outside the military, meant that he had to find other ways to communicate and to give and receive confidence and trust.

Create a great experience

Daniel Kahneman beautifully indicates in his presentation the distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self. Dealing with time is the big difference. A two week vacation, where the second week was the same as the first week, is nice for the experiencing self. The remembering self does not appreciate it, because no new experiences have been added. A good experience does not always have to be a 9 or a 10. A story, an experience is determined by changes, significant moments and the end. Very relevant to take with you if you want to create a beautiful employee experience.

Barry Schwartz talks about the abundance of choices and that it makes people more unhappy than happier. Malcolm Gladwell points out that “one size fits all” does not work and shows that clusters of needs work well.

4. How do you get started?

Wonderful, all those insights, but how do you take the next step? How do you progress? There too, the various presentations offered valuable insights:

  • Gratitude is important to your own happiness. Keep a gratitude journal for 21 days. See the tips from Shawn Achor and Martin Seligman.
  • Listen better. Both to have better conversations (Celeste Headlee) and to be a better leader (Simon Sinek and Stanley McChrystal).
  • Getting started with job crafting in your organization? Provide more autonomy; use evaluations of how job crafting can help employees while aligning with the goals of the organization; communicate the strategic goals of an organization in such a way that employees can join them; discuss in your team how tasks can be divided differently (Amy Wrzesniewski).
  • Use the tips of behavior change. Make use of: social incentives (how others do it); immediate rewards (direct reward); progress monitoring (Tali Sharot, Dan Ariely -day 14-).

Here the TedTalks I have been watching:

Photo: James Duncan Davidson / TED. License

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