Are you happy? Scientifically speaking, do you have all of the components in your life that contribute to true happiness and well-being?
Dr. Laurie Santos is a professor at Yale University, among many other things, and she teaches a course called “Psychology and the Good Life”. Dr. Santos was motivated to design the class to address the alarming increase of young adults facing stress, anxiety, and depression, by leading her students through the research and scientifically-backed elements of happiness and well-being. That course became the most popular course ever taught at Yale University.
Now, she’s transformed the course into an incredibly successful podcast called The Happiness Lab, with a mission to share the latest research of happiness and well-being. As Dr. Santos shares in our conversation, it’s not always the things we suspect that bring us true happiness.
I love when we have the opportunity to speak with experts like Dr. Santos, and I’m personally excited to ask her about the misconceptions of happiness, methods of self-care that are actually scientifically supported, and what she anticipates will challenge us as we emerge from over a year the isolation and trauma brought on by the pandemic.
Where It All Started
When Dr. Laurie Santos became head of a college within Yale University, it put her into a unique position. She was living in dorms, eating in the dining halls, spending time where students spent time, and she noticed the concerning mental health crisis among her students. She’s been an academic psychologist “forever, basically” she said, but seeing the challenges of her students upclose made her really want to help them.
“I really wanted to give them strategies that were evidence-based that they could use to feel better. And because, you know, I’m a nerdy professor, the best way to do that was to teach a new class on it,” she chuckled.
Laurie thought that her new class would attract 30 or 40 students… But nearly a quarter of the entire campus showed up. Over 1000 students wanted to learn from her and the Psychology and the Good Life class she created. It is now the biggest class in Yale’s history.
That course has expanded into a podcast on the same subject, and many other off-shoots to help people, not just students, address their own happiness and well-being with evidence-based tools.
What is Happiness?
The definition of happiness is not universal. “There’s probably as many definitions of happiness as there are people,” Dr. Santos began. “These days psychologists think of happiness in two ways — happiness is having joy in your life and it’s also having joy with your life.”
She went on to explain that being happy in your life is really about experiencing positive emotions. Your ratio of laughter, joy, and all the good stuff should be high relative to the negative stuff like sadness, anger and so on. It’s not about eliminating negative emotions, she cautioned. Those are part of the human experience. Happiness is about the ratio.
The second part of happiness is joy with your life. How satisfied are you with your life? Laurie explained that her class helps students with both areas. “I want you to experience more positive emotion, but I also want you to have more life satisfaction,” she explained.
Dr. Santos explained that one of the first misconceptions that many people have about happiness is that it is about our circumstances, that we have to change something about ourselves or our lives to become happier. The concept is nuanced, but in general, she explained, “Changing your circumstances isn’t going to work in the way we think.”
Instead, if it’s happiness you’re after, it’s about changing your behavior and mindset, not your circumstances. Dr. Santos began, “We need to develop, first off, a mindset of presence. In this crazy distracted culture that we’re all in, it’s really hard to just be there and notice… Research really shows that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Practicing meditation and mindfulness can help with this mindset of presence.
Gratitude is also an important part of happiness, because gratitude gives us the ability to cope with the difficult things in life. She explained, “The research shows that if we want to have the bandwidth to deal with that nasty stuff, taking a time to experience a little bit of appreciation, thankfulness and gratitude is really the way to go.”
Research also shows that grateful people tend to eat healthier, exercise, take care of their bodies, save for the future, and do other challenging things now to help their future selves.
Though no one knows for sure what lies ahead for our generation and everyone who walked through the collective stress, fear, trauma, and hardship of the pandemic, Dr. Santos discussed the concept of post-traumatic growth. We’ve heard of post-traumatic stress, but there’s also a lot of evidence that after trauma, some people get stronger.
“The research suggests that we become more resilient. You don’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” Dr. Santos began, “There’s also evidence for post-traumatic growth in terms of our social connection and other habits. Research shows that when you go through trauma, you recognize the people who really matter in life.”
Dr. Santos hopes that life post-pandemic will bring with it a balance of post-traumatic growth that contributes to our future happiness and well-being. Be believes it’s possible with mindset work.
Scientifically Backed Self-Care
The self-care movement has really exploded as our generation pulls away from the hustle culture and instead prioritizes wellbeing. Dr. Santos explained that although the term is “self” care, the evidence backed ways to improve wellbeing through self-care are actually oriented around other people and relationships.
“Research shows that a necessary condition for high happiness is the feeling that you’re socially connected,” she explained.
Even more than that, Dr. Santos shared, “The research shows that self care can really be about doing for others, too. The science shows that people who donate more money to charity, people who spend their time on volunteer activities, they’re happier than people that don’t, controlled for income and controlled for the amount of free time you have.”
You might think that a bubble bath with a glass of rose is what you need to be happier, but science indicates that we get a bigger happiness boost if we spend our money and time on other people.
Can Money Buy Happiness?
The age old question — is money connected to our happiness and wellbeing? Dr. Santos is the prime person to ask, and her answer is really enlightening.
First, if your circumstances are dire and you do not earn a living wage and you can’t put food on the table, yes, money will improve your happiness and wellbeing. But once you get past a certain point, the correlation of money to happiness drops off.
Dr. Santos said, “There’s evidence that in the U.S. right now, it drops off at around $75,000. That’s the point at which if you double or triple your salary after that, you’re just not going to get any corresponding benefit in terms of reducing your stress or improving your positive emotion… That’s a tough pill to swallow, I think, for a lot of really driven people.”
For entrepreneurs, the motivating factor for becoming an entrepreneur, besides the paycheck, is a big indicator of if, why, or how it increases your happiness. She explained, “If you are pursuing a career or a job that allows you to exercise the particular strengths that you value the most in life, what some scientists call your signature strengths, that’s going to be a career that fulfills you. It kind of has nothing to do with money in these ways.”
More from Dr. Laurie Santos
What is time affluence and time famine, and what do they mean for our happiness? What is time confetti and how can you use it to promote happiness and wellbeing? Dr. Santos walks through so many mind-shifting way to understand happiness and how to promote in our lives — you’ll probably be surprised by what the science shows!
To learn more from Dr. Laurie Santos, hit play on the full episode and find it wherever you get your podcasts, and you can tune into The Happiness Lab podcast with Dr. Laurie Santos wherever you listen to Goal Digger. You can take her famous Yale class, The Science of Wellbeing for free on Coursera.