Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy, but Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos does.
As Dr. Santos points out during the above appearance on The Well, the goals of natural selection have been achieved as long as humans survive and reproduce, but most of us crave something more to consider life worth living.
With depression rising to near epidemic levels on college campuses and elsewhere, it’s worth taking a look at our ingrained behavior, and maybe making some modifications to boost our happiness levels.
Psychology and the Good Life, Dr. Santos’ massive twice weekly lecture class that actively tackles ways of edging closer to happiness, is the most popular course in Yale’s more than 300-year history.
Do we detect some resistance?
Positive psychology – or the science of happiness – is a pretty crowded field lately, and the overwhelming demand created by great throngs of people longing to feel better has attracted a fair number of grifters willing to impart their proven methodologies to anyone enrolling in their paid online courses.
By contrast, Dr. Santos not only has that Yale pedigree, she also cites other respected academics such as the University of Chicago’s Nicholas Epley, a social cognition specialist who believes undersociality, or a lack of face-to-face engagement, is making people miserable, and Harvard’s Dan Gilbert and the University of Virginia’s Timothy Wilson, who co-authored a paper on “miswanting“, or the tendency to inaccurately predict what will truly result in satisfaction and happiness.
Yale undergrad Mickey Rose, who took Psychology and the Good Life in the spring of 2022 to fulfill a social science credit, told the Yale Daily News that her favorite part of the class was that “everything was cited, everything had a credible source and study to back it up:”
I’m a STEM major and it’s kind of my overall personality type to question claims that I find not very believable. Obviously the class made a lot of claims about money, grades, happiness, that are counterintuitive to most people and to Yale students especially.
With Psychology and the Good Life now available to the public for free on Coursera, even skeptics might consider giving Dr. Santos’ recommended “re-wirement practices” a peek, though be forewarned, you should be prepared to put them into practice before making pronouncements as to their efficacy.
It’s all pretty straightforward stuff, starting with “use your phone to actually be a phone”, meaning call a friend or family member to set up an in person get together rather than scrolling through endless social media feeds.
Other common sense adjustments include looking beyond yourself to help by volunteering, resolving to adopt a glass-is-half-full type attitude, cultivating mindfulness, making daily entries in a gratitude journal, and becoming less sedentary.
(You might also give Dr. Santos’ Happiness Lab podcast a go…)
Things to guard against are measuring your own happiness against the perceived happiness of others and “impact bias” – overestimating the duration and intensity of happiness that is the expected result of some hotly anticipated event, acquisition or change in social standing.
Below Dr. Santos gives a tour of the Good Life Center, an on-campus space that stressed out, socially anxious students can visit to get help putting some of those re-wirement practices into play.
Sign up for Coursera’s 10-week Science of Well-Being course here.
– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.