6 Takeaways From Yale’s Most Popular Class: The Science of Well-Being

"The things you THINK will make you happy probably won't"

By Sandy Cohen
February 10, 2020

The most popular class in Yale University’s 318-year history is about how to be happier.

Professor Laurie Santos created Psychology and the Good Life in response to what she characterized as a “mental health crisis” among college students. One study found that more than half of all Yale undergrads sought mental-health services during their years on campus. Other research shows that depression is on the rise in the US, particularly among young people.

Psychology and the Good Life was such a sensation when Santos introduced it in 2018 that it overtook Yale’s largest campus venue, a concert hall. With nearly 1,200 students enrolled, administrators worried it would detract from other psychology offerings.

The class was offered only once at the Connecticut campus, but it’s since become accessible to everyone through Santos’ podcast, The Happiness Lab, and a free online course that’s drawn more than a million students to date.

With a warm, accessible style that belies her Harvard and Yale pedigrees, Santos shares insights from positive psychology, scientific findings about happiness and tactics for behavior change in the online version of her class, The Science of Well-Being.

Here are the top takeaways from the 10-week program:

— Knowing Is Not Half the Battle
Contrary to what G.I. Joe may have led you to believe as a kid, knowledge isn’t enough to bring about real change. Santos describes this as the “G.I. Joe fallacy.”  That’s because knowing what kinds of things make people happier is different from actually doing those things, and it’s the doing that increases happiness. “Research shows that increasing your own well-being takes daily, intentional effort over long periods of time,” Santos says.

— The Things You Think Will Make You Happy Probably Won’t
One of the main themes of Santos’ class is that more money, fancy things and a perfect body won’t make us as happy as we think they will. “So many of our intuitions about happiness are totally wrong,” she says. She cites studies showing that beyond a salary of about $75,000 a year, more income doesn’t lead to more happiness. Being materialistic actually results in lower life satisfaction. Even getting married only boosts happiness for a couple of years, then we go back to baseline. This phenomenon is known as hedonic adaptation: the human tendency to get used to things, positive or negative, so that the emotions they cause eventually dissipate. What was exciting or upsetting at first quickly becomes the norm.

— We Can Alter Our Happiness Levels:
While genetics and life circumstances play a role in overall happiness, they aren’t the whole story.

Santos points to research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, who says genes count for about 50 percent of one’s happiness. Life circumstances make up 10 percent, and the other 40 percent is up to each individual’s intentional thoughts and actions. That’s why happy habits make a difference.

— Our Minds Have Natural “Annoying” Tendencies That Confuse Us About What Leads to Happiness:
Santos says there are “annoying features” of the human mind that trip us up on our road to happy lives.

Hedonic adaptation is one. We also fail to consider hedonic adaptation when thinking about what would make us happy. “We don’t realize our minds are built to get used to stuff,” Santos says.

Another annoying human tendency is that we think in relative terms rather than absolutes. To illustrate this mental quirk, Santos points to research on Olympic medal winners. Studies found that silver medal winners didn’t appear as happy as those claiming gold or bronze. Researchers attributed this to relative thinking: The silver winner was just a shade away from gold, but the bronze winner almost didn’t get a medal at all. Instead of looking at absolutes — winning a silver medal at the Olympics — we judge through social comparison and consider things relative to what’s around us. That’s why social media causes FOMO. 

— To Get Around Our Mental Tendencies, We Need to Make Happiness-Inducing Behaviors Part of Everyday Life: 
“We need to be intentional about making things better because our minds won’t naturally do these things,” Santos says. 

That means actively prioritizing regular exercise (30 minutes of exercise at least three days a week has been shown to be as effective as medication in reducing depression) and at least seven hours of sleep most nights of the week.

We can outsmart hedonic adaptation by investing in experiences instead of things — concert tickets instead of new boots. “We don’t adapt to experiences,” Santos says, “so experiences can make us happier than stuff, even if your intuition tells you otherwise.”

Practicing gratitude short-circuits our tendency toward social comparison. Focusing on the things you’re grateful for means you’re not thinking about things you don’t have (like a gold medal).

Being kind to others makes us happy, as does giving to charity. “Just thinking about kind acts you’ve done makes you happier,” Santos says.

— Creating Habits Takes Work: 
To benefit from any of the above practices, they have to become habits. Santos spends the final week of lectures sharing strategies for making new habits stick. 

She suggests creating supportive circumstances, such as packing a gym bag the night before to increase your chances of exercising in the morning, or leaving a gratitude journal in a prominent place. 

You can also curb unhappy habits by making them less available, like deleting social-media apps from your phone, for example.

Hanging around people who already have the good habits you want to pick up is helpful.

As one of Santos’ colleagues says: “Happiness is like a leaky tire. You’ve got to keep pumping air into it to keep it inflated.”

About the Writer:
Sandy Cohen is a Los Angeles-based writer, nature lover and fitness enthusiast. She spent more than a dozen years covering Hollywood for The Associated Press before shifting her focus to health and wellness, both in writing and in life.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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