Meaning and Purpose
Meaning and Purpose
The Secret to Happiness
In 2018, Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University, noticed that many of her students were depressed, anxious, and suffering panic attacks. “They were fast-forwarding through their lives,” says Santos. Worried about them, she developed a course on happiness, which became the most popular course in Yale’s history. Last year, when the pandemic broke, the course was renamed “The Science of Well-Being” and reconfigured for a global audience. In the first month, three million people around the world signed up.
“We’re putting a ton of energy into becoming happy, but we’re doing it wrong, “says Professor Santos. She believes the modern world, which prioritizes material wealth and accolades on our résumé, tends to lead us away from our innate state of happiness. “We need to go back to our natural state of having fun, being present.”
She makes a distinction between being happy in your life and being happy with your life. Many people with plenty of money, a nice car, a big house would appear to have a happy life. But wealth, she says, doesn’t predict happiness and conveniences don’t translate into being happy with your life. “We’ve been sold this lie that money and success and accolades are going to make us happy but that’s not how it works.”
Research shows that circumstances don’t matter as much as one would think. A 2009 study showed that happiness does increase for those at the bottom financially who gain wealth, but there’s a point at which—the researchers determined it was $75,000—more money does not equate to greater happiness. “Our minds lie to us about happiness,” says Santos. “We often think, if I could only get X I’d be happy.” People think of happiness as a destination, but “it’s more like a leaky tire—it will go flat and then moments of joy will help boost it back up.”
The keys to happiness, she says, are maximizing social connections, being grateful, being present, and exercising and sleeping more. Social connections, she says, are a necessary condition for happiness. The pandemic has removed many of these opportunities, even for what she calls “weak social interactions” like chatting with the barista at the coffee shop. “We have to build them in as they don’t happen naturally anymore.”
A pre-COVID-19 study on happiness and social interaction, out of the University of Chicago, showed that people who thought they would enjoy the solitude of a train commute with headphones on or working on their computer actually ended up feeling isolated, while those who made meaningful social connections during their commute got a boost of happiness.
Technology, says Professor Santos, is a double-edged sword. Platforms such as Zoom allow for social connections during the pandemic and can be useful. But social media and texting are of what she calls low “nutritional” value when it comes to social interaction. Studies have shown that people who have their phones with them smile 30% less than those without phones. She advises developing a more mindful, intentional relationship with your phone and asking yourself why you’re picking it up and what else could you be doing.
Another example of where our happiness intuition is wrong is gratitude. “We might think that griping about something will make us feel better, but the opposite is true.” She recommends writing down three to five things a night that you’re grateful for and, importantly, expressing your gratitude to people. One study showed that feelings of well-being can last for weeks after doing something nice for someone.
Ultimately, says Professor Santos, the interventions we all can take for a happier life are simple and free of charge.
Dr. Rangan Chatterjee (Host). (2021, January 27). The surprising truth about happiness with Professor Laurie Santos [Audio podcast episode]. In Feel Better Live More. https://drchatterjee.com/the-surprising-truth-about-happiness-with-professor-laurie-santos/