Intro to Happiness: Yale Professor Laurie Santos Brings Popular Course to Podcast

Laurie Santos’s class for Yale undergrads, Psychology and the Good Life—on the science of happiness—became so popular that the registrar had to move it to a larger venue; when she offered it online, 400,000 people signed up; now, she’s made its lessons available as a podcast. We asked her why she decided to launch the podcast and what we can expect to learn from it.

Dave Nussbaum: Tell us about your class and why you’ve now decided to do a podcast?

Laurie Santos: The class started as a reaction to what I was seeing on campus. A few years ago, I became head of Silliman College at Yale. As a head of a residential college, I live on campus with students and see their lives a bit more in the trenches than I did as a faculty member. And what I saw was shocking. This generation of students is way more stressed, depressed, lonely, and anxious than any other previous generation. And so I wanted to do something to help. I thought teaching students some of the latest insights in positive psychology and behavioral economics—what they can do to feel better and set up better habits—might help.

What I didn’t expect was that the class would go totally viral. Over a thousand students signed up, which meant that just under one out of every four students decided to take the course. But what was even more unexpected was the fact that the class went viral off campus too. I was on lots of daytime news shows and had articles about the class in over 30 languages internationally. It made me realize that a lot of people need these insights, so we put the class online for free on Yale’s site. Over 400,000 learners from more than 200 countries have taken it.

The biggest misconception is that our minds have accurate intuitions about the kind of thing that makes us happy.

But I got lots of emails from people around the world asking me to share the content in a new way. Not everyone can take a whole Yale class, and not everyone has time to read an entire book on the science of happiness. But lots of people have a half hour or so free to listen to a podcast. So we decided to turn the content into podcast form. And then The Happiness Lab was born!

In your first episode you talk about being “happy in your life” and being “happy with your life.” Can you say a bit more about how those two are different and whether you can have one without the other (and as a cheeky follow-up: which one’s better)?

We don’t have perfect self-report measures of well-being in our field, but two that seem to track people’s behavior really well are their affective evaluations of their own well-being (so, in some sense, being happy in your life) and their cognitive evaluations of their own happiness (that is, being happy with your life). Different scales tend to track each of these different parts of well-being. And they can co-vary. I have lots of friends with newborn babies, and I think they embody high ratings on being happy with their life even though they’re often tired and not feeling great in their life. I think your best bet is to try to maximize both of these if you can.

You make the argument that change is possible with respect to your happiness—why is that an important argument to make?

Well, it’s partly an important argument because it’s true. Lots of research shows that we can improve our well-being if we do the right things. But I also think this idea violates people’s intuitions. I get lots of comments from people telling me that your happiness levels are built in, or they’re due to circumstances that are unlikely to change. But this seems to be wrong—we can do better—which I think is a super hopeful message. It also makes me remember that the hard work of changing your habits is really worth it. 

Laurie Santos, Yale Professor and host of The Happiness Lab

You also say that change is hard. I’m sure you can’t just use shortcuts, but is there a good way for people to get started that’s not too daunting (besides listening to your podcast)?

Well, one thing social science has taught us over the last few decades is that most behavior change is really hard. Forming new habits and breaking old ones is really tough. The good news is that science also gives us lots of tips for how to do it more easily. We can recruit social support. We can harness what we now understand about how habits form and change. And science can also tell us the kinds of strategies that are really going to work for making us feel better. So I think realizing there are answers out there can make things feel a little less daunting.

What’s a misconception about well-being that you’d like to clear up?

The biggest one is that our minds have accurate intuitions about the kind of thing that makes us happy. We think it’s about money or better circumstances (think new job, new relationship, etc.), but it’s really about simpler things—being more social, taking time for gratitude, being more mindful. Our minds lead us astray, which is annoying but super important to realize.

We’re better giving ourselves a little time off and investing in our free time rather than in money.

What’s a piece of well-being advice for parents to help them raise happy kids?

One of my favorite pieces of advice is in our episode “Don’t Think of a White Bear”— suppressing our emotions isn’t just bad for us, but it also has a negative effect on our kids. We’re better off cultivating a sense of acceptance rather than avoidance to make the family happier too.

What piece of well-being science have you found most helpful in your life?

For me, it’s the idea of time affluence—we’re better giving ourselves a little time off and investing in our free time rather than in money. This one is super hard to do for me, but it makes a huge difference in my wellbeing.