In this episode, we have the fascinating Dr. Laurie Santos. Dr. Santos is a professor of psychology at Yale University where, among other things, she teaches the school’s most popular class ever. It’s titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” and it explores what science tells us about the things that truly make us happy — and how we might find more happiness in our own lives.
She also has a podcast called “The Happiness Lab,” which I’ve listened to and recommend.
In this episode, during a wide-ranging conversation, Santos explains…
- Why the things we think will lead to happiness often don’t
- What we ought to pursue instead
- How to live a more giving (and happier) life
- Why “the path to happiness is paved with gratitude”
- The opportunity cost of self-care
- The universal rule about happiness and charity
You can press play above to hear all of this from Santos, or click here to stream the conversation directly. You’ll also find a transcript of the conversation below.
Laurie Santos Interview
FRANK BLAKE: I’m curious: When did the idea for this course come to you?
LAURIE SANTOS: The class came in part because I took on a new role at Yale. So I’ve been teaching at Yale as a professor for over a decade. But just a couple of years ago I took on a new role where I became one of Yale’s Heads of Colleges.
A Head of College lives on campus with students. They’re kind of like a faculty presence in student life, which means I live with the students, I eat with them in the dining hall, I see them in the coffee shop. And that was when I realized that college students aren’t as happy as I remember being when I was in college.
You know, we’re living through this so-called mental health crisis among young people where over 40% of students report being too depressed to function. Over 60% say that they feel overwhelmingly anxious — you know, you see suicidal thoughts. And more than one in 10 like regularly, you know, so students just weren’t as happy as I remembered.
And that was particularly frustrating for me as a psychologist, because we know lots about the simple kinds of things you can do to feel happier on a regular basis. And so the class came about because I thought, well, I should teach students all these insights. I should teach them what they’re doing wrong and what they could do better to really improve their wellbeing. And so I slapped all these insights together as part of a new class.
I assumed like 30 or 40 students would take it. You could imagine my shock when I walked into a classroom of 1200 students.
FRANK BLAKE: Twelve hundred students?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. Just under 1200. It was around one out of every four students enrolled in the class the first time it was taught. Which I think was cool. I think it shows that students are voting with their feet, they don’t like this culture of feeling overwhelmed and stressed and so self-focused. And I think they really wanted some scientific answers about what they could do better.
FRANK BLAKE: How much did you know about the science around this — the psychology of happiness — when you started? I mean, had you already done a lot of work on that?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah, it’s not exactly my own personal research focus. I more focused on sort of the origins of cognition and cognitive biases. But it was really related in part because what we know about the science of happiness is that we kind of get it wrong.
We have these strong intuitions about the things we think will make us happier: more money, higher salary, bigger house, the perfect relationship, all this stuff. It turns out that a lot of those intuitions are wrong.
You know, the simple things that bring about wellbeing aren’t always what we expect. So even though I wasn’t directly doing work on happiness and the science of happiness, it fit with the work that I was doing on cognitive biases. These ideas that we have, these strong intuitions that lead us to behave in dumb ways when it comes to kind of maximizing our wellbeing.
FRANK BLAKE: What things surprised you?
LAURIE SANTOS: Well, I mean, honestly, I’m a human too, right? So if I’m saying most humans have these bad intuitions, that means I myself, even as the professor of this class have bad intuitions too. And I definitely had some really strong, not so smart ones when it comes to the science of happiness.
One of the things that the research shows is that the path to happiness is paved with gratitude.
You know, taking time to appreciate all the good things in life. And that’s not something honestly that comes naturally to me. You know, I’m more of a complainer than a blessings counter. But that’s something I’ve learned to override.
Another one is free time. We often think we have to fill our time with all this stuff, especially where we’re talking now in the midst of the holiday season. And I think this is an especially busy time.
We think party after party, event after event, but the research shows that more free time is going to make you happier. This saying no a lot is the kind of thing that that leads to improved wellbeing and that’s another thing I really struggle with even as the person who teaches this class.
FRANK BLAKE: Really? So do you have some thing, some theory, of the case for why our brains lead us in the wrong direction on this, why we make these common errors?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. I mean, honestly, that’s the million dollar question. Our brains lead us astray in lots of different domains, so it’s not unique to the field of happiness. I think the problem is that the things that make us happier are things that we might have naturally come by in our evolutionary past.
So take social connection, one of the biggest things that the research suggests can really improve wellbeing. If you want to be like happy people, you need to spend more time with others and you need to prioritize time with the people you care about.
You know, this wasn’t something we had to worry about back in the evolutionary day. When we were hunter gatherers in the field, we’d naturally get social connection. You know, it’s only in the modern day — when we live in these cities where so many of us are anonymous — where we have phones and technology that we can play on without talking to someone. I think we didn’t really need mechanisms to cause us to seek these things out ’cause we naturally did it.
And then take the topic of this podcast, doing nice things for others. I think back in the day we were just part of communities where we couldn’t help but do the rewarding thing of kind of taking account other people’s feelings and doing nice things for others. That was just sort of part of the way we lived.
Nowadays I think we have systems that allow us to feel more selfish or that allow us to be anonymous. So I think part of the problem was that we didn’t really need those intuitions back then ’cause those behaviors that improved our wellbeing happened more naturally. We kind of need better intuitions nowadays.
FRANK BLAKE: That’s such an interesting point. I’ve encouraged people to listen to your podcast because you had an interesting discussion around sharing of photos, which is sort of, now, a generational attribute and how it has both pluses and minuses in terms of happiness and genuine sharing. Are there pieces of research around being kind or generosity that particularly stand out for you?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah, there’s lots and lots of work on this kind of error. I think, when we think about what will improve our wellbeing, we often think of self care. You know these days you can find, like, pillows for “self care.” And whole “self care” websites and books and things. Or another one — I think it is a Parks and Rec quote — is “treat yourself.” Like, we get tee shirts with this, right? And so I think we have this intuition that doing nice things for yourself is what’s going to improve our wellbeing. But the research just plainly suggests that that’s not the case.
The first set of findings come from studying really happy people, which is what a lot of this work does. It goes out and finds people who report being happy and it just asks how these people behave. And what you find when you do this is you find that happy people are really ‘other’ oriented.
Controlled for income level, they give more to charity, happy people give more to charity than not so happy people.
And that’s true worldwide. You can see this correlation again, across incomes, across countries, and so on.
Also happy people tend to volunteer more. They give more of their time to other people. But again you could say those findings are cool but they’re problematic scientifically ’cause they’re just a correlation and so we don’t know if doing nice things for others makes you happy, or if you’re happy maybe you tend to do nice things for others.
The good news is that we now have lots of experiments, in some sense, that force people to do nice stuff for others and tries to see whether or not that makes you happier.
There’s some lovely work on this topic by Liz Dunn and Mike Norton and some of their colleagues. In one famous study, they just walk up to people on the street and hand them some money. And they say by the end of the day either “please spend this money on yourself” or “please spend this money to do something nice for someone else.”
And what they find is at the end of the day, people self-report being happier when they spent the money on other people.
They also did an experiment to show that this isn’t people’s intuitions. They asked another group of subjects ‘if you were in this experiment, which of these conditions would make you happier?’
People really strongly thought that the condition that would make them happier, it was treat themselves, spend money on yourselves. And so I think this experiment is cool because it shows us two things. One is really causally, if you do stuff, if you do nice stuff for other people, that will make you happier. But also that’s not our intuition. And that means that our intuition is going to be telling us to treat ourselves, but doing that isn’t going to work as well as simply doing something nice for others.
FRANK BLAKE: That is fascinating. And do you think that the self-reporting of happiness is reliable? I mean, how did they, how do they control for whether people think they ought to be saying something or whether they genuinely feel it?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. And so this is a struggle for happiness researchers. I wish there was a thermometer we could give people for happiness where we just stick it in their mouth and we could say, “Oh you’re eight out of 10 happy” or something. That doesn’t really exist. But the industry standard really is to ask people, which can feel kind of like, wow, you’re just having people self-report, is that really science? But what we know from the research that the simple question of, how satisfied are you with your life today? Or tell me how many positive emotions you experienced today.
It turns out that that correlates with lots of stuff that we know is really scientifically rigorous. Things like how much you smile on a daily basis or detailed self reports from your family members and friends about how happy you are.
Or even things like a text analysis of your latest tweets or something like that. These sort of simple self report measures where you just tell me how happy you are. It turns out they’re pretty scientifically valid, even though, we don’t expect them to be. And so that’s kind of what people use.
My guess is if people used even more rigorous methods, we’d get the same thing, just be more time consuming and expensive for the scientists.
FRANK BLAKE: So I bet you get lots of feedback and challenge from students. What are some of the comments that come up most frequently?
LAURIE SANTOS: The students have the same strong intuitions that I do, and that many people do, so sometimes they want to challenge these findings.
One that I get a lot of challenge from the Yale students is this idea that money doesn’t make us happy. The research shows that money will only make you happy if you’re basically living below the poverty line. In fact, there’s research from Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton showing that if you earn about $75K in the U S right now, getting any more money isn’t going to improve your wellbeing, basically, on most measures of wellbeing. And again, not something we expect. You know, you look at people playing the lottery, switching jobs to get higher salaries. But again, if you’re above that threshold, seems like it’s not going to work.
You know, all my Yale students, by the way, the average salary the Yale student makes after leaving Yale is around $76,000. So they don’t need to worry about…
FRANK BLAKE: They come out happy.
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. So they’re going to pop out in their first job, pretty happy. But they don’t think that.
So I had a line of students after I presented these findings just ready to say, well, what if I live in a big city? Or like, what if I like give, you know, do different things with the money and so on. And so these intuitions are really challenging. But a different kind of comment I get from students is that when they try the things that we know work, it turns out they feel better.
You know, I have cases of students who are trying to follow this mantra of doing nice things for others even at a busy time of year. Many would say things like, “I was thinking that I was too busy to go do this thing to help my friend hand out leaflets for her thesis. But then I did that and it actually felt better.”
Or, “I realized when I was really busy with midterms, I didn’t feel like I had the time to go to my volunteer job. But I did that and I left actually feeling better.” Right? And so I think this is the thing that students realize is that if you just try these different behaviors that we know improve wellbeing being, we don’t expect them to work. But in the end they actually work a lot better than we often think.
FRANK BLAKE: So apropos of what you were just saying, your course includes “rewirement assignments.” They’re designed to rewire the brain away from unhappiness toward more happiness. What are examples of those kinds of assignments?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah, well we use the term rewirement kind of cheekily, as a sort of dorky professor move, ’cause we have course requirements, like a midterm and final paper and things. And so the course rewirements were kind of these practices there to rewire a student’s habits. But they were all the things that the science suggests really works.
So there was one week where students had to take time to make a social connection, talk to someone new and really try to get to know them.
Another week the students, as part of, as the kinds of teaching you’re saying in this podcast and you had to do random acts of kindness for other people.
There are also weeks where students had to take time for gratitude or take time off or even prioritize healthy practices, things like exercise and sleep. So those were literally assignments that students had to do a week by week. And again, the goal was to do two things. One is to just get them to do this stuff, which we know can improve their wellbeing, but also to sort of turn these types of healthier behaviors into habits. You know, if you do this kind of thing for a week, then over time it can become the kind of thing that feels more rote. And that was really the goal is to make these healthier behaviors the kinds of things that students might just do naturally.
FRANK BLAKE: That’s fascinating. And do the students report back afterwards?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. Well one thing we didn’t do in the course — and that was in part because we didn’t realize the course was going to be so big — was take pre- and post- data. “Before” happiness and “after” happiness. We didn’t really get it together to get approval from Yale and time to do it as a real study. So all I have are people’s anecdotal data. But what we find anecdotally, is that doing these practices really does make students happier.
The ones I hear about the most are students taking time for gratitude. You know, this is not popular among young people these days. It’s not a culture of gratitude. It’s really a culture of kind of complaining and even entitlement in certain ways. Feeling like you deserve this stuff and you’re not getting the service that you want. But students who really took time for gratitude report all these wonderful things. A student will say, “you know, it’s the middle of midterms and I feel like there’s a lot of pressure, but in the morning I take time to realize my parents are alive, my grandparents are alive, the people I love are safe and they’re there. And everything else that comes, it’s going to be okay.” Taking a moment to do that can give you the grounding you need and the resilience you need to kind of make it through some of the tougher stuff. So we find that students who are doing those kinds of practices seem to get happier.
FRANK BLAKE: Do you have a broader thought about how our digital age either enables — or cuts against — what these basic rewirement assignments might be?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah, I mean, again, technology is really just a tool, right? And so it could be a tool that we use for good to sort of promote the behaviors that improve wellbeing. Or it can be a tool that we use for not so good, things that can detract from these behaviors. So it isn’t inherently good or bad.
LAURIE SANTOS: The problem is that if you look at what we tend to use technology for it, it’s not really enhancing the behaviors we know scientifically can improve wellbeing, which is kind of ironic.
So take social connection. Most of the technology we’re talking about are phones, right? You know, in theory a phone could be really a good device for making us connected to people that are far away. And of course it does that a little bit, but oftentimes it gives us the sort of NutraSweet of social connection.
We’re not really talking to a live person in real time. We’re texting them kind of off cycle, which is connection, but not really the way that matters for our wellbeing. Or scrolling through an Instagram feed or a Facebook feed. You know, it feels like we’re connecting with people, but not really, not in the way that makes a real impact on our wellbeing. And often it’s at an opportunity cost of really connecting with people.
You know, when I’m in a line of people at a coffee shop, I could be chatting with them, but I’m often not, I’m often checking email on my phone. Or when I’m on a plane, and I could chat with the person next to me, when the plane lands and things. Often I am quickly checking in on what happened on social media and not talking to the real people.
I think phones are bad for a lot of the things we mentioned. I think even things like gratitude and being other oriented. Things like social media feeds where we have all this social comparison that can cause us to feel a little selfish or a little entitled or to feel like we’re not doing as well as other people. It can cause us to complain and so on.
Even healthy behaviors, things like sleep, are things that are negatively affected by having this technology around. I heard this scary statistic recently that of 15 year olds who have smartphones over 80% sleep with them. That is their alarm clock, right? And so that means that those devices that are incredibly tempting are kind of right by a student’s bed when they’re sleeping, which potentially could, of course, it’s distracting. It causes them to want to check what’s going on on the internet and that can prevent sleep. It’s one of the reasons that college students report not getting enough sleep every night.
FRANK BLAKE: So before you embarked on this course, you were a cognitive psychologist. To those of us who aren’t really familiar with what that means, what does a cognitive psychologist do?
LAURIE SANTOS: Well, cognitive science is just the study of how people think and how people make decisions. And so cognitive scientists sort of study, you know how people do that and they can do that by studying humans, they can do that by comparing humans with other animals.
That’s what I did. I looked at human cognition and compare that with cognition and other animals. But again, what really the question is, for me at least, the question in cognitive science that I was most interested in is this question of how do we go wrong? You know, where are those biases that are inherent, maybe so inherent that they’re shared with other animals that seem to lead us astray.
I started doing that in the context of decision making and even cases like economic decision making and now I sort of apply that in the domain of wellbeing. You know, where are our biases leading us astray causing us not to improve on wellbeing in ways that we we should be.
FRANK BLAKE: Your basic premise seems so right seen from the perspective of this podcast. People who are doing crazy good things for other people do seem happier. But there is also a side note to that, which is: A lot of times seeing the need and seeing that no matter how much progress they’re making, there is so much more that needs to be done. And how that weighs on them.
It struck me that a little bit, you’re in the same situation. You’ve now become famous, people reference you for being someone to talk to about happiness. How much of that is a positive for you, and how much of it is, “Oh gosh, I just wish more people were understanding, that more people were doing it?”
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. It’s, to be honest, it’s been a little surreal. I mean, it’s funny, I started this class in January of 2018 you know, honestly, just trying to get my Yale students to keep a gratitude journal and sleep. I just wanted some of them to be a little happier and it’s turned into this much bigger thing. You know, I’m on your podcast, I have my own podcast, you know, I’ve been on national news.
FRANK BLAKE: You’re legitimately famous.
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. But I think by and large, that’s mostly been an amazing thing, right? I mean, in part, because of what we’re talking about on this podcast, which is the the fact that I’ve received this sort of attention means that I can share some of these insights with other people.
What’s been amazing is so many people will spontaneously email me or send me letters saying how much this stuff has helped them.
We have an online version of the class and so we do a lot of these tips online on coursera.org we’ve released the class completely for free. And so we sometimes get learners who will write in having taken that class saying, “I started taking the class when I was suicidal and, and now I’m okay.” So it’s amazing.
I think by and large 99.99% of the attention we’ve gotten has been positive. I think the only struggle I have, and again, it’s a struggle that many people have, is that you can only do so much, right? And so I have to say no to a lot of opportunities where I’d get a chance to help people. And that can feel frustrating.
But I also know that the research shows that time affluence, this idea of having being wealthy in your own times and of having a little free time- that’s pretty critical for my own happiness. That’s really critical for my own resilience, my ability to keep doing this. And so it’s been a little bit of a balance, but by and large, it’s been amazing.
You know, if you’d asked me two years before the course, do you think 4 million people would be hearing your lesson and learning from it and getting good tips and you’d be helping them, I’d be like, “what are you talking about?” So it just means really we can do great things for others at a scale that’s not typical in the human species.
FRANK BLAKE: It is a crazy good thing. Can people still register for your class?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah, so the class is available online at coursera.org it’s called the Science of Wellbeing.
And you can sign up, there’s kind of continuous signups. It’s just a short, six-week version of the class, but a really great way to kind of do a short version of what the Yale students do. You’ll hear some lectures about the science, but you’ll also have to do those rewirements where you have to do the practices too. You get homework. But another way to learn more is to check out The Happiness Lab podcast. We launch a new season in 2020, a kind of new year, new you that is specifically tips about things you can do to improve your wellbeing in the new year.
FRANK BLAKE: No, I highly recommend your podcast. It’s really interesting. You have very interesting discussions. What has been, in doing the podcast, what’s been your biggest “a ha!” moment?
LAURIE SANTOS: Well I think the podcast is fun for a couple of reasons. One is that you get to really hear the stories of the people who are putting these tips into practice. And that’s something you don’t often get in a kind of standard science lecture about things.
You know, the podcast really allows us to tell people’s stories and I think those stories are really compelling when you hear people who’ve gotten away from their intuitions who are doing it right and they’ve seen the benefits. I mean, that’s been really incredible just for me to see.
But I think the thing that’s been my biggest “a ha!” moment in the podcast, and I think you’ll hear that in the episodes, is how bad I am. You know, in some sense how much I’m learning from these people. And that’s a critical point, I think an important one, which is that the science suggests you can know what all these studies say, you can know the kinds of things you’re supposed to do, but until you put those things into practice, nothing’s really going to change in terms of your wellbeing. And I think that’s very important. You have to get out there and do it.
And it’s one of the reasons I love your podcast so much because it’s really about the people who are doing these things. You know, it’s not lip service to charity or lip service to good ideas. It’s really getting out there and doing them, which can take some work.
FRANK BLAKE: No, for most of the people we feature, they go all in. And I think it’s one of the things that most people are scared of doing that. And then you hear their stories and you go, “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing.” And it’s amazing what it’s done for them and for others.
So if you were to summarize the best habits on generosity and doing for others, what rewirements would you recommend?
LAURIE SANTOS: I think it’s doing stuff for others, and thinking about the opportunity cost when you do nice stuff for yourself. I think that is a really critical one.
A lot of us get the notion that it’s nice to do nice stuff for others. You know, most of us are pretty empathic and compassionate and motivated to do that. What we forget are the opportunities we have to do that.
A quick example: If I’m having a bad day at work, sometimes I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to do something nice to treat myself. I’m going to go out and get a nice latte or get a manicure,” or something like that. What I often forget in those moments is that that’s a moment that instead of doing something nice for myself, I could do something nice for someone else.
I could walk into the coffee shop and pay it forward — pay for the next person in line’s coffee. Or I could walk into the manicure shop and give a coworker a manicure as a gift. It’s in those moments that we forget that there’s this opportunity cost of what we could be spending our money on.
Or take another case. You know, I’ve got this clunker of a car. I’m looking at buying a new car. I could buy an expensive one, but if I bought a slightly cheaper one, that’s some amount of money that I could be giving to a cause I care about. Those are the moments that we forget about.
There’s this opportunity cost of how we could be spending our time, whether it’s something selfish or something for other people. There’s an opportunity cost on how we could be spending our money. There are all these little opportunities to do nice things for others that we forget.
I think the other thing that comes from the science is that the research shows that the magnitude of what we’re doing for others doesn’t matter. It’s the act of doing it.
FRANK BLAKE: Oh wow, that’s interesting.
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. So we know this from some of Liz Dunn’s where she varies the amount of money that she gives people. You know, so you’re given $5 on the street and told to spend it on someone else or on yourself or given $20. What she finds is that the magnitude kind of doesn’t matter. It’s just the act of doing something nice.
I think this is another misconception we have. Sometimes we can get in this mode of, “I’m going to give to charity, but five bucks feels cheap or something.” The research shows you can get the bump in wellbeing just by the act of doing something. It doesn’t have to be a lot. It just has to be the act of thinking that this is about someone else and that you’re really trying to help.
Third: I would suggest is just this idea that the more we can see the fruits of our nice things to others, the happier we get. So if you’re going to pay it forward and give someone the coffee, stick around to peek and see what that person’s reaction is. There’s really research showing that we get this kind of warm glow, this sort of great feeling from watching good things happen to other people. So if at all possible, try to see how a person reacts to the good thing that you’re doing. Try to get some sense of how that played out because that can really boost your wellbeing, and make you realize how important your action really was for another person.
FRANK BLAKE: Those are so profound and important. As you’re going through those, I’m referencing some of the folks that we’ve highlighted on this podcast and your last one just reminded me. There’s a guy named Jordan Kassalow who’s a phenomenal eye doctor who’s got this amazing charity called a Vision Spring that helps with eyesight around the world. But it all started with his giving the proper set of eyeglasses to one young boy in Mexico who was presumed blind. And the smile from that boy, and that’s what connected with him. I mean it is the do for one and the personal connection from it.
LAURIE SANTOS: And that’s going to make sense. That’s why the way our mind is wired. We’re just these primates that are meant, that are built to see the reactions of other people around us. So we don’t, for better or for worse, we don’t want to impact statistics on some page. We want to help real people and we want to see them smile and so the more you can, and that’s good and bad, right?
Helping one boy in one country is something, maybe your money could have gone to helping hundreds of people. Right? We just don’t get the same effect. And so I think even if you’re doing the thing where you’re helping statistically or giving anonymously, as much as possible, if you can sort of see the fruits of that work, try to see the impact it has somehow, that’s the thing that’s really going to help improve your wellbeing.
And that can even just be imagining it. You know, I donate money on a website to victims of a natural disaster, a hurricane or something like that. I’m not necessarily going to see those people, but I can take 30 seconds to imagine what it would feel like if my house was destroyed. Think of a real person that had that happen, that are going to get some funds to fix it. And what that’s going to feel like, just that imagery can give you the wellbeing boost that doing nice things for others really can bring about.
FRANK BLAKE: Laurie, this has been such a great conversation. I think everyone is really fortunate that you decided to take this turn with your research and share it, not just with the Yale students but online. And as you say, it’s a free course online. I recommend to all of our listeners to check that out and do it, and absolutely to listen to your podcast, which I can vouch for is terrific.
I want to thank you for spending the time and thank you for what you’re bringing to light. We should know these things but the brain is tricky. We find lots of ways of getting around it and saying, “well no, you know actually the extra $10,000 on that car is a great investment.” So I think your practical thoughts for how people can put that in place are terrific thoughts.
LAURIE SANTOS: Oh, thank you so much. And thanks for spreading the message of people doing good stuff. I think another thing is that the news cycle today is an often about people doing good things for others. We often hear about the bad stuff, so just the act of realizing, “Oh this is part of humanity too. This is the kind of thing people can do.” I think that’s doing really important work for reminding people that this is possible. This is the kind of thing a lot of good people do. And they should think about doing it themselves.
Check out Dr. Santos’s Course “The Science of Wellbeing”