The professor behind Yale's most popular course, The Science of Well-Being, tells us how to be happier

Business Insider US

  • Psychology and the Good Life, led by Professor Laurie Santos, became Yale's most popular on-campus course in its 317-year history in 2018. 
  • Santos adapted the course for Coursera and the online equivalent, The Science of Well-Being, trended wildly in the early days of the pandemic and social distancing — 2.2 million people enrolled online. 
  • To understand why The Science of Well-Being is resonating so strongly, and how it may help improve our daily lives now, I spoke to Professor Santos.
  • Below, she shares her insights plus tips for improving mental well-being during a pandemic.  
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

As 2.9 billion people — more than the global population during World War II — hunkered down to shelter in place in response to the novel coronavirus in late March, Yale professor Laurie Santos' online course, The Science of Well-Being, experienced an explosion in enrollment.

The class, offered by Yale on Coursera, tackles the topic of the psychology of personal happiness and drew 2.2 million people — similar to the population of Houston, Texas — seemingly overnight.

The overwhelming success in quarantine wasn't exactly unprecedented. When Santos offered an on-campus version in 2018, Psychology and the Good Life, it became the most popular course in the university's 317-year history. In order to staff it, the university had to pull fellows from its School of Public Health and the Law School. 

The online offering combines positive psychology with a behavioural science backbone leaving students with better habits and more accurate notions of happiness. As it turns out, real happiness requires work. While all roads may lead to Rome, not all of the brain's default responses lead to happiness. Years ago, I took The Science of Well-Being on Coursera and reported on my experience here.

To get a professional's take on happiness in the era of Covid-19, and to better understand why this course is resonating so deeply, I caught up with Professor Laurie Santos, socially distanced, on the phone. Here's what she had to say on how to lead a happier life right now.

Professor Laurie Santos' advice on how to feel happier right now:

Focus on the things that made you feel happy before quarantine, and find ways to experience them in whatever state of shutdown you're currently facing. 

For example, if you previously turned to exercise as part of a daily routine for overall wellness, don't stop those practices during a pandemic. Just alter them.

"If you've fallen out of your normal exercise routine, find ways to do it. There's so much free content online. Even if you can't get to your local gym, or even if you're in the position where you can't even go for a walk or a jog outside, you can use virtual content to get a workout in that way."

Read more: The best free virtual workouts to do at home

Pay attention to what makes you feel good — and note if your old feel-good habits no longer do the trick. 

Rather than strictly avoiding activities, Santos recommends being mindful about how you feel while doing something and discerning about how you spend your leisure time.

"We're in a fragile, emotional state right now, generally," Santos said. "And the things that worked before might feel a little different … Does it really feel good to sit there and watch Netflix? Does it really feel good to be on social media as much as before?" 

Ask yourself in the moment how a particular activity really feels.

I asked Santos one of those no-stupid-questions questions: How do I really tell if an activity is making me happier? 

"One of the interesting things about our emotions is [that] we usually know how they feel, but they're often buried because we don't take time to be mindful or be present with how things are feeling. Everyone struggles with this because mindfulness takes a little bit of work."

After some time on Twitter, Santos will say to herself: "Okay, that was 20 minutes. How did that 20 minutes feel?"

After watching reruns again and again, you can do the same. Santos suggests asking yourself: "How did this make me feel? Am I more energized? Do I feel like I've wasted some time productively or do I feel gross or apathetic?"

Think about mental health as a diet. Some activities are junk food, and sometimes, your mind will need to eat a salad.

Santos also talked about mental health using the analogy of a well-balanced diet, with a cheesy Netflix series as the hot fudge sundae treat.

"It might be that we need [it sometimes], but that may not be the only nutrition we need to take in," she said. "Sometimes the things that feel really easy — the quick social media check —  may not be the most nutritious. Sometimes we need to put work into things that will ultimately make us feel better in the end [like a Zoom call with friends]."

Some days you're going to need your junk reality television du jour. But, you should also plan to balance it with quality conversations with friends or exercise. 

Recognise that your brain's paths of least resistance don't necessarily lead to happiness. 

We often look to things that are easy — resting, watching TV, scrolling through social media — when really, the things that fulfill us and improve our happiness take a little bit of work.

According to Santos, what we crave diverges from what we actually like. For example, you may desire a session of TV, but in the end, be left thinking "I didn't even really like that, that much." And, you may not initially crave exercise, but find yourself post-workout thinking "Why don't I do this more?"

Read more: The best free virtual workouts to do at home

Write down ideas for how you'd ideally spend random small pockets of free time in a day.

Our lives are full of what Harvard Business School professor Ashley Williams refers to as "time confetti" — little specks of five or 10 minutes broken up throughout the day.

What do we do with our pockets of 10 minutes in between meetings, classes, and errands? Instead of calling a friend, many of us scroll through Facebook or Instagram. 

"If I spent that 10 minutes doing a quick gratitude meditation, or if I spent it running up and down my stairs or even just taking a pause to look outside my window, that would actually probably be better than Facebook, but it takes a little work." Santos explained. "One strategy for [using time confetti] is to scribble down the things that you really want to do, so that if you get a break, you can say, 'Oh, let me do this instead.'"

Challenging activities such as learning a new language, and activities that make you feel present, like meditation, are most likely to be enjoyable.

Even though the startup costs for activities like learning a new language can be higher than lounging on the couch, they're worth it, even if our brains predict otherwise.

"Challenging activities give us what positive psychologists call flow," Santos explained. "[Flow] is the state where we're feeling really present and involved and it's kind of hard, but doable. It's not so easy that it's boring. And research suggests that flow states feel really good. And they make time pass in an enjoyable but quick way; you're really present, and there's lots of research suggesting that anytime we do things where we're more present, we enjoy that activity more."

"When we're at work, we're often like, 'Oh, I wish I was home because I could sit around and watch Netflix.' But, actually, if you ping most people at work, they're feeling challenged and time is going by, right? Whereas if you ping [someone] in the middle of a show, you often do feel like, "I'm just sitting here." 

She went on to say, "Leisure feels better when we're a little challenged — when we're doing something that's a little hard. I think seeing people who are learning how to bake something new or trying to learn a new language or something that's a little bit more active — even playing games over Zoom with friends — I think those things can sometimes feel better than the really inactive stuff, even though the startup cost is higher."

The bottom line

To improve your mental well-being and overall happiness, you may want to prioritize social connection (by Zoom, phone call, etc.) and challenging and nutritious activities (exercise, learning a new language or recipe, meditating). And try to find a way to adapt the activities that made you happy before the pandemic, to the way you must live right now. 

For more on how to increase your own well-being, you can take Santos' course online for free and/or listen to her podcast, "The Happiness Lab".

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