An interaction with Dr Laurie Santos, professor of Psychology and head of Silliman College at Yale University, who shares the happiness mantra in the time of Covid.
What if there was a strategy to happiness? One that didn’t involve going to Bhutan, the land of happiness (which if you did go, you’d soon realise being closed to outside influence and a Buddhist ideology helps). Professor of Psychology and head of Silliman College at Yale University, Dr Laurie Santos decided to strategise on that elusive thing called happiness. Her course Psychology and the Good Life soon evolved into a happiness juggernaut that was offered for free on coursera.org. Today, 3.4 million students have signed up to learn The Science of Well-Being (Coursera). She also began The Happiness Lab podcast in 2019 which has since been downloaded 35 million times. Her ideas pave the way for circuit-breaking positive psychology to create better individuals, and a better world.
During Covid 19, Santos feels that addressing negative emotions with new behavioural strategies can increase happiness. In India, for instance, the most telling number today, after Covid positives and Covid deaths, is that 7.5 per cent Indians suffer from some mental disorder with 56 million suffering from depression according to WHO estimates. As vaccines get battle ready to tackle the pandemic, Santos’ course offers game-changing strategies to make human minds battle ready to improve well-being.
The New Bedford, Massachusetts-born psychology professor studied BA in Psychology and Biology,Masters in Cognition, Brain and Behaviour, and later a Ph.D in the same field in 2003 at Harvard University. Interested in animal behaviour,she worked as a research assistant with the Cayo Santiago’s monkey population.
In an email interview, Dr Santos shares, “The class started when I took on a new role–as head of Sillman College which meant I was living on campus with students. I honestly didn’t like what I saw –college students’ mental health crisis up, close and personal with so many students reporting they felt depressed or anxious, or just overwhelmingly stressed. Thus, the first version of the live class at Yale’s campus started in 2018. It was my way of trying to help those students get a sense of the things they could do to improve well-being, and strategies to feel better. That class went viral on campus, over a 1,000 students showed up.It became the biggest class ever in Yale’s history. That was when we decided to put the class on coursera.org, and share it with the world. This also went viral. We have had 3 million people sign up during the pandemic, and right now, 3.4 million people have signed up. It has been incredible.”
Learning to change
There is no magic bullet to joy, you have to do “the time.” Santos says as much in her course, “The class talks about all kinds of work that is relevant to improving wellbeing — gratitude, savouring and meditation.”
With 65 per cent of India’s population below 35, and a steep rise in mental health problems, Prof Santos says, “When you think about what to apply to an Indian audience, these same practices work. Research suggests that it is not things like money that build happiness, it’s simple like taking time for gratitude, exercise, making mediation a habit -These things seem to be relative universal ways to improve well-being.”
Dr. Santos who has won various awards in science and teaching,was called Popular Science’s “Brilliant 10” young minds.” Students speak to her, write regularly about how the course has rid them of negativity, and anguish. The TedX speaker has undoubtedly changed her life too. “The classes had an incredible impact on my life. Many students reported they have been feeling happier than ever before. I’ve had students mail who said that they started taking the class when they were feeling suicidal, and now they feel like they are flourishing more than ever. The class has been incredible, it has had a tremendous impact on me, and many who have taken it,” Laurie adds.
Santos’ mother was a guidance counsellor, and her husband Mark is a philosopher who she met as a graduate student. “I was studying at Harvard at the time, and he was living there playing poker, we met and have been together ever since.” About how much of an impact did her philosopher husband have on her work? “We have not worked too much on this course together, although he is a very happy person, and deeply wise. Implicitly, I am often taking his advice about what we should be doing to be happier, he (also) tends to follow a lot of the advice that I teach in the class,” she reveals.
Santos cautions those following the “go big or go home” philosophy. “One of the things you realise when you study the science of happiness is that the strategies we have for living a normal life as a rat race – it’s not the kind of things that promotehappiness. We need some big structural changes if we want to be a society that is a little bit happier. I see this first-hand with my college students who work incredibly hard to get to a school like Yale, but I worry at what cost – they are not sleeping, not making time for developing social connections that are critical. They are doing this at the expense of their mental health. We need to think critically about how we can use The Science of Well-Being, not just to improve happiness in our own lives, but to set up a society that is going to flourish more too,” says Santos.
Tech it slow, mindfully
Even as Covid 19 has spiralled mental illnesses, technology has helped bridge the lockdown and social distancing gap. Yet, how can one find a balance? “Technology is just a tool. Use it to promote well-being — write a gratitude list on phone, or use it to call a friend, connect socially. Or we could use technology for not such good things. The question is – How are we using technology? Are we using it in a way that is enhancing our happiness? The answer in lots of cases seems to be NO. We tend to use technology to connect with people, or at an opportunity cost of connecting with people in real life. Some of the things we are doing on social media, whether it is experiencing social comparison or having a lack of gratitude because we are jealous of the things that other people are doing in their lives, those things aren’t necessarily good for happiness.”
To form a better relationship with technology, Laurie quotes a strategy from journalist Catherine Price’s book How to Break Up with Your Phone. “Price suggests that whenever you interact with technology, you should ask yourself the (three) WWWs – What for, why now, and what else? For example, what am I picking up this piece of technology now for? Is there a purpose, or is it habit? Why (am I doing it) now? Am using it to avoid an emotion? Maybe, I am feeling bored or anxious. What else? What is the opportunity cost of using this technology? Could I be talking to someone in real life, being present and enjoying the scenery? I think all these questions can help us develop a healthier relationship with our technology,” she advices.
The course speaks about rewirements through short exercises across 10 sessions. “The idea is that students are rewiring their habits – to experience gratitude, make new social connections, devote time to sleep and exercise, try out meditation, take time to savour – all these practices are from positive psychology literature that we know will improve your well-being if you engage with them,” she adds.
Currently documenting the course work that people are taking online and in live sessions at Yale, she says, statistically it (the course) does improve well-being. “We had a paper come out in Health Psychology open recently in collaboration with Bruce MacFarlane Hood who taught a version of my class at the University of Bristol. He is finding that even during Covid times, these strategies help students,” she adds.
Her Happiness Lab podcast continues to grow, and a new season starts soon. “We are doing a whole season on Wisdom from the Ancients, looking back at ancient wisdom and trying to figure out whether it matches with the modern system of happiness,” she adds.
The course teaches you small practices that often don’t take more than a few minutes to inculcate. Santos herself takes time off too. “I like reading cheesy celebrity memoirs. During Covid, making time for friends on a socially distanced walk or hangouts on zoom,” she laughs.
To those struggling now, The Science of Well-Being is a lesson in inculcating best practices, that through repetition and time become a part of your life. The Happiness Professor cares deeply, is altruistic about wanting to change the world, one rewirement at a time.
For those going through tough times, she says, “Things can get better, we all go through dark times in life, but the research shows that no matter what you are feeling right now, you can feel better if you just have the right strategies.”