‘I did a course on the psychology of happiness, and society has it backwards’

‘I did a course on the psychology of happiness, and society has it backwards’

Writer Stephanie Nuzzo took The Science of Well-Being class by Dr Santos, a cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Yale University. This is what she learnt about the art of happiness…

For something that is sought after by every person on the planet, we understand surprisingly little about happiness. And even less, it seems, about how to achieve it. According to data shared in the annual World Happiness Report, global life evaluations have been on a steady decline since 2011. And this was before we were dealing with a global pandemic.

The unfortunate truth of it is that as a community, we’re all a little lost in the joy department. It doesn’t have to stay that way, though. At least, not if Dr Laurie Santos has anything to say about it.

Dr Santos, a cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Yale University, teaches the study of human happiness, and how to better access it. Her course, The Science of Well-Being (which is now available for free on Coursera), explores our misconceptions about happiness and shows students how to live more fulfilling lives.

It’s the most popular class in Yale’s history.

As of early May, 1.9 million people had enrolled in the course in 2020 alone. If you’re wondering whether interest spiked as a result of COVID-19, consider this: only 50,000 of those enrolments occurred between January 1st and March 1st. That means 1,850,000 people signed up for a piece of happiness in the space of two months. The figure is higher than the population of South Australia.

I suppose the onset of a menacing virus and a sudden increase in free time will get people thinking about life satisfaction, hey?

Signing up to Dr Santos’ class promises a number of jaw-to-the-floor moments. You’ll quickly learn that almost everything we value in life (job, marriage, beauty) is misguided and your brain is tricking you into making choices that leave you less happy. Wild, right?

The incredible part is that you can shift your happiness-squashing habits, and this god-awful period is the perfect time to start. So where can we improve? I asked Dr Santos. Here’s what she had to say:

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Don’t let distance disconnect you

When I asked Dr Santos about the biggest threats to happiness right now, she referenced social connection.

“During tough times of crisis, we want to see our friends. We want to hug our family members, and we want to generally be with other people,” she said. “That’s harder to do in a time of social distancing, and I think that can make us feel more disconnected and can take away one of our main coping skills.”

Studies consistently show (and the Science of Wellbeing highlights this) that folks who feel connected to others tend to be happier. If you want to give yourself some extra enjoyment, text a friend or agree to that zoom call you’ve been putting off. Chances are it’ll leave you feeling more positive.

“If we put in a bit more work, we can make sure social distancing doesn’t mean social disconnection,” Dr Santos explained.

Be consistent with health habits

Life looks very different right now, and it’s hardly surprising that motivation levels are low. But there’s a lot to be gained from keeping consistent with your health routine, Dr Santos shared. In addition to social connection, Dr Santos stressed that both regular exercise and meditation have a powerful impact on happiness.

“We know from the science that all of these practices can help a lot,” she said. That doesn’t mean you have to sign up to a 45-minute boxing class you’re going to hate, however. “Try something small,” Dr Santos suggested. “Five minutes of jumping jacks, or a one-minute meditation… Most of us can force ourselves to do something that small, and it will still have a positive impact on our well-being.”

This experience might change you, for the better…

There’s been a lot of chatter about the expected rise in mental health struggles post-COVID. That’s fair; we need to have open discussions about caring for our headspaces. Especially in light of our current circumstances. But it’s also worth mentioning that there’s a chance we might come out of this challenging time happier.

“We often talk about post-traumatic stress, but there’s also lots of work on post-traumatic growth,” Dr Santos shared. This, she explained, is “the idea that we get stronger and more resilient and even happier after getting through a big crisis like this”.

It might sound unlikely, but the act of being grateful is connected to your happiness levels. So, pay close attention “to what you miss right now,” Dr Santos suggested. “…the people you want to see and the activities you want to engage with can give you hints about what to spend your time doing after this crisis and how to be more grateful for these things once we get them back in our lives,” she said.

There’s no denying that we are living through a difficult experience right now. But in the same vein, isolation does offer a rare opportunity for reflection and growth. So, nurture your relationships. Move your body. Quieten your mind. Practice gratitude.

The secret to greater happiness isn’t complicated, friends. It just takes time and guidance. Lucky for us, we’ve got plenty of both.

More essential coronavirus reading:

Read up on what the government lockdown means for you, understand why Aussie doctors are up arms, be aware of the ‘hidden symptom’ of COVID-19 carriers, prepare yourself for the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic, get your sweat on at home with these free online workouts before reviving your over-washed hands with this DIY balm, and then console yourself with these unexpected joys.

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