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The Pursuit of Happiness with Dr. Laurie Santos

On Thursday, September 21, at 4 p.m., students crammed into the Ostrove auditorium to learn the secrets of happiness from Dr. Laurie R. Santos. Dr. Santos is a Harvard alum who teaches psychology at Yale. Her lecture focused on one of her courses, Psychology and the Good Life. Dr. Santos began her lecture by explaining that she tries to study both the “science of well-being” and the “science of happiness.” Dr. Santos explained that she is acutely aware of the mental health crisis that students across America are facing. To give students an idea of the extent of this epidemic, Dr. Santos offered some pre-pandemic statistics, informing her audience that when surveyed, 45 percent of college students said they were too depressed to function, 66 percent said they were frequently lonely, and 87 percent said they felt overwhelmed. Psychology and the Good Life is intended to equip students with the tools they need to address the stress, anxieties, and other mental health challenges they face. In her lecture, Dr. Santos condensed the course into ten key insights from the science of happiness.

  1. Happiness matters for your performance

Students think sacrificing mental health in the short term will help them succeed in the long term, but evidence suggests that focusing on happiness now will aid in later success. “Happiness seems to affect our performance,” says Dr. Santos, referencing a study that shows that cheerfulness levels at 18 have a predictive effect on salary, occupation rate, and job satisfaction. Students often use stress as a motivator which takes a toll on their happiness and mental health, when in reality, happiness improves productivity and makes people more innovative.

  1. Happiness is more about being social than self-care

In recent years, there has been a cultural association between happiness and self-care, but Dr. Santos finds that happiness is more about social connection and spending time with other people. She refers to this as being “other-oriented.” Dr. Santos has found that happy people choose to invest in others. 

  1. Make time for gratitude every day

In life, most people focus on the bad things, whereas happy people choose to think more about the things they are grateful for. Being aware of the things you are grateful for can improve your mental health, and expressing it can be even better for mental health. Showing gratitude has a double effect on both the giver and the receiver. In fact, it has been shown to be more gratifying for the person expressing appreciation than the person receiving it.

  1. Healthy habits matter more than you expect

Practices that improve your physical health, like healthy eating or exercise, are good for mental health as well. According to Dr. Santos, just 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day provides mental health benefits similar to prescription antidepressants. Another important aspect of happiness is sleep. College students traditionally fail to get enough sleep. Sleeping for just a few more hours can have a significant positive impact on mental health.

  1. Be in the present and savor the good things

This is an idea that has become more prevalent in conversations about mental health, but not one that is consistently practiced. Letting your mind wander can be harmful to your happiness in the present. Fortunately, Dr. Santos offers two solutions. First, try to intentionally savor the moment, which means you must focus on remaining present. The second is to practice meditation, allowing you to become more skilled at experiencing the moment by practicing mindfulness.

  1. Be in the present moment even if it feels bad

It is human instinct to ignore the bad stuff that is happening or to ignore negative feelings, but suppressing sadness can have a cost on productivity and memory, along with increasing cardiac stress. We can help ourselves through negative moments and emotions through a meditative practice called R.A.I.N. Recognize what is happening (why are you upset, what are you feeling). Allow what you’re feeling to be just as it is. Investigate your feelings with interest and care. Nurture with self-compassion (take care of yourself). Dr. Santos describes this as a “powerful strategy to reduce chronic negative emotions.”

  1. Motivate yourself with self-compassion

A common motivation strategy is the “drill instructor” method, where we motivate ourselves with anger and the need to complete the task. This strategy leads to procrastination and stress. Instead, we should be striving to motivate ourselves with self-compassion, through mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. Self-compassion can improve eating and money-saving habits and has even been shown to reduce the effects of trauma. Dr. Santos’ strategy of self-compassion involves giving oneself affection, admitting the reality of a problem, admitting your own humanity, and choosing a realistic goal to go forward with.

  1. Find your purpose and do some meaningful work

Humans focus on extrinsic rewards, but we should be focusing on our strengths if we want to feel purpose in our work. Engaging with your strengths will allow you to engage with your work and enjoy it more.

  1. Prioritize true fun each and every day

Dr. Santos believes “we should be investing our leisure time in stuff that is more fun.” Too often students choose relaxing fun, such as watching shows or using social media, overactive fun. True fun involves connection, presence, and playfulness. One can engage in more true fun by reviewing the moments of real fun we have had in the past, identifying common themes, and then looking for events that will recreate those themes.

  1. Become wealthy in time, not in money

Students struggle to find time for true fun. It is believed that students have more free time these days, but that time is parceled out into tiny, awkwardly short pieces. While it’s easy to spend these time increments on our phones, if one invests them into the habits discussed above, they will be happier for it.


~ James Spindler `27

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