By Marilynn Preston
Would you be surprised to learn that one of the most popular college courses in America teaches students how to be happy? Probably not.
Most adults discover that you can be crazy rich, drive the biggest Tesla, take a luxury vacation that costs $4,500 a night – breakfast not included – but if inside you’re feeling miserable and depressed and unhappy, what good is it?
Welcome to Professor Laurie Santos’ wildly popular course at Yale University called “Psychology and the Good Life.” I haven’t taken it yet, but as a dedicated student of positive psychology, I’ve studied the research for years, including a recent overview of Santos’ work by Adam Sternbergh called “How To Be Happy.” The article was published this summer in New York Magazine, now available online at The Cut, and is well worth reading.
“College students are much more overwhelmed, much more stressed, much more anxious, and much more depressed than they’ve ever been,” says Santos.
Yeah … so who isn’t? We are all living through destabilizing, demoralizing times, and the toll it’s taking on our collective well-being is palpable. Students are suffering – 52 percent are feeling hopeless, Sternbergh reports – and so is America at large, and I do mean large.
In the last 10 years, the United States has dropped more than 15 places (!!!) in the World Happiness Report issued by the U.N. every year. In the latest one, we’ve sunk to No. 18, well behind Norway (No. 1) and Australia and Sweden (tied for No. 10). Why is this happening?
“Rising inequality, corruption, isolation and distrust” are some of the reasons that U.N. adviser Jeffrey Sachs cites in his analysis of America’s slide into despair: “Trust in government has plummeted to the lowest level in modern history.”
On that happy note, let’s take a deep breath and a deeper dive into some of Santos’ course material and see what we can do in real time, in practical ways, to be happier.
Establish a baseline
To begin, ask yourself: How happy are you, right now? One reliable and easy way to determine that, if you dare, is to do what every student who takes Santos’ course must do: Take a free online test called the Authentic Happiness Inventory, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania’s most positive psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman. (The Google will happily take you there.)
Don’t judge the number you get. Accept it as your starting point, and know that you can evolve, improve and prosper over time, if you’re willing to change a few behaviors and beliefs.
What we think we know is wrong
Santos’ course is evidence-based, and there’s plenty of evidence to prove that high achievement and good grades don’t lead to sustained well-being. Neither does more money (after a certain level of comfort), a different home or job or a long luxurious vacation.
Your mind may be telling you that all these things will make you happier, but your mind is playing tricks on you, Santos explains, citing the work of Sonya Lyubomirsky, the esteemed psychologist and author of “The How of Happiness.” (I hope you’re taking notes.)
What are true sources of happiness?
“Happy people devote time to family and friends,” Sternbergh reports, summing up Santos’ research into the habits most consistent in happy people. “They practice gratitude. They practice optimism. They are physically active. They ‘savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment,’ as Lyubomirsky puts it.”
All of this is revealed to Yalies in the course’s second lecture. The remaining 19 lectures are devoted to scientifically tested strategies to actively improve students’ well-being by doing things that rewire their brains.
In her syllabus, Santos calls those behaviors “course re-wirements.” They include exercising (of course!), keeping a daily gratitude journal, practicing meditation, valuing your time over money, being optimistic and getting at least seven hours of sleep for three days in a row.
Oh, no! We’re only getting started … and class is over. Don’t worry. My own well-being depends on coming back to this material again and again.
Meanwhile, check out Laurie Santos’ course on “The Science of Well-Being,” available from Coursera.
“Why do we think we want salary and more stuff,” Professor Santos asks us all, “when ultimately, it doesn’t matter?”
– Marilynn Preston is the author of “Energy Express,” America’s longest-running healthy lifestyle column. For more on personal well-being, visit www.MarilynnPreston.com.