Long before the crisis brought on by COVID-19, Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos’ course on the science of happiness was a phenomenon. Launched in 2018, it attracted major media coverage and more student enrollment than any course in the university’s storied 300-plus-year history. Yale soon put the course, “The Science of Well-being,” online at Coursera where it attracted 500,000 students over the past two years. Then in mid-March the coronavirus shut down most of the world, and news that the course was free went viral. More than 1.5 million people have since signed up for it. Students can audit it for free or pay $49 to get graded on assignments and earn a certificate. During a recent Zoom meeting, Santos shared some tips from the course with us.
In ordinary times what is the secret to happiness?
The secret to happiness is the same now. It’s not the things we think. It’s not having tons of money and material possessions and all these accolades in life. It really is about your behaviors and about your mindsets. In terms of behaviors, we know that social connection can promote happiness. The happiest people out there are the ones that take time to focus on the people they really care about and take time to be a little more social. Happy people are also other-oriented. We think happiness is all about self care and being selfish, and kind of treating yourself, but actually happy people tend to be more focused on others. They do random acts of kindness, they give more to charities, they volunteer more of their time. Happy people also have a certain set of mindsets. They tend to look on the bright side of things, they tend to look for the silver lining in different events. Happy people also tend to be more present, and so they find ways to be mindful and pay attention to what it feels like in their body. You can achieve those kinds of practices through acts like meditation and so on. Those are the secrets.
And this is attainable for all of us?
The good news is that we all can achieve that stuff. We all can be a little more social and pay more attention to others and try to work on our mindsets. I think it’s even more essential to do that now in the time of COVID-19, in part because it’s a really challenging time for our mental health. A lot of us are struggling with feeling more anxious and more uncertain, and that’s really bad. It feels yucky, but it’s also not great for our immune system. There’s evidence that you’re more likely to catch a cold when you’re experiencing a lot of negative moods. Washing our hands and doing this social distancing, obviously those are essential to our physical health right now, but I would argue that focusing on our mood and our mental health is also essential for our physical health right now.
You mention staying social, how do we do that in the era of social distancing?
You have to be a little more intentional about it. There’s a bit more of a startup cost, but if we can get past that startup cost the benefits are huge. Have a Zoom call with a friend, Zoom happy hours are a thing. Skype with friends in different time zones and do a meal with them. Or do some Zoom yoga classes together. I’ve been doing spa nights with my college roommates.
So connecting, even through technology, can still be meaningful?
Yeah. What the research suggests is, it’s helpful to connect with people in real time if you can’t do it in real life. What we’re getting out of this Zoom meeting is, I can watch your facial expressions, I can hear your voice. We can kind of laugh together and so on. It’s mimicking a lot of the stuff that we as social primates naturally get out of our connections with one another. It’s not totally the same. I see my mom a lot over Zoom right now. I wish I could drive to her house in Massachusetts and get a hug. That would be better, but this is still pretty good, and we definitely need all we can get in this time of social distancing.
Any advice on balancing our grief for all the death and suffering while still trying to stay positive?
Really the right approach is not to be kind of Pollyanna-ishly like, oh this is such a wonderful, happy time. Roses and tulips and things. It’s really to say, yeah, it’s yucky but I have two choices, I can accept that and move on, do the best I can to protect my immune system and my mood and my family, or I can kind of fall prey to it and get consumed by it. The thing that we’re trying to promote with these strategies is that there’s a way to do better. There’s a way that you yourself can look at the awfulness that we’re all facing and say, “I have some control about it. I’m going to experience this like a challenge and do my best.”