Table of Contents
- 1 Professor Laurie Santos’ advice on how to feel happier right now:
- 1.1 Focus on the things that made you feel happy before quarantine, and find ways to experience them in whatever state of shutdown you’re currently facing.
- 1.2 Pay attention to what makes you feel good — and note if your old feel-good habits no longer do the trick.
- 1.3 Ask yourself how a particular activity really feels as you’re doing it.
- 1.4 Think about mental health as a diet. Some activities are harmless junk food, but sometimes your mind needs a salad.
- 1.5 Recognize that your brain’s paths of least resistance don’t necessarily lead to happiness.
- 1.6 Write down ideas for how you’d ideally spend random small pockets of free time in a day.
- 1.7 Challenging activities that require your presence — such as learning a new language or meditation — have the highest happiness benefits.
- 1.8 The bottom line
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Alyssa Powell/Business Insider
As 2.9 billion people hunkered down to shelter in place at the start of the pandemic, Yale professor Laurie Santos’ online course, The Science of Well-Being, experienced an explosion in enrollment.
Offered by Yale on Coursera, the class tackles the topic of the psychology of personal happiness and drew 2.2 million people seemingly overnight. The class’s overwhelming success during quarantine wasn’t exactly unprecedented — when Santos offered an on-campus version in 2018, Psychology and the Good Life, it became the most popular course in the university’s 317-year history. In order to staff it, the university had to pull fellows from its School of Public Health and the Law School.
The online offering combines positive psychology with a behavioral science backbone, leaving students with better habits and a more accurate understanding of what real happiness looks like. As it turns out, finding happiness requires work, and not all of the brain’s default responses make it easy to intuitively know where to start.
To get a professional’s take on happiness in the era of COVID-19, and to better understand why this course is resonating so deeply with so many students, I (virtually) caught up with Professor Laurie Santos. Here’s what she had to say on how to lead a happier life right now. You can also read a personal review of The Science of Well-Being on Coursera here.
Professor Laurie Santos’ advice on how to feel happier right now:
Focus on the things that made you feel happy before quarantine, and find ways to experience them in whatever state of shutdown you’re currently facing.
For example, if you previously turned to exercise as part of a daily wellness routine (but don’t have access to the same gym or equipment you did pre-pandemic), don’t stop working out. Instead, tweak how you do it.
“If you’ve fallen out of your normal exercise routine, find ways to do it. There’s so much free content online. Even if you can’t get to your local gym, or even if you’re in the position where you can’t even go for a walk or a jog outside, you can use virtual content to get a workout in that way.”
Read more: The best free virtual workouts to do at home
Pay attention to what makes you feel good — and note if your old feel-good habits no longer do the trick.
Santos recommends being mindful (and discerning) about how you feel towards your go-to self-care rituals.
“We’re in a fragile, emotional state right now, generally,” Santos said. “And the things that worked before might feel a little different … Does it really feel good to sit there and watch Netflix? Does it really feel good to be on social media as much as before?” If the answer is “no,” that can be a good indicator that it’s time to readjust.
Ask yourself how a particular activity really feels as you’re doing it.
I asked Santos one of those no-stupid-questions questions: How do I really tell if an activity is making me happier?
“One of the interesting things about our emotions is [that] we usually know how they feel, but they’re often buried because we don’t take time to be mindful or be present with how things are feeling,” she said. “Everyone struggles with this because mindfulness takes a little bit of work.”
After some time on Twitter, Santos will say to herself: “Okay, that was 20 minutes. How did that 20 minutes feel?”
If you’re not sure about a TV binge or staying up late, Santos suggests asking yourself: “How did this make me feel? Am I more energized? Do I feel like I’ve wasted some time productively or do I feel gross or apathetic?”
Think about mental health as a diet. Some activities are harmless junk food, but sometimes your mind needs a salad.
Santos also talked about mental health using the analogy of a well-balanced diet, with a cheesy Bravo series as the hot fudge sundae treat.
“It might be that we need [it sometimes], but that may not be the only nutrition we need to take in,” she said. “Sometimes the things that feel really easy — the quick social media check — may not be the most nutritious. Sometimes we need to put work into things that will ultimately make us feel better in the end [like a Zoom call with friends].”
Some days you’re going to need your junk reality television du jour. But you should also plan to balance it with quality conversations with friends, exercise, or even a walk outside.
Recognize that your brain’s paths of least resistance don’t necessarily lead to happiness.
We often look to things that are easy — resting, watching TV, scrolling through social media — when really, the things that fulfill us and improve our happiness take a little bit of work.
According to Santos, what we crave often diverges from what we actually like. For example, you may gravitate to tapping through people’s Instagram stories, but, after an hour, be left wondering why you wasted that hour. Similarly, you may not initially crave exercise, but can find yourself immediately happy you did it after a quick run or Zoom yoga class.
Read more: The best free virtual workouts to do at home
Write down ideas for how you’d ideally spend random small pockets of free time in a day.
Our lives are full of what Harvard Business School professor Ashley Williams refers to as “time confetti” — little specks of five or 10 minutes broken up throughout the day.
What do we do with our pockets of 10 minutes in between meetings, classes, and errands? Instead of calling a friend, many of us scroll through Facebook or Instagram.
“If I spent that 10 minutes doing a quick gratitude meditation, or if I spent it running up and down my stairs or even just taking a pause to look outside my window, that would actually probably be better than Facebook, but it takes a little work,” Santos explained. “One strategy for [using time confetti] is to scribble down the things that you really want to do, so that if you get a break, you can say, ‘Oh, let me do this instead.'”
Challenging activities that require your presence — such as learning a new language or meditation — have the highest happiness benefits.
Even though the startup costs for activities like learning a new language can be higher than lounging on the couch, they’re worth it, even if our brains think otherwise.
“Challenging activities give us what positive psychologists call flow,” Santos explained. “[Flow] is the state where we’re feeling really present and involved and it’s kind of hard, but doable. It’s not so easy that it’s boring. And research suggests that flow states feel really good. They make time pass in an enjoyable but quick way; you’re really present, and there’s lots of research suggesting that anytime we do things where we’re more present, we enjoy that activity more.”
She went on to say, “Leisure feels better when we’re a little challenged — when we’re doing something that’s a little hard. I think seeing people who are learning how to bake something new or trying to learn a new language or something that’s a little bit more active — even playing games over Zoom with friends — I think those things can sometimes feel better than the really inactive stuff, even though the startup cost is higher.”
Read more: 15 comforting meals Business Insider editors and reporters are cooking at home — plus the cookware and tools we use to make them perfect
Read more: The best cheap or free online resources to learn a new language
Read more: Airbnb is offering online experiences via Zoom video calls. I tried 2 of them and would readily sign up for more — here’s why
To improve your mental well-being and overall happiness, you may want to prioritize social connection (whether it’s over Zoom, phone calls, or socially distanced walks) and challenging activities (exercising, learning a new language, cooking, and meditating are some good starter options). Lastly, try to find a way to adapt the activities that made you happy before the pandemic to the way you live right now.
For more on how to increase your own well-being, you can take Santos’ course online for free and/or listen to her podcast, “The Happiness Lab”.