How to Be a Better Human
The science of happiness (w/ Laurie Santos)
January 23, 2023
[00:00:00] Chris Duffy:
You are listening to How to Be a Better Human. I am your host, Chris Duffy. Here's a strange thing that I have noticed about my own brain. Often, the times that I feel the happiest are where I have a lot of irons in the fire. There's all these possibilities, and there's this sense that exciting things might happen.
But the thing that's weird is that I often feel happier in that moment where the irons are in the fire than when they actually come out and become a real thing, right? Like even if I have accomplished something that feels really big and special, like we finished recording a season of this show, or I did a big live show and it went well, I crash so hard that night or the next day as soon as I've done the thing that I thought that I really wanted to do, it's like I have a happiness hangover. I'm confused, to be honest, about why it is that accomplishing the things that I thought I wanted to accomplish often don't make me feel very happy at all.
In my experience, happiness is kind of a slippery fish. When I try my hardest to grab a hold of happiness, it just flops outta my fingers and slides away. But, when I ignore the fish and I focus on other things, sometimes outta the corner of my eye, I see that, hey, that happiness fish is swimming right around next to me all over again.
Our guest today is Laurie Santos. Laurie started The Happiness Lab podcast to help people understand how science could help them lead more satisfying lives. And I promise you, I swear Laurie is going to use zero fish-based metaphors to do that. Laurie's podcast grew out of her work teaching at Yale, where she started a course called Psychology and the Good Life. It's also known as the Happiness Course. Since then, Laurie has taken the happiness course online at Coursera, where thousands of people enrolled in the program. But then when the pandemic and the lockdowns came, a time when so many people were reassessing what was truly important in their lives, that number shot up into the millions.
But a part of Laurie's interest in exploring human happiness didn't actually come from working with people at all. It came from working with animals. Laurie gave a TED talk explaining her research with monkeys. I love this clip.
[00:02:00] Laurie Santos:
And because we started this work around the time of the financial collapse, around the time when foreclosures were hitting the news, we said, “Hmm, maybe we should actually start in the financial domain. Maybe we should look at monkey's economic decisions and try to see if they see, do the same kinds of dumb things that we do.”
Of course, that's when we hit a sort of second problem, a little bit more methodological, which is that maybe you guys don't know, but monkeys don't actually use money. You know, you haven't met them. This is why, you know, they're not in the queue behind you at the grocery store, at the ATM. You know, they don't do this stuff. So now we faced, you know, a little bit of a problem here. How are we gonna actually ask monkeys about money if they don't actually use it? So he said, well, maybe we should just actually just suck it up and teach monkeys how to use money. And so that's just what we did.
[00:02:42] Chris Duffy:
When we return, we will find out more about what Laurie learned from animals about our most deeply embedded attitudes towards happiness and what we can each do to be happier in our own lives.
[00:03:01] Chris Duffy:
Okay, we are back. We're talking about what it means to be happy with Laurie Santos.
[00:03:07] Laurie Santos:
Hey, I'm Laurie Santos. I'm a professor of psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab podcast.
[00:03:13] Chris Duffy:
So, Laurie, I, I first heard about your research that was basically like having monkeys build a, an economy based on different types of fruit.
[00:03:20] Laurie Santos:
Yeah, I mean, it was pretty good description actually. Um, so we wanted to see, one, whether or not some of the standard economic biases that humans chose were shared with monkeys too. And so we taught monkeys how to use a kind of form of currency, these little metal tokens that they traded with humans for food.
And that mean, meant that we could put monkeys into kind of really simple economic experiments. Really asked them their preferences about things like risk and, like, whether or not they paid attention to how much food they were getting and so on.
And what we found was the monkeys were pretty rational in all the spots that humans were rational. But they also showed all the same irrational biases that humans tended to show. They were, they overpaid attention to risk, and they kind of were, had this tendency to frame what they were getting in terms of gains and losses, which is the kind of thing that leads humans astray.
[00:04:04] Chris Duffy:
And one of the big things from the study that has just kind of always stuck in my head is that there were a lot of monkeys who were totally happy with the fruit that they were getting until they saw that a different monkey was getting more fruit or better fruit. And then all of a sudden they became furious and didn't like the things that had made them happy just moments before.
[00:04:21] Laurie Santos:
Yeah. I mean, this, this was actually some lovely work by Sarah Brosnan who used really similar kinds of studies with, with her group of monkeys, and it’s, an, yet another bias that we tend to show, right? Which is that, that we tend to socially compare ourselves with others. So even if what we're getting is perfectly fine, as, as soon as we see that somebody else is getting something that's better than we are getting, all of a sudden we're unhappy with it, and, and this has a really strong connection to happiness and, and subjective wellbeing, right?
Because we’re, like, doing well in terms of got a roof over our head, you know, food on the table and so on. But we're so prone to be seeing what's going on with other people, and it can really negatively affect our happiness, even when in cases when we're objectively doing really well.
[00:04:59] Chris Duffy:
Is that part of the bridge of what got you into human happiness? I, I wonder if, if seeing how animals, how it's kind of hardwired into many of us to, to have these things that make us unhappy, that we wish we could overcome, was, was part of the seed of what brought you into happiness in the first place?
[00:05:15] Laurie Santos:
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think one of the reasons I was always so fascinated with work in monkeys is because a lot of times we, we get focused on “Oh, humans, we do things so amazingly well. We have all this technology and language and this amazing culture. We're so different than other animals.” But when I look to humans, what, what I saw generally was, yeah, you know, we're, we're doing great. You know, we're having this podcast, no other animal, no bonobo is doing that right now. Right?
But we're also so prone to error. We're so prone to bias. We're so prone to not appreciating what we have. You know, the take that I, I bring to my students and, and that I talk about a lot on my podcast is this idea that our minds lie to us when it comes to happiness, right? We have these intuitions about the sorts of things that would make us happy, but in practice, a lot of those intuitions the research shows are wrong.
And so I think the connection with the monkey work is recognizing how deep some of these errors go and that we might have errors when it comes to happiness as well.
[00:06:07] Chris Duffy:
You teach at a school where there are so many driven students, right? There are students who are high achievers who have gotten into one of the most prestigious universities in the world. So you, in some ways, you would think like, you've done it, you should be happy. But I, I know from listening to other interviews that you've done that one of the things that you really found was that your students were really unhappy, kind of profoundly so.
[00:06:29] Laurie Santos:
Yeah, and I saw this, you know, in a really acute way in this new role that I took on on campus. So I've been teaching at Yale for now about 20 years, which makes me feel very old. So I saw students in the classroom and in my lab, but I didn't really get to know them really well. All that changed when I took on a new role at Yale where I became a Head of College on campus. So this is a role where I, I li—physically live with students.
Like, my house is in a quad with students. I eat with them in the dining hall and so on. And that was where I got to see this college student mental health crisis up close and personally. You know, particularly acute at Yale because as you've said, Yale students, these Ivy League kids that are incredibly driven and so on.
But I think a shocking thing that I realized is that it's not just at Yale. In fact, there's lots of evidence that just nationally, students are really struggling. So nationally right now, college students report being too depressed to function; they're lonely. They're overwhelmingly anxious. And nationally, right now, more than 1 in 10 students has seriously considered suicide in the last year, right?
This is not just a couple snowflakes in the parlance of, you know, I think what the media talks about, right? This is a real national health crisis. I realized, you know, I really wanna do something about this. Also as educators, I think we’re not really fulfilling our educational mission until we address this, right? Like students too depressed to function most days. Like they're not learning whatever we're teaching them if we're teaching them, I don't know, Shakespeare or computer science, like they're not like retaining this, just memory-wise. They, their brains can't possibly pick up on this information if they're feeling so depressed and anxious.
And so, that was kind of, more the origin story was to realize: we gotta do something about this. You know, I think my field of psychology has a lot of answers for the kinds of things you can do to feel better, right? Things you can do to not feel so stressed and depressed and anxious. And so I said, well, let me develop a whole class where I teach students all these strategies. Let me kind of give them, you know, the party line of what my field says about things you can do to feel better and hope that they can put these things into practice themselves.
[00:08:14] Chris Duffy:
Well, when we're talking about college students feeling too depressed to function, when we're talking about 1 in 10 students in the classroom thinking about suicide, having self-harm thoughts, how do you walk the line between the science of happiness and trying to get that out to people and not making people feel bad that they're not already happy?
Which I, to be clear, I don't think you do, but I think a lot of the, like, “You should just be happy” framework that's out in the, the world sometimes does that, is like this toxic positivity side. So, how do you personally think about, like, walking that line?
[00:08:47] Laurie Santos:
Yeah, no. Toxic positivity is real and I think it, it honestly, I think it stems from yet another myth that we have about happiness, right? Which is that a good life means being happy all the time, right? If I'm feeling sad or frustrated or angry or anxious or whatever, I've done something wrong, right? And I need to fix it. And I think this is a myth, right? Emotions are these signals that are telling our body what we should be doing in the future and how we should behave in the future.
And negative emotions are an incredibly important signal, right? Your sadness is telling you that there's something amiss. Your loneliness is telling you that you might need to seek out social connection. Your anger is telling you that something is wrong, that there's an injustice out there that you need to fix.
And so I think this idea that, you know, we need to be happy all the time would just be psychologically and, and evolutionarily would be terrible for us, right? Like we'd be missing out on these signals that tell us what we need. And so I think what we, what we need to do, and what I preach a lot in the class isn't, happiness isn't about being happy all the time. It's kind of having the normative emotions that come up based on situations.
[00:09:48] Chris Duffy:
This is one of the things that I admire most about your work, and I think it's so interesting is that you really are rigorously grounded in the science and in the practical pieces that make a difference. I mean, one thing that really stands out to me is that when your course was offered as a free online class, they were able to measure significant increases in well-being scores. So this isn't just like, “Hey, look at the sun and say ‘I'm happy,’” and then all of a sudden you feel happy. This is like real practice.
[00:10:15] Laurie Santos:
I, I'm a scientist first and foremost, and you know, I wanna help people, but I also wanna make sure that we're not selling snake oil, and as you've said, there's a lot of snake oil out there, right? From the toxic positivity to the woo stuff, right? There's just a lot of advice out there that these isn't necessarily scientifically rigorous, although it pretends that it is, or at least it's kind of scientifically adjacent. If I say, “Hey, experience more gratitude”, or “Look at the sun”, or whatever the recommendation is, I'm saying, “And here's the paper that shows that it might work for you”, and if possible, trying to test it ourselves to make sure, you know, hey, if we suggest these strategies to students, if the students actually put these things into practice, will we move the needle? And I think that's a hard test, right? I mean, there’s… behavior change is really hard, and I think there's a lot of factors that affect our happiness. So if a simple 10-minute practice that I'm suggesting to students is moving the needle, realistically, it's probably not gonna move the needle that much.
Like if all of a sudden, my students go from zero on a happiness scale to a hundred, probably something's wrong. But the cool thing is that we actually do see small but significant increases in happiness. Small but consistent increases in people's self-reported happiness, and, and that's really cool. It suggests that some of the practices that we're suggesting really can work.
[00:11:24] Chris Duffy:
So let's, let's talk about it then. What are, what are some of these practices that you would recommend?
[00:11:29] Laurie Santos:
You know, if you survey people you know, or again, around the new year, like when we’re having this conversation, there’s a lot of goals out there that people think are gonna make them happy. You know, right now, or at least if you look at statistically last year, in 2022, people's top New Year's Resolutions were lose weight. Like, you know, around 4 out of 10 people basically said they wanna lose weight. Absolutely no evidence that losing weight is gonna make you happier. Changing your body in general, probably not gonna make you happier. What really does make us happier though, is changing other behaviors. For example, increasing our social connection? A huge, huge boost in people's happiness.
Pretty much every available study of happy people suggests that happy people are more social. And there's also evidence that getting more social will increase your happiness no matter your personality profile. So even if you are a self-reported introvert, getting some social connection will make you feel better.
Again, not like huge parties, huge crowds, but just like contacting that person one-on-one that you care about, but you haven't been in touch with in a while. Another big boost for our happiness is kind of getting away from this idea of self-care. These days we hear a lot about treating ourselves, and I think sometimes self-care can be like, you know, “buy this bubble bath”, but sometimes it's really about, you know, me time, and me, me, me.
But if you look at happy people, they're not as self-focused. They tend to be really other-oriented. Happy people on average, controlled for income, donate more money to charity. Happy people on average, controlled for free time, spend more of their time volunteering. They're kind of, just like, doing stuff to make other people happy rather than focused on their own happiness.
And so there's evidence that if you just kind of do more stuff for other people, get kind of out of your own headspace and try to help others, it can actually boost your happiness. So those are just some behaviors that help with happiness. There are also lots of mindsets that we can shift into that can really help with our happiness.
For example, a mindset of gratitude. This idea of just counting your blessings, like taking moments to notice the good things in life sounds super cheesy. You know, sounds like grandmotherly wisdom, but I always say: “It might be common wisdom, but it's not common practice.” Like, common practice these days is to complain about everything, right?
But again, there's evidence even if you just like write down a few things that you're grateful for every night, we can show significant increases in your happiness in as little as two weeks. A final practice I'll, I'll mention is sort of this mindset of being a little bit more present, right? You know, we talk, people have heard about mindfulness and being in the present moment, but, but the evidence really suggests that like, if you're just there with whatever's going on, noticing it, paying attention to it, and allowing it, that's better.
And that includes being present when things, like, suck. Like that includes being present when you're feeling frustrated, when you're feeling really sad, when you're feeling overwhelmed. The, the start of the new year where you're like, “Ah, there's always things I didn't finish last year. There's so much on my plate.” Like that's a moment to say, “Hey, wait, let me notice for a second. That's, that's overwhelm, right? That's, that's feeling like I haven't had a break.” And that's not a nice thing to notice and feel. It's much better, you know, to pretend that that's not happening or cover it up or check your email or whatever.
But the act of noticing that, it turns out, is important. It ultimately winds up making us feel happier, in part ‘cause it causes us, when you notice it, you gotta deal with it and allow it and change it perhaps in some cases. So, this act of being present is important, but it's not just being present when everything's like unicorns and rainbows. It's also being present when things don't feel so good.
[00:14:40] Chris Duffy:
It's interesting ‘cause that, that does seem to tie back to what you were saying before about the toxic positivity pieces, right? Like if, if you insist on everything has to be happy and good all the time, you can't actually be present when you're not feeling happy and good, and that paradoxically leads you to feel less happy and good.
[00:14:57] Laurie Santos:
It prevents us from really taking action on the things that matter, right? No, really noticing like, “Oh, this is loneliness”, and “Oh, hey, I can do something about loneliness. I can reach out to somebody. I can do something different.” Or “I'm feeling really overwhelmed”, like, actually that means you need some rest. You need to need to take some things off your plate.
And so, I think we can’t, like, see the solution that's gonna help us most unless we know what the problem we're dealing with is and, and knowing that problem requires understanding what emotion we're experiencing at any given time.
[00:15:23] Chris Duffy:
Something that I often think of as kind of my personal goal for happiness is if I imagine myself in this metaphor as I'm a cup, to, to be overflowing with so much that I can fill other people's cups. Sometimes I associate the idea of, like, volunteering and charity with like, oh, there's, I'm overflowing so there's plenty to give, and that's when that happens. But it sounds like you're actually saying that that can also help fill my own cup, which I know I'm pushing this metaphor to its very limit here, but I wonder if that, is that true?
[00:15:53] Laurie Santos:
I think that's totally right. I mean, I think another misconception that comes up when we think about happiness and motivation and things is this idea that if I do something nice for others, it kind of, like, depletes me, right?
There's this kind of fixed happiness pie out there, right? And if I kind of give some of the happiness to someone else, I'm kind of losing out myself. But that's just simply not what the data suggests. Ha, like the nice stuff in the world and happiness isn't a zero-sum game. Like, we're actually increasing the pie.
So you're kind of, to use your cup metaphor, I guess, making the cup even bigger. like you kind of add parts to the cup, you know, larger and larger cup, which again totally, I mean, it's absolutely not what our intuition is. It's not what my intuition is. I mean, I know the data. I can cite the studies on this stuff showing people, again, people who do nice things for others tend to be happier. If I force you to do nice things for other people, rather than do nice things for yourself, that will over time make you happier. Just like the simple act of forcing people to give some money to charity makes them feel better. Right?
But that's not my intuition myself, especially when I'm having a bad day. My instinct is not, “Hey, let me do something nice for my brother”, or “Let me, like, give a gift to a coworker,” or something. It's, it's me, me, me. It's like, “I want this stuff.” But in fact, I know from the data that if you really do something nice for somebody else, you'll wind up feeling better. So yeah, we're increasing the cup size as we go.
[00:17:10] Chris Duffy:
Okay. Well take a second to grab your increasingly enormous cup and get yourself a refill of whatever it is that you're drinking, because we're gonna take a quick break for some ads, but we will be right back with more from Laurie in just a moment.
[00:17:33] Chris Duffy:
On today's show, we're talking to Laurie Santos about science and well-being, and here is a clip from Laurie's podcast, which is called The Happiness Lab.
[00:17:40] Laurie Santos:
Science shows us lots of really simple habits we can add to our lives to feel better. We can take more time to connect with the people we care about, or just chat with a stranger we meet on our commute. We can try to reduce the exhausting choices we make on a daily basis. We can count our blessings. We can become more accepting, both of the bad emotions we feel and the obstacles we face in life. We can stop focusing on the end goal and think more about the journey.
[00:18:06] Chris Duffy:
How much of happiness or, more broadly, well-being is adding positives? And how much is removing negatives?
[00:18:15] Laurie Santos:
Oh, I think it's, I mean, it's definitely a little bit of both, right? I think things like adding social connection, you could construe as adding some positives in, right? I'm, I'm getting the boost of the social connection, but it's also decreasing your alone time, right? It's also getting rid of loneliness to a certain extent.
I think, also, a lot of, another big factor for happiness that we haven't talked about yet is giving yourself a little bit more free time. There's lots of evidence for the power of what's called time affluence, this subjective sense that you have some free time. And for most of us, kind of feeling more time affluent means taking some stuff off our plate, right?
Like taking stuff out of the calendar rather than adding to it. And so I think we, we sometimes often forget that, like, happiness requires taking stuff away. But definitely, when it comes to boosting our time affluence, there's a lot of spots where we need to take some stuff away to get more bandwidth to even think.
[00:19:05] Chris Duffy:
It’s interesting. I feel like for myself, one of the things that is often a, a trap for me to, to feel less happy is being too focused on, on money or income. Especially because I have irregular income, so it causes a lot of stress as to be like, well, “Is this actually gonna last? How long is it gonna last for?” Blah, blah, blah.
But sometimes then when I look at my actual day, and I think like, “What would I do if I won the lottery?” I don't think I would actually, like, fly to some exotic locale. I'd probably, like, see some friends and have a great conversation with someone, and I want to make a lot more money so that I can do exactly what I'm doing now, but not worry while I'm doing that right now, is a strange loop that breaks me out of that cycle a little bit sometimes.
[00:19:43] Laurie Santos:
Yeah, and I think this is, you know this, this is some lovely work by the Harvard Business School professor Ashley Whillans, that shows exactly this, that often when we think about getting more time, we're often thinking about, “Well, I'd have to give up money to do that.” But what she finds is that people who focus on being wealthy in money aren't as happy as people who focus on being wealthy in time, and in fact, even spending your money to get back more time.
You know, if you have, if you are lucky enough to have some discretionary income, spending it to, you know, not have to clean your house, or even in some cases, like, buying takeout so you save time cooking and things like that. Spending your money that way and really framing it that way, which is, which is a, a spot where we mess up. A lot of us might go to a restaurant, but we don't sit in the restaurant and think, “Look at how much time I'm saving. I don't have to go to a grocery store. I don't have to clean the dishes.” We're not framing it in terms of the time saved, but the act of doing that can make you happier, much happier than, than money can make you on.
On the money and happiness points, it’s worth saying money does make you happy if you don't have much of it.
[00:20:40] Chris Duffy:
[00:20:40] Laurie Santos:
Right? Like if you can't put food on the table, if you can't put a roof over your head like it, it really will make you much happier to get some money. So it's not that money doesn't matter for happiness, it's that for probably a lot of the people listening to this podcast, if you have the basics in life, getting more money isn't really gonna help. And in the US right now, that's at around 75k, some estimates put it at. This is work by Danny Kahneman and Angus Deaton. Find around 75k. That's probably the upper limit of like, if you were to double or triple your income, would it matter very much?
So if you’re, like, lower than that, more money will make you happy. Probably not as happy as you think, but a little more might help after that point. More is just, it's just kind of gravy. It's not really gonna help as much as you assume.
[00:21:21] Chris Duffy:
When you, you're in a situation, obviously, where the basics are hard to come by, so much of life is, is, requires a lot of mental energy. It also requires a lot of, there's a lot of instability where you're not really sure. Things aren't predictable. Are we actually happier when we know, like, this is just reliable? Like, I know for sure my rent is covered. I know for sure I, I'm gonna be able to go to the grocery store. Like, those are kinds of predictability that I, just intuitively, they seem like they must be really important for happiness.
[00:21:48] Laurie Santos:
It honestly kind of depends. I think if there's a really important thing like food on the table that you're not sure you're going to get, that feeling, that anxiety is real, like that anxiety's a true signal of like, “Man, if we don't do something different, we might get, not get food on the table.” So it's that those negative emotions are honest signals that are telling you, “Hey, a really important thing kind of matters.” You know, we sometimes forget that back in the day, this, you know, Maslow had this idea of Hierarchy of Needs, and at the bottom, it’s like food, shelter, you know, whatever.
Sometimes in our discussion of happiness, we can forget, like, no, no, no. Those basics are still basic. Like those are still really essential. If you're unsure of them, it's gonna be a bad scene. But once we get them, then there's a question of like, okay, what else, kind of, has to be stable in life? What else has to be uncertain? And I think, you know, obviously, novelty is kind of interesting, but that's in part because we get used to the things we have, right?
And so one way to, to get back the novelty is to find ways to reframe the stuff you have as kind of being interesting again. It’s sort of getting off what's often known as the hedonic treadmill, which is this idea that if you're on a treadmill for a long time, if you're running, you can sort of get used to it. You get used to the pace, you know, such that when you get off it, you're like, whoa. The, you know, like, feels like the world's not moving anymore. Right?
This is a, a treadmill that we can get on with all our, the rewards that we experience in life, all the good things in life. It's one of the reasons that gratitude can be so powerful is that gratitude can get you to notice the stuff that you already have. And so, yeah, it's true that it feels like novelty will help us feel better. You know, a new phone, you know, a new trip or a new whatever. But often it's because we, we have stopped experiencing the benefits of the things we already have. So if we can use strategies to re-experience the benefits of the stuff we have already, then we don't have to buy anything, then we don't have to make any changes. We just kind of get the same happiness benefit over time for the stuff that we, we have now.
[00:23:34] Chris Duffy:
So this, this is coming out in the new year, and I wonder, what does the scientific research around wellbeing and happiness say about New Year's resolutions and about the way that we actually should approach a new year? Which, obviously, I feel like every scientist I know is, feels very strongly that, like, January 1st is just a day. It’s truly just one more day. But for a lot of people, it doesn't feel like that.
[00:23:57] Laurie Santos:
There's some evidence that it's worth sort of striking when the iron is hot, when the sort of motivation iron is hot and there is evidence for, for what researchers call the fresh start effect. This is some lovely work by, uh, Katy Milkman, the University of Pennsylvania, and what, what she finds is our motivation, like, can kind of kick into high gear at certain temporal moments, right? New Year's is obviously one of them, but we have other ones. Like our birthday is often a time where we're like, this year, you know, a new switch, right? They’re these kind of moments that should be arbitrary, right?
January 1st is just another day, but for some reason, it feels like we're turning a new page where, like, new page on the calendar, blank slate. Like, anything is possible. And she finds it, like, those things matter, right? They can actually be moments where, because our motivation is in high gear, it makes sense that we're ready to make some changes.
I think the problem though, with this fresh start effect is that we apply it to the wrong changes. We're like, “This is the year that I'm gonna lose a bunch of weight. This is the year that I'm gonna make more money at work or really double down on my career.” Right? When, if you took the fresh start moment and said, you know, “This is the year that I'm really gonna invest in social connection. This is the year that I'm really gonna try to talk to myself in a different way so I'm a little bit more self-compassionate. This is the year where I'm really gonna focus on the things I'm grateful for and just try not to pay as much attention to the negativity and the hassles.” Then the fresh start effect, you'd kind of apply this moment where motivation was feeling so amped up, you'd kind of apply that motivation in positive ways that would really have a true effect on our happiness.
So, I think it's not so much that New Year's resolutions are bad. I think, yeah, any, any day you're feeling motivated to go for it, you know you should go for it and make changes. The problem is that we pick the wrong changes. And I think we also go about those changes with the wrong attitude. Um, we sometimes talk to ourselves, especially I think in the new year in this sort of drill instructor mindset, where it's like, “Well, if I just scream at myself and berate myself for how crappy things were last year, I'll make it all better this year.”
And there's so much evidence to suggest that that simply doesn't work. That we, we'd do better if we took baby steps, if we engaged with these goals with a little bit more self-compassion, like kind of thinking about, not in terms of perfection, but in terms of kind of getting better slowly over time. So we, we need to pick different resolutions and we need to go about them a little bit differently.
[00:26:06] Chris Duffy:
I’ve heard you talk before about, uh, this term “mind hitches.” Can you tell us about what that is?
[00:26:10] Laurie Santos:
Yeah. I mean, this is the idea that like, you know, our mind kind of sometimes messes us up, right? I think, I think the problem with happiness isn't that we're not working towards it. I think most of us are putting in a lot of effort to feel better, but the problem is that we seem to be doing it wrong. Like we, we tend to go about the wrong goals. And so I think understanding these biases, these spots where our minds go astray, can actually be really helpful. It's worth noting that they don’t fix things completely. Like I still have pretty much all the wrong intuitions when it comes to happiness about like my social connection and what I need and what circumstances will make me happy. I have the same bad intuitions as everybody else, but I think if you know that your mind is leading you astray, you can start doing better.
[00:26:49] Chris Duffy:
You say you're, you're not so good at this yourself.
[00:26:51] Laurie Santos:
Oh, I suck terribly, terribly.
[00:26:52] Chris Duffy:
What are the things that you struggle with? Like when you personally see it, like you're like, ah, “I'm not doing my own research”?
[00:26:57] Laurie Santos:
I mean, literally, I mean like having a tough afternoon, right? Today I have a bunch of podcast interviews, a bunch of meetings. I know around five o’clock, it's gonna be one of those days where I'm feeling tired, and my instinct is gonna be like, “I'm gonna plop down and watch the next new Netflix show and like, not get up, not talk to anyone.” Probably, you know, eat a bunch of junk food.
Like that's what my brain is like: “Do this, and everything will feel better.” And I know that actually if I, like, called a friend or if I did a hard Pilates workout or if I just took a walk and/or meditated, all of those things would feel way better than plopping down and watching Netflix and eating a bunch of junk food, but like it's hard to remember that in the moment. It's hard to really do it.
[00:27:37] Chris Duffy:
So I believe you, and I also believe the science and the research is correct about these things, but I do feel at least inside of myself, this like instinctive desire to push back when you say like, “I've had a long day, instead of watching my favorite Netflix show, I should do a hard Pilates workout.” What are the things that people push back on the most? ‘Cause I feel like that might be one of them.
[00:27:58] Laurie Santos:
Yeah. To be fair, it, it depends on what you need, right? You have to figure out what's gonna work for you in those moments and, and pay attention really to, like, kind of how it's feeling. In terms of some of the stuff where people push back a lot.
You know, especially with my, you know, Type A Yale students, I get a lot of pushback when it comes to the work on money. A lot of them have worked incredibly hard in high school to get into a place like Yale so they can leave and get, you know, a job in finance or where they're gonna make a lot of money and I'm telling them like, “Nope, that's not gonna work.”
After I present the work saying after 75k, you're not gonna feel better, they’re like, “Well, what if I invested different? Or what if I…?” Like really? They really don't like that. Um, get a lot of pushback when it comes to this idea of, of negative emotions, right? That, that like we should allow and be one with our sadness, with our anxiety.
I think that can feel really scary. How can I even overcome these emotions? So that's a spot where I get, you know, lots of pushback. And then also just this idea of is this the right enterprise? I mean, I think in the midst of where we've been with the COVID-19 crisis, with anti-black violence, with political polarization, with the climate being on fire, it can feel weird to focus on our happiness.
I think people are like, “Is that just, like, really selfish or kind of Pollyanna-ish? Right? Like, I'm just gonna pretend that I'm happy when the whole world is messed up.” And I think that's a spot where there are, are really interesting empirical data to push back. Because what the data suggests is if you really want to fight for social justice, if you wanna take action against climate change, you might actually wanna focus on your happiness, because if you look at who's doing the push for these kinds of things, it tends to be people who are happier.
You gotta put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others or helping the world. But we forget that our mental health kind of matters for our ability to do good stuff in the world and also for our performance. So that's another spot where I get pushback is like, does this stuff really matter beyond just kind of selfishly feeling good? And it's like, yeah, I actually think we'll solve a lot more of the crises in the world if a lot of us were feeling better.
[00:29:54] Chris Duffy:
You don't have to wait till you're perfectly happy because giving your life meaning by working towards stuff will actually make you happier in the long run. It sometimes doesn’t. I think we sometimes forget that too.
[00:30:04] Laurie Santos:
Totally. I think the key is, again, how much we're pushing and how we're doing and not noticing, and this is something that you can speak to from my own experience, you know, so I'm actually taking a year off this year to kind of address my own sense of burnout. I was in the trenches working with students in the midst of COVID-19, fighting for all this stuff, and was starting to notice all the classic signs of burnout, things like that you’re just really exhausted all the time and even getting a great night's sleep doesn't make you feel less exhausted. Things like cynicism where you know, like simple questions that my students had really, like, irk me a little bit more than they should have and a little bit more than they would have if I was feeling a little bit better.
Focusing on happiness, helping my students, it’s given me tremendous purpose and meaning in life. But that doesn't mean you can pull back and stop paying attention to when the balance is a little bit off, and if you find that it's a little off, that is definitely a negative emotional signal that you should pay attention to, ‘cause there's lots of evidence that if you don’t, then you're in for a full-blown burnout. And, and that doesn't, that doesn't go very well after that.
[00:31:03] Chris Duffy:
One topic that I, I would like to get a little deeper into is how COVID-19 and the pandemic and the shifts that have happened in the world over the last couple years, how those have changed the way that you think about happiness and well-being.
[00:31:18] Laurie Santos:
You know, if anything, they've made me realize how important they are and, and how fragile some of the things that we need for our happiness really are. I mean, if you designed a disease that would hit at some of the things we fundamentally need for happiness, like COVID-19 would be it, right? Like it really made it so difficult to engage in social connection, right? It was like this uncertain thing that's still kind of uncertain. Is it here? Is it not here? How long is it going? Right?
These are all things that the human mind doesn't deal with well, and we, we faced it, and out of nowhere, like in the middle of, you know, a time when we were also experiencing political polarization, which makes us feel uncertain and, and allows us to feel a lack of social connection. We experienced it at a time of climate anxiety, which is a normative anxiety to have. It should be scary that the planet is getting hotter and hotter, right? It means all the more that we need to start focusing on our mental health, in part because there's things chipping away at it, right? So we need strategies to kind of do better, but also, as I said, like these are threats that are real, that I hope someone, especially my young, smart students, will be able to solve. And unless they're protecting their mental health, they simply won't have the emotional bandwidth to fix any of this stuff either.
[00:32:26] Chris Duffy:
If someone's listening to this and they immediately, like this podcast ends, they start a practice right now, like what's something that they should do in this moment as soon as the show ends to make themselves a tiny bit happier?
[00:32:38] Laurie Santos:
Yeah. Well, I think the social connection piece is powerful. I think if when this podcast ends, you pick up your phone, and you try to text a friend or call a friend or set up a time to like, engage with another real human being in real life, it’s a positive thing you can do, and I promise that once you actually engage in that, at the end, if you, again, play scientist yourself and take your own data and figure out like, how am I feeling? You'll feel, “Oh, I feel much better.”
I bet you you'll feel relatively better, relative to maybe what you could have done with that half hour, which is like scrolling, scrolling through your social media feed or something like that. That would be the biggest, fastest takeaway. But I think all of these practices we've talked, it’s worth noting that, like, they're kind of fast, right? Figuring out time to text a friend, you know, I’d best that I'll take half hour. Doing something nice for someone, texting someone and checking in about how they're doing, or doing a quick $5 donation to charity. If you're having a bad day, doing something to feel a little bit more present.
You know, that could be, like, a five-minute meditation or just like, three conscious breaths of where you are right now in terms of your emotions. Scribbling in a gratitude journal. That’ll take you like five minutes, right? I mean, all the things we're talking about don't have to be these mega investments.
And I think recognizing that, realizing that these tiny baby steps can have big effects is also a way forward to realize you don't have to revamp the whole wheel, like your fresh start doesn't have to be a, like, tearing off the new page and like throwing out the rest of the book. You can really just be these small changes that you do intentionally and ideally turn into a habit over time that can have a big impact on how you're feeling.
[00:34:07] Chris Duffy:
Well, Laurie Santos, thank you so much for being here. It's been a pleasure to talk to you. I'm sure that anyone who's listening to this podcast is going to immediately go and listen to The Happiness Lab, your podcast, to get even more from you. But really, it's been an absolute pleasure. Thanks for making the time.
[00:34:21] Laurie Santos:
Thanks so much for having me on the show.
[00:34:25] Chris Duffy:
That is it for today's episode of How to Be a Better Human. Make yourself happier by immediately texting a friend or loved one about the show, and have them listen to this episode so that you two can discuss it. A huge thank you to our guest, Laurie Santos. Her podcast is called The Happiness Lab. I'm your host, Chris Duffy, and you can find more from me, including my weekly newsletter and information about my live touring dates at chrisduffycomedy.com.
How to Be a Better Human is brought to you on the TED Side by Anna Phelan, Whitney Pennington-Rodgers, and Jimmy Gutierrez, who are psyching themselves up right now to come home from work and do an intense Pilates workout. Every episode of our show is professionally fact-checked, so you don't have to just take my word for what you're hearing. Thank goodness. This episode was fact-checked by Julia Dickerson and Erica Yuen, who much to my amazement, tell me that scientists really did teach monkeys how to use a fruit-based currency.
From PRX, our show is brought to you by Morgan Flannery, Rosalind Tordesillas, Jocelyn Gonzalez, and Patrick Grant, who are taking the next five minutes to furiously scribble in their gratitude journals.
And of course, thanks to you for listening to our show and making this all possible. We will be back next week with even more How to Be a Better Human. Until then, take care and thanks so much for listening.