Can you actually learn how to be happier?

Yale professor Laurie Santos believes so. Her new podcast, "The Happiness Lab", based on her popular happiness course, shares science-backed happiness strategies to help you live your life to the fullest.
Joyous woman infront of wall
Research shows that the simple act of reaching out to others will improve your mood more than you think.Tim Robberts / Getty Images
Get the Better newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

Everyone wants to be happy. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is even written into the United States Declaration of Independence. But, if we aren’t inherently, intrinsically happy, can we learn how to be? Is even possible to define happiness in order to achieve it?

Laurie Santos, a psychologist, has a handle on that info. A professor at Yale, she teaches a class called “Psychology and the Good Life,” which is said to be the most popular class ever offered there. Her new podcast, "The Happiness Lab", digs deep into various aspects of the science of happiness, with entertaining insights from guests such as David Byrne and Michelle Kwan.

She was inspired to teach happiness after becoming Head of College at one of Yale’s residential colleges, where she lived with her students. “Honestly, I got pretty scared by what I was seeing,” says Santos. “So many students are depressed, lonely, and anxious about their futures. I was seeing the college student mental health crisis up close and personal. Because I'm a psychology professor, I thought the best way I could help was to teach students about the science of happiness, with the idea that if they knew the science, they could put those insights into practice in their own lives.”

How do you teach happiness?

Santos says three decades worth of positive psychology research was a great place to start. “The work takes a simple approach — find happy people and see what they're doing that's different than not-so-happy people,” she explains. “Once you get some hints, you can run experiments to see if people who are not happy can improve their well-being by following the behavior of happy people.” She says this research has revealed lots of practical ways we can begin to improve our lives through developing habits that promote happiness.

Get the better newsletter.

Though happiness, in essence, means different things to different people, there are a few common threads or core ideas about what it’s supposed to feel like. “In class, we use the social science definition of happiness, which is that we want to feel good (that is, we want to have lots of positive emotions and less negative emotions) and we want our lives to feel good (that is, we want to be satisfied with how our lives are going and feel like we have meaning),” she says. “Most people’s definitions include some of these two components, so it's the one we use when thinking about how to improve well-being.”

Familiar with the adage “happiness comes from within?” Seems that it does in that you have to try to be happy to actually be happy. One 2013 study followed two groups of people who listened to positive music. One group was instructed to think positively while the other was just told to listen to the music. The result? The group that was told to try to be happy actually reported feeling happier. Other studies, like the 80-year-long Grant & Glueck Harvard Study of Adult Development, revealed that the close relationships you have, like spouses, family, friends, and social circles, can help you live longer and feel happier.

Most people think a simple chat with a stranger will be awkward and not very good for well-being, but it turns out that simple connection with people we don't know feels amazing. It's a great way to feel less lonely and to boost our mood. Even for introverts!

Dr. Laurie Santos

So, is happiness really up to you? Or is it about how close you are to others?

The answer is both. “I think it is fair to say that happiness comes with our behaviors and our mindsets — it doesn't come from our circumstances nearly as much as we think,” Santos says. “But a lot of the behaviors and mindsets that improve well-being come from being other oriented — from focusing on social connection and doing good things for others. So, we do need other people to be truly happy. In fact, loneliness is one of the worst things for both our happiness and our physical health.” According to a 2015 study, loneliness and social isolation can even place you at risk for early mortality.

Santos addresses these issues in an upcoming episode of her podcast (to be released early October) called “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude.” She opens with a tale about how and why the ATM was invented (hint: so we don’t have to wait in line to bank), and expounds into interviews with psychologist Nick Epley who wrote a study (also called “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude”) finding that acting “extrovertedly” by engaging in small talk among strangers “generally leads to greater positive affect” in most instances other than shirking from perceived stranger-danger. She then interviews musician David Byrne, who wrote an article on the dangers of diminished social interaction for the MIT Technology Review. “This was a really fun episode for me, because it involves teaching people about a topic where our intuitions are really off,” says Santos. “Most people think a simple chat with a stranger will be awkward and not very good for well-being, but it turns out that simple connection with people we don't know feels amazing. It's a great way to feel less lonely and to boost our mood. Even for introverts! The problem is that our minds tell us it's not going to be that fun, so we don't do it as often as we could.”

3 ways to get happier

We asked Santos if there were three simple behavioral modifications, or shifts in ways of thinking, that could help us all get happier, or as she defines happiness, improve our sense of well-being.

  1. Take time to connect with other people.Loneliness is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Santos says, advising we reach out and connect with others even in the simplest of ways. “Call up a friend you haven't spoken to in a while. Or just chat with the barista at a coffee shop. Research shows that simple act will improve your mood more than you think.”
  2. Count your blessings. Study after study shows that grateful people are happier, says Santos, who recommends pausing for a second before each meal to feel gratitude for it and all the nourishment you receive in general. Or, jot down a few things you're thankful for before bed each night.
  3. Remember: your circumstances don't matter as much as you think. Santos says though it’s easy to think a change in our circumstances — like a new great thing, a new job, or a shift in our romantic relationships — can bring us happiness, unless you're really in a traumatic situation, they aren’t as instrumental to happiness as we can think. Instead, she says, take a load off your mind and realize that things are probably OK just the way they are.

Also, realize some of your visceral gut instincts might turn out to be fear driven. “We can't just listen to our intuitions, because our intuitions about what we need to do to be happier are wrong,” Santos says. “That's where the science can help. The science can give us real hints about what we can do better and what really works.”

The Happiness Lab by Dr. Laurie Santos can be found on iTunes starting September 17th.

MORE FROM BETTER

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram