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.
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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.