One Dental emergencies are a wake-up call for Laurie Santos. It’s not even her own: One of Santos’ students at Yale University needed her consent before completing some work. Rather than sympathize with her students, Santos mostly feels annoyed about the extra paperwork she needs to complete.
That reaction is unusual and unsettling for Santos, a psychologist who teaches Yale’s most popular course on the science of happiness. She knew that cynicism, irritability, and exhaustion—all of which had been gnawing at her lately—are telltale signs of exhausteda condition that nearly 30% of US workers say they experience at least once in a while, according to the McKinsey Institute of Health in 2022. survey.
That’s not the only red flag for Santos. Her plate felt too full. Her fuse is shorter. Two years after the pandemic, she is tired of bending the college experience on campus to fit a distant world. “I take great pride and empathy when working with students, and it feels like it is chipping away,” says Santos. To avoid sinking into utter burnout, she decided to take a year off from Yale and temporarily move with her husband to Cambridge, Mass.
“I’m trying to practice what I preach, because I think it’s an authentic way of saying, ‘Look, seriously, this works,’” Santos said. “But I also want to be happy.”
Santos knows what you’re probably thinking at this point: Why try to be happy if even the expert on happiness is exhausted? But that was a mistake, she insisted. It’s true that no one is immune to burnout — especially in stressful times like these — but we all have the power to change our circumstances.
When Santos introduced his course, Psychology and the Good Life, in 2018, it quickly became the most popular course in Yale’s history. More than 1,000 students signed up, leading to logistical problems including finding a large enough auditorium and resolving traffic jams in the cafeteria when a quarter of undergrads tried to get their meals in advance. when in the same class.
Santos has a hunch that the course will have broad appeal. She decided to start teaching it after observing how stressed-out Yale students, who were constantly worried about their grades and futures, seemed more likely to push through than to enjoy college. The startling statistics of mental health conditions and suicidal thoughts on the college campus reinforced her desire to help. “We are not doing our educational work if 60 percent of the students are too worried,” says Santos.
The course’s campus popularity has led Santos to develop a Free online version open to anyone, coming soon curriculum for high school studentsand happy lab audio fileshas been downloaded more than 90 million times since its launch in 2019. It’s no surprise that her scientific approach to happiness has created an empire: less than 20% of Americans say they very happy in Ipsos 2022 surveyand more than 25% of US adults say they are too stressed to function in the American Psychological Association 2022 poll.
There’s no single explanation for the pervasive unhappiness, but Santos says some are rooted in the way people are connected. Our brains are good at a lot of things, but making us happy isn’t necessarily one of them. Normally, the brain is an active saboteur, says Santos. After a long day, it tells you what you really need is an ice cream and a Netflix binge when in fact, research suggests you should call a friend, exercise, or do anything else. better than zoning. Or, your brain convinces you that you need a fancy job, a good salary, or a blue check mark on Instagram to be happy, when these External achievements often bring only fleeting gratification. “Natural selection doesn’t make us happy,” says Santos. “It will be [prefer] We push ourselves to the ground trying to survive, spawn and get the most resources. It’s not fun.”
Santos’ class delves into the study of what people think will make them happy (money, status, good grades) versus what science says will actually do—namely, the things that make them happy. ensure both physical (sleep, exercise, nutrition) and mental well-being (community, gratitude, mindfulness, finding meaning in everyday life). Along with traditional quizzes and tests, exercises include keeping a gratitude journal, performing random acts of kindness, meditation, and strength training.
Advice about Santos’ happy lab podcasts are also very practical. One recent episode highlighted the benefits of spending money on others, while another focused on the joys of being an unflinching fan—whether of a sports team, a TV show, or a sports team. or something else. The new season, which premiered on January 3, focuses on small but meaningful changes people can make in their own lives, as an antidote to ambitious resolutions. unsustainable that many of us put up with every New Year.
Those who think these tips don’t sound transformative probably haven’t tried them yet. Turning them from ideas into practice, says Santos, is the hard part—and that’s why you should learn about the science behind happiness. “It doesn’t change your intuition—my intuition is just as bad as someone else’s—but it can help you remember, when you’re having trouble, ‘This is the behavior that will work.’”
Just like the rest of us, Santos says she often struggles to overcome her brain’s false impulses. She knows she should exercise more. She tensed while eating cupcakes. She stopped calling her friends. She hesitates before donating to charity, fantasizing about the vacation she could take with the money. “My natural state is not necessarily happy,” she said. “I have all these incorrect intuitions.” But, the important thing is, she also knows when to ignore them.
Research shows that this happiness-building approach helps, at least modestly. One year 2021 learn analyzed the emotional health of UK university students who attended a Santos’ model happiness class in 2019, compared with students who have not yet attended but plan to join the following semester. Participants in the happiness class reported significantly higher levels of happiness at the end of the term than the control group. Again learn published the same year compared adults who took a free online version of Santos’ course with those who took a general psychology class. On average, the happiness of those who took Santos’ class increased by about 1 point on a 10-point scale called Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement (PERMA), while other course participants increased by about half a point. It’s not the difference between day and night, says Santos, but every little push helps.
Also, no one (or should) 10/10 is always happy, says Santos; it cannot and should not be aspiration. “Negative emotions are really good,” she says. “They are useful signals that I think we ignore in modern times. But we actually ignore them at our peril.
Santos knows better than ignoring her. She said she could have stuck with the status quo and gotten over her fatigue and irritability for at least a little longer. But in the end, she knew she would reach a breaking point. So she decided to follow what she taught and took a step back to rest, reassess, and—hopefully—feel energized again.
A sabbatical, which begins in July, allows Santos to pause and take his life back. She and her husband toyed with being a “digital nomad” for a year, but instead moved to Cambridge, not far from where she earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harvard University, as Santos knew a lot. there were many people there—and it was a rich family. Social life is the key to nurturing an exhausted soul. Six months after quitting, she spends her days streaming podcasts, going to the movies on Monday nights with friends, learning to knit, and satisfying her love of music by booting up her old PlayStation to play. Hero Guitar.
To track her progress during her sabbatical, Santos regularly keeps a diary to reflect on her feelings and does a PERMA review every few months. (Since launching her class in 2018, Santos says, she’s risen about one point on the scale. She’s fallen back to baseline at the height of the pandemic, but is now back again. highest level on record.) Now she’s halfway through. After a year of sabbatical, Santos says she can feel herself becoming less physically and mentally fatigued, more persistent. more patient, slower to anger. She still has goals for the remaining six months of her life—such as exercising more and traveling—but she already feels more like her old self.
Of course, a year-long sabbatical isn’t an option for most people — and burnout is often linked to unsustainable working conditions where individual employees are not empowered to change. change, this can make time off more like a bandage than a solution. Even Santos, who had the “incredible privilege” of leaving her job for a year, sometimes worried that her burnout would return as soon as she stepped foot back on campus. school. She’s using her sabbatical to think carefully about places she might shrink back after returning (in addition to happiness courses and podcasts, Santos also runs a research laboratory focus on knowledge and a boarding college, where undergraduates live and socialize, at Yale), and how she was able to create space for the interests and habits she had developed. hone in on school breaks. If she feels scared about going back when the time comes, “that would be a good signal that maybe I haven’t made as many changes as I need,” she says.
Even in a world where people cannot control every factor that affects their happiness, Santos believes that we all have the right to self-determination. People can strive for the basics, like getting enough sleep, getting regular exercise, and spending time with loved ones. Everyone can learn about the tricks of the brain and resist the temptation of fake friends like social media and extreme consumerism. And everyone can build an identity that exists independently of work and status—such as friends, partners, hikers, artists, even guitar hero gamer. For Santos, building a new identity means deliberately trying things she’s not good at, most recently booking a trip to Florida for her second surf lesson. “I was the last girl picked in the pitching game in middle school,” Santos said. “It’s about playing with identities that are very different from how I thought of myself before and allowing myself to see what those identities look like.”
All steps towards a happier life are achievable. They just go against every instinct we have as humans and as Americans. “Of course, I would never do any of that,” Santos admitted. But she knows that getting out of her own way is the first step to happiness.
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