Tuesday, December 10, 2019
Laurie Santos Offers Surprising Keys to Happiness
Laurie Santos said it’s better to buy experiences, rather than things—memories of that exotic vacation last a lifetime whereas the novelty of driving a new car wears off.
Sunday, August 11, 2019


Do you know what will make you happy? Chances are you don’t.

That’s the word from America’s foremost professor dealing in the science—and practice—of happiness.

Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, delivered the 2019 Health and Well-Being lecture for St. Luke’s Wood River Foundation this past week. And, while she surmised that probably no one in paradise—i.e., Sun Valley--needed a course on happiness, a full house at the Church of the Big Wood hung on her every word.

Their ears especially perked up when they learned she was involved with Yale’s Canine Cognition Center, a new research facility studying how dogs think about the world. (Note to Mountain Humane: Invite her back!)

Santos said she designed the course when she realized that college students, including those at Yale, - were more overwhelmed, anxious and depressed than ever.

According to a recent survey by the American College Health Association, 40.1 percent of college students are so depressed they have difficulty functioning, 52 percent feel hopeless and an extraordinarily large number report feeling overwhelmed and anxious all the time.

Santos designed a course focusing on actually changing behavior. And it quickly became the most popular class in the 300-year history of Yale University with 3,000-plus students showing up for the first day of class.

Students were wrong if they thought they were going to get an easy course. Some later reported it the most difficult class they’d ever taken, given homework that included keeping a daily gratitude journal, developing a daily routine of meditation and exercise and making intentional social connections.

“You can become happy, but it’s going to take work,” Santos told them.

She pointed to an old G.I. Joe cartoon with the phrase, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Knowing is not half the battle when it comes to happiness, she said—not even close.

Becoming happy takes rewiring the brain. You can know something. But, unless you put it into practice,  nothing changes, said Santos, who even introduce a ReWi app for her students to use to alter their behavior.

Nearly everything people assumes will make them happier won’t, Santos said. Getting into an Ivy League College like Yale won’t make you happy, nor will straight A’s. A 30,000-square foot house won’t make you any happier than a 1,900-square foot one, nor will a Porsche make you any happier than a Subaru. Having the perfect body won’t make you happy, nor will “true love.”

 “Your mind is lying to you a lot of the time. It also lies to you about what will make you happy,” she said.

Circumstances, such as a new job, play a smaller role than we might think, she said.

She pointed to Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness.” She determined that half of our happiness is determined by our genes, 10 percent by circumstances and the rest by our thoughts, actions and attitudes.

Once basic needs are met, including shelter and food, the relationships between money and happiness becomes theoretical, Santos said. No matter what you have, it will never be enough.

When people making $30,000 a year were asked what it would take to make them truly happy, they responded $50,000. People making $100,000 a year did not say they were “double happy,” she noted. Instead they said they would be truly happy if they made $250,000 a year.

“We can control more of our happiness than we think.” She said. “Our life circumstances don’t matter as much as we think.”

She cited a study involving people who had just won Powerball and those who were recently paralyzed.

They were asked to rate their own happiness compared to a control group.  The lottery winners were on average slightly happier than the control group and the recently disabled slightly less happy at first. But neither group veered drastically from the norm. And most returned to their baseline levels of happiness after three months, whether they’d won the lottery or ended up in a wheelchair.

Certain things do seem to be consistent among happy people, Santos said. Happy people make time for social connections, cultivating relationships with friends and family. And they know that helping others makes them happier.

Practicing gratitude can significantly improve well-being, Santos said. One of her assignments is to have students write a letter to someone who was exceptionally kind but never properly thanked. Then she has them deliver it in person—what she calls the gratitude visit.

Healthy habits also matter more than you might expect, she said. A study tested the mood of subjects who got 7.4 hours of sleep for two days. Then they retested them during a period of sleep deprivation, in which they got only 4.98 hours of sleep for seven days, before testing them after a couple days of 7.4-hour sleep. Their mood definitely became darker during the period of sleep deprivation.

Being in the present moment is the happiest way to be, she added. Know what it feels like to be you, she encouraged listeners. Savor the moment—whether it be a walk or eating a great meal. Meditate.

Finally, seek to become wealthy in time, not money, she said. In America we value an abundance of money while we consider an abundance of time shameful.

Test subjects who bought something that saved them time, whether take-out or an hour of house cleaning, were happier than those who used the money to buy a book or new shirt, she said.

What habit is most important?

“The one you’re not doing,” she said. “The one you say, ‘I’m not so hot on that.’ ”


  • We can control more of our happiness than we think.
  • Life circumstances don’t matter as much as we think.
  • You can become happy but it’s going to take work.
  • Your mind is lying to you a lot of time, including about what will make you happy.
  • Happy people make time for social connections.
  • Helping others makes us happier than we expect.
  • Make time for gratitude every day.
  • Healthy habits matter more than you’d think.
  • Being in the present moment is the happiest way to be.
  • Become wealthy in time not money.





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