Managing your happiness

Happiness 101: Yale course overview summarized

When college students can counter anxiety and depression, they find it much easier to learn more deeply. “The Science of Well Being” by Professor Laurie Santos is the most popular course in the history of Yale. Why? One possible reason: According to a recent survey by the American College Health Association, 52 percent of students reported feeling hopeless, while 39 percent suffered from such severe depression that they had found it difficult to function at some point during the previous year.

Here is a modified overview of Prof. Santos’ course.

Note: Some students lack basic life needs (food, clothing, shelter). For some, deficits of food, clothing and shelter can be severe blocks to happiness, while some find ways to work around these lacks and still be relatively happy. The college you attend has numerous resources for students dealing with homelessness, food deprivation and other such issues. It’s important to see a counselor to be guided to the right resources. If any student you know on campus faces these lacks, please tell them to contact a counselor, because the college is eager to help students with problems become successful graduates.

Step one: Make a short list of things that you think would make you happier. They can be big things (a raise, moving to a new city, a new partner) or small (whatever looks good right now in the vending machine).

Nearly everything you think will make you happier won’t, because nearly everything you’re likely to list is some circumstantial change: more money, a different home or job, a long vacation, or even a snack just beyond the vending-machine glass. Your mind is constantly telling you that if you just got those things, you’d finally, truly, unequivocally be happy. But your mind is wrong and science is right.

We are inclined to assume that circumstances play the biggest role in our happiness, when research suggests they play the smallest role.

What’s more, we grossly underestimate the extent to which changing our behaviors, rather than our circumstances, can significantly increase our well-being.

Certain habits have been shown to be consistent among happy people. Happy people devote time to family and friends. They practice gratitude. They practice optimismThey are physically active.

What about money? “Money can’t buy happiness” is an aphorism you learn around the same time you’re old enough to read your first fortune cookie, but is it true? How much money does it take for an average person to be happy? There is a set amount, and it’s $75,000 a year. The Nobel Prize-winning economists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found when they studied 1,000 American households. Well-being rises with income until you hit $75,000, at which point it levels off. Beyond that, there’s no observable increase in happiness with higher income.

On the other hand, having an abundance of time reliably creates happiness. What would you do if you suddenly found you had an extra hour? There’s a good chance you’d use that hour to catch up on work, rather than go for a walk or visit a museum you’d otherwise not have time to do.

Sixty percent of working parents report feeling “always” rushed, and 80 percent of working adults, with or without children, would like to have more time to spend with loved ones. In psychology, this sense of not having enough time is known as “time famine.” The sense of having plenty of time is called “time affluence.”

Would you accept a new job with a 20 percent higher salary if it meant a 25 percent longer workweek or a 50 percent longer commute? If so, you are valuing your monetary affluence over your time affluence. Those who choose to have time affluence report a much higher level of overall happiness.

Claim blocks of non-work time in your daily schedule, and don’t use them for anything work related. Research shows many of the most accomplished people in history have had this habit.

Some exercises designed for self-betterment: Keep a daily gratitude journal for seven days; determine your Signature Strengths (see Signature Strengths page); get at least seven hours of sleep (start with at least three days in a row).

Is happiness something that we “achieve.” There’s excellent evidence that it is not.

If you were hit by a car today and paralyzed from the neck down, do you think you’d be happier in five years than you are right now? Or less so?

Answer: Neither. You’d be about the same.

This is the surprising finding of Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness and a proponent of the concept of “synthetic happiness.” Gilbert makes the somewhat radical claim that happiness isn’t something we chase or achieve but rather something we manufacture. In other words, you don’t find happiness — you make it.

Gilbert cites a famous study in which people who recently won the lottery or suffered permanent paralysis were asked to rate their own happiness, and then compared to a control group.

The lottery winners, on average, were slightly happier than the control group, and the recently disabled were slightly less happy — but neither group diverged from the norm much.

Happiness, in the end, is a mind-set to be cultivated, not a condition to be imposed. By the time students complete the course, Santos hopes that they’ll not just be happier but also have a variety of tools that enable them to take control of their happiness.

Dr. Santos’ Time Affluence exercise:  Go practice Time Affluence. Take forty minutes. You are not allowed to fill this time with work. You have to do something unexpected: Read for pleasure. Take a hike. Meet a friend for coffee.

Happiness Practices:

Keep a Daily Gratitude Journal: For the next week, write down at least five things for which you’re grateful every day. These can be big things (your kids) or small things (the Twizzlers you bought at the corner deli didn’t taste like they’d been there for eight months). One study found that, in severely depressed patients, taking the time to record just three things daily over 15 days led to a reported increase in well-being in 94 percent of respondents.

Leave Your Phone Out of Sight: As Charles Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit, MIT researchers discovered behavioral “loops.” One of today’s most common loops: cue = boredom, routine = pull out smartphone, reward = a few moments of empty stimulation. So try this: Next time you feel the boredom cue, leave your phone where it is and consciously choose a reward that contributes to well-being. Two of the best rewards, happiness-wise: starting a conversation with a stranger or being more present in the moment.

Meditate: Researchers have conclusively linked increased happiness with a meditation practice of even as little as ten minutes per day.

Be Responsible: Having responsibility over something else — a kid, a pet, a garden — makes you happier.

Sleep = Happiness: Stanford researchers found that resolving insomnia in depressed patients doubled the success rate of treating their depression.

What Is WOOP? In studying people’s good intentions, psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen of NYU discovered something unexpected: Positive thinking can actually impede the likelihood of attaining our goals. That’s because we focus on our ideal outcome (I want to lose weight) rather than the obstacles we’ll face to get there (pizza is delicious). So Oettingen developed a tactic called WOOP to overcome hurdles. First you identify your wish (losing weight) and imagine the outcome (having lost weight). Then you think about a likely obstacle (I love pizza) and make a concrete plan to get around it (avoid all pizzerias). WOOP!

The prerequisite for taking Santos’ course is an online survey on how happy you are. You can take it for free at www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu. Go to that website, register, and look for the Authentic Happiness Inventory.

You can also take a version of Dr. Santos’ full course online for free at https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being

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