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AN INTERVIEW WITH

Laurie Santos is a Professor of Psychology and Head of Silliman Residential College at Yale University. Dr. Santos hosts the popular podcast, The Happiness Lab. Additionally, she is the director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory and the Canine Cognition Center at Yale. She also teaches The Science of Well-Being MOOC (massive online open course) on Coursera that has nearly 3 million students enrolled.

Dr. Santos, we are honored to be able to speak to you about your work and vision. Can we kick off by asking you to describe a typical day in your life?

As a busy professor, my days are pretty packed. I’m a morning person, so I like to get in a nice yoga session or hike with a friend. These days, it’s yoga over zoom and socially-distanced hikes, but it’s still nice to get in some social connection and exercise before I start the work of the day. After a quick breakfast (right now, I’m obsessed with chia pudding with mango, coconut, and almonds), I get to work— which is always a mix of fun projects. These days, it’s a blend of working on my academic research with my students (working on research ideas, editing about-to-be-submitted papers), managing and planning cool events in my residential college at Yale (planning events and advising meetings with students), creating new content for my podcast (doing interviews with interesting folks, scripting and writing new episodes), and then a bunch of other random stuff (like this interview). I usually wind down with yoga again in the evening, then some reading before bed.


2020 demonstrated just how tired and in need of hope and positive energy the world can be. Your various initiatives endeavor to understand what happiness means, where it comes from, and how to generate it. Can you tell us more about the course that you teach at Yale and why it is so immensely popular?

I stared my live course at Yale soon after I became a Head of College on campus at Yale. As an HoC, I started to see the student mental health crisis up close and personal. Many of my students were depressed, anxious, and just more stressed than I expected. The class was my attempt at synthesizing everything that science said about how to improve your well-being. The first time I taught the class, it became the most popular class in Yale’s history, which really shows that students are voting with their feet— that they don’t like this culture of feeling anxious and overwhelmed and they wanted to do something about it. The course also generated a lot of buzz in the press with lots of national and international news articles. That made me realize that we needed to find a way to get this content to more people, and so I developed a Coursera version of the live Yale class which we put online for anyone in the world to take for free. That class has also gone a little viral— we now have nearly three million learners, many of whom signed up in the last few months during COVID-19. Again, I think this interest shows that people are really looking for evidence-based strategies for improving their mental health, especially during this challenging time.

The first time I taught the class, it became the most popular class in Yale’s history, which really shows that students are voting with their feet— that they don’t like this culture of feeling anxious and overwhelmed and they wanted to do something about it.

Recent events have again shown us how staying silent and inactive when others’ rights need defending compromises our collective happiness, which you addressed in a recent episode of your podcast, The Happiness Lab. Can you share with us your takeaway message and tips to fight injustice?

I believe that true happiness can only come when we live in a just world. Empirically speaking, there’s lots of evidence showing that people are less happy when they live in unjust societies. And of course, injustice and structural racism causes a huge hit on the well-being of those who are affected directly by the injustice. In my episode, "How to Be A Better Ally", we talk about what we can do to fight this injustice, and how doing so can make us happier and give us more meaning than we expect. The big takeaway message is that all of us need to embrace a bit more discomfort if we’re going to fight racism. People from marginalized groups of course don’t have a choice about this— they feel uncomfortable a lot. But allies also need to embrace the discomfort and work if we’re ever going to fight the structures that systematically make some people feel less happy.


The Happiness Lab and the Science of Well-Being course are followed by millions of people. Can you describe your goals with these initiatives? How is the podcast different from a classroom or online course? 

The aim of the online class was to create a version of my Yale class that anyone around the world could take for free. We’ve had millions of people sign up, and our preliminary data suggests that the class is working. People tend to increase their well-being by about a whole point on a 10-point happiness scale. But not everyone has time to take an entire Ivy League class in order to learn better strategies. So I started The Happiness Lab podcast as a way to give learners these tips in more bite-size chunks. The podcast format also allows for interviews and a bit more narrative, which has been a super fun way to explain the scientific concepts and to give listeners real world examples of people who are putting the science into practice in their own lives.


How do you think understanding and appreciating the science underlying happiness makes a difference in ordinary people’s lives?

I think it can make a huge difference! One of the overarching premises of the podcast is that our minds lie to us about how to become happier. That means we’re putting effort into our well-being, but many of us are doing that wrong. By understanding what the science really says about feeling better, we can put our energy into practices that are going to work better.


Various disciplines argue that we have a natural happiness (or lack thereof) “baseline,” and, in fact, that we need suffering to grow. How do you think we can break free from our limiting beliefs and rewire our brains to accept that we deserve happiness?

There is evidence for a happiness baseline, but it has less of an effect on our happiness than we think. If you look at the science, it shows we have a lot more control over our own levels of well-being through our behaviors and mindsets. I think learning about that science— seeing the evidence that we really can change our mental health for the better— can help us break free from the belief that we can’t change.


What do you think is the role of life and success coaching in the process of happiness and fulfillment?

Once we know what to do to be happier, we still need to do those things. I think coaches can help us stay accountable and put what we’ve learned into practice. But it’s worth noting that those of us who can’t afford a coach can also use a friend or a community of like-minded folks to do the same.

All of us need to embrace a bit more discomfort if we’re going to fight racism. People from marginalized groups of course don’t have a choice about this – they feel uncomfortable a lot. But allies also need to embrace the discomfort and work if we’re ever going to fight the structures that systematically make some people feel less happy.

Once we know what to do to be happier, we still need to do those things. I think coaches can help us stay accountable and put what we’ve learned into practice. But it’s worth noting that those of us who can’t afford
a coach can also use a friend or a community
of like-minded folks to do the same.

Beyond the important work that you do, what really makes you happy?

I get joy in really simple things— hanging out with my husband and laughing with a friend, a nice yoga session, playing with my friends’ dogs. I try to take time to notice these simple moments of joy, especially during these tough times.


What do you think every one of us can do daily to improve the level of collective well-being?

Honestly, the first step for me involves coming to terms with our own misconceptions about happiness— we need to put the right kind of effort in to improve our well-being. That’s why I’m so committed to teaching people what really works from an evidence-based perspective.

Prof. Laurie Santos is a Professor of Psychology and Head of Silliman Residential College at Yale University. She is also host of the popular podcast, The Happiness Lab.

Laurie Santos is a Professor of Psychology and Head of Silliman Residential College at Yale University. Dr. Santos hosts the popular podcast, The Happiness Lab. Additionally, she is the director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory and the Canine Cognition Center at Yale. She also teaches The Science of Well-Being MOOC (massive online open course) on Coursera that has nearly 3 million students enrolled.

AN INTERVIEW WITH

Dr. Santos, we are honored to be able to speak to you about your work and vision. Can we kick off by asking you to describe a typical day in your life?

As a busy professor, my days are pretty packed. I’m a morning person, so I like to get in a nice yoga session or hike with a friend. These days, it’s yoga over zoom and socially-distanced hikes, but it’s still nice to get in some social connection and exercise before I start the work of the day. After a quick breakfast (right now, I’m obsessed with chia pudding with mango, coconut, and almonds), I get to work— which is always a mix of fun projects. These days, it’s a blend of working on my academic research with my students (working on research ideas, editing about-to-be-submitted papers), managing and planning cool events in my residential college at Yale (planning events and advising meetings with students), creating new content for my podcast (doing interviews with interesting folks, scripting and writing new episodes), and then a bunch of other random stuff (like this interview). I usually wind down with yoga again in the evening, then some reading before bed.


2020 demonstrated just how tired and in need of hope and positive energy the world can be. Your various initiatives endeavor to understand what happiness means, where it comes from, and how to generate it. Can you tell us more about the course that you teach at Yale and why it is so immensely popular?

I stared my live course at Yale soon after I became a Head of College on campus at Yale. As an HoC, I started to see the student mental health crisis up close and personal. Many of my students were depressed, anxious, and just more stressed than I expected. The class was my attempt at synthesizing everything that science said about how to improve your well-being. The first time I taught the class, it became the most popular class in Yale’s history, which really shows that students are voting with their feet— that they don’t like this culture of feeling anxious and overwhelmed and they wanted to do something about it. The course also generated a lot of buzz in the press with lots of national and international news articles. That made me realize that we needed to find a way to get this content to more people, and so I developed a Coursera version of the live Yale class which we put online for anyone in the world to take for free. That class has also gone a little viral— we now have nearly three million learners, many of whom signed up in the last few months during COVID-19. Again, I think this interest shows that people are really looking for evidence-based strategies for improving their mental health, especially during this challenging time.

The first time I taught the class, it became the most popular class in Yale’s history, which really shows that students are voting with their feet— that they don’t like this culture of feeling anxious and overwhelmed and they wanted to do something about it.

Recent events have again shown us how staying silent and inactive when others’ rights need defending compromises our collective happiness, which you addressed in a recent episode of your podcast, The Happiness Lab. Can you share with us your takeaway message and tips to fight injustice?

I believe that true happiness can only come when we live in a just world. Empirically speaking, there’s lots of evidence showing that people are less happy when they live in unjust societies. And of course, injustice and structural racism causes a huge hit on the well-being of those who are affected directly by the injustice. In my episode, "How to Be A Better Ally", we talk about what we can do to fight this injustice, and how doing so can make us happier and give us more meaning than we expect. The big takeaway message is that all of us need to embrace a bit more discomfort if we’re going to fight racism. People from marginalized groups of course don’t have a choice about this— they feel uncomfortable a lot. But allies also need to embrace the discomfort and work if we’re ever going to fight the structures that systematically make some people feel less happy.


The Happiness Lab and the Science of Well-Being course are followed by millions of people. Can you describe your goals with these initiatives? How is the podcast different from a classroom or online course? 

The aim of the online class was to create a version of my Yale class that anyone around the world could take for free. We’ve had millions of people sign up, and our preliminary data suggests that the class is working. People tend to increase their well-being by about a whole point on a 10-point happiness scale. But not everyone has time to take an entire Ivy League class in order to learn better strategies. So I started The Happiness Lab podcast as a way to give learners these tips in more bite-size chunks. The podcast format also allows for interviews and a bit more narrative, which has been a super fun way to explain the scientific concepts and to give listeners real world examples of people who are putting the science into practice in their own lives.


All of us need to embrace a bit more discomfort if we’re going to fight racism. People from marginalized groups of course don’t have a choice about this – they feel uncomfortable a lot. But allies also need to embrace the discomfort and work if we’re ever going to fight the structures that systematically make some people feel less happy.

How do you think understanding and appreciating the science underlying happiness makes a difference in ordinary people’s lives?

I think it can make a huge difference! One of the overarching premises of the podcast is that our minds lie to us about how to become happier. That means we’re putting effort into our well-being, but many of us are doing that wrong. By understanding what the science really says about feeling better, we can put our energy into practices that are going to work better.


Various disciplines argue that we have a natural happiness (or lack thereof) “baseline,” and, in fact, that we need suffering to grow. How do you think we can break free from our limiting beliefs and rewire our brains to accept that we deserve happiness?

There is evidence for a happiness baseline, but it has less of an effect on our happiness than we think. If you look at the science, it shows we have a lot more control over our own levels of well-being through our behaviors and mindsets. I think learning about that science— seeing the evidence that we really can change our mental health for the better— can help us break free from the belief that we can’t change.


What do you think is the role of life and success coaching in the process of happiness and fulfillment?

Once we know what to do to be happier, we still need to do those things. I think coaches can help us stay accountable and put what we’ve learned into practice. But it’s worth noting that those of us who can’t afford a coach can also use a friend or a community of like-minded folks to do the same.

Once we know what to do to be happier, we still need to do those things. I think coaches can help us stay accountable and put what we’ve learned into practice. But it’s worth noting that those of us who can’t afford a coach can also use a friend or a community of like-minded folks to do the same.

Beyond the important work that you do, what really makes you happy?

I get joy in really simple things— hanging out with my husband and laughing with a friend, a nice yoga session, playing with my friends’ dogs. I try to take time to notice these simple moments of joy, especially during these tough times.


What do you think every one of us can do daily to improve the level of collective well-being?

Honestly, the first step for me involves coming to terms with our own misconceptions about happiness— we need to put the right kind of effort in to improve our well-being. That’s why I’m so committed to teaching people what really works from an evidence-based perspective.

Prof. Laurie Santos is a Professor of Psychology and Head of Silliman Residential College at Yale University. She is also host of the popular podcast, The Happiness Lab.

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