Science-Backed Strategies for Happiness (From The Happiness Lab)

Child: Welcome to my Mommy’s podcast.

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Katie: Hello and welcome to The Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com and wellnesse.com. That’s wellness with an E on the end, our new personal care line of completely safe and highly effective personal care products. I think this episode is extremely timely considering the dynamics that all of us are navigating right now. I am here with Dr. Laurie Santos, who’s a Professor of Psychology and head of the Silliman College at Yale University as well as the host of the critically acclaimed podcast, The Happiness Lab. And after observing a disturbing level of unhappiness and anxiety among her college students, she began teaching a course entitled “Psychology and the Good Life” which quickly became the most popular course in Yale’s history with over a thousand enrollees in the first class and has also reached almost 2 million people from all over the world through an online version, which will be linked in the show notes at wellnessmama.fm if you would like to check it out. And although she’s now best known as a happiness expert, her research also explores the broader question of what makes the human mind unique? And often includes comparing the cognitive capabilities of nonhuman animals to humans. And in this episode, we go really deep on not just the science of happiness and what we know about things that lead to happiness versus those that don’t, but also some research-backed practical strategies that we can all implement even during these uncertain times that lead to more happiness. It was a really, really fun interview, and I know that you will enjoy it and learn from it just like I did. So, without further ado, let’s jump in.

Dr. Santos, welcome. Thank you for being here.

Dr. Santos: Thanks so much for having me on the podcast.

Katie: I am so excited to have you here. I think your research is incredible and especially vital right now. I think we have some great topics to dive into today. But for people who are not familiar, let’s start broad, can you tell us about what “The Happiness Lab” is?

Dr. Santos: So “The Happiness Lab” is a podcast that I host which is all about the science of happiness. And the basic premise of “The Happiness Lab” is that our mind kind of lies to us about the sorts of things that make us happy. So we all have these hypotheses about the sorts of things we should do to feel better. You know, we could change our job or switch our relationships or, you know, basically change our circumstances in some sense. But the science suggests that those things don’t really have the impact on happiness that we think. And so the podcast is all about the kinds of things you can do to really feel better in an evidence-based way.

Katie: I love that. And that kind of came from, you teach at Yale from what I’ve read, is that correct?

Dr. Santos: Yes. So I’m a professor at Yale. And a couple of years ago, I started a new class on Yale’s campus on the science of happiness, it was called Psychology and the Good Life. And the class emerged out of the fact that in my new role on campus as a head of college where I live with students, I started to see that students were, like, a lot more unhappy than I remember being in college. You know, students were incredibly depressed and overwhelmed and just kind of anxious all the time and that was really frustrating because these were, you know, students that I cared about who are in my residential college community.

But it was also frustrating because as scientists, we really know that there is evidence-based practices that we could engage in to feel better, you know, there are these incredibly simple interventions that all of us can be doing to improve our wellbeing. Again, like not incredibly but with, you know, significance and in ways that can really improve our functioning. And so I decided to develop this new class to teach my Yale students all about these different interventions about the science of happiness and what they could do to feel better.

What I didn’t expect is that it would become the largest class ever in Yale University’s history, over a thousand students enrolled in the class, which was really surreal and very surprising. But that made me realize that, you know, there’s a huge demand for this kind of content. And so the podcast was a reaction to that demand, it was a way to give the content of the class to folks who might not have time for an Ivy League course on their own.

Katie: I love that. And you have some incredible episodes, I’ll make sure I link to some of those in the show notes here. Before we jump into kind of understanding the psychology of happiness and practical ways that we can move toward that, how do you define happiness as a term? Because I feel like maybe there’s a lot of misconstrued definitions of that word.

Dr. Santos: So there’s, you know, probably as many definitions of happiness as there are, like, kinds of happiness and things. I think one of the ways we think about it in the podcast and in my class is to take more of a, like, nerdy social scientist definition of happiness, it’s kind of the definition that scientists use, but I think it actually works pretty well. And so we think of happiness as having two parts. So it’s being happy in your life and being happy with your life. So being happy in your life is just the fact that things feel good to you on a day-to-day basis. You experience lots of positive emotions, things like joy and happiness and laughter, and you experience, you know, fewer negative emotions, so less depression and anxiety and sadness and anger and things like that. So that’s kind of being happy in your life.

But there’s a second component, too, to happiness, which is to be happy with your life. And by that I mean, all things considered, you’re kind of satisfied with how your life is going. And so what the research suggests is that maximizing those two parts, kind of happy in your life and happy with your life, is really the way to promote a really high subjective wellbeing. And you can get to associations between those. I think lots of parents have experienced at least one where it’s like, you know, when you first have a newborn baby, I think you’re really happy with your life, you know, you feel your life is so meaningful and you have this new child to take care of, but in your life, you know, it’s a lot of, like, not sleeping and dealing with the really dirty diapers. And so I think there are times when those things can split but if you really want to maximize happiness, the best way to do it is to make sure you’re experiencing lots of positive emotion and feeling really satisfied generally with how your life is going.

Katie: Got it. Okay, that makes sense. And I’m guessing with this next question, the answer will be that there is probably a very individualized and personalized answer for each person. I work on the nutrition side of health and more and more, I’ve come to find that, while there are some generalities, finding our own very personalized nutrition and health plan requires self-experimentation and that the answer isn’t the same for everybody. But I’m curious, so maybe the better way to word the question would be what common denominators have we found that separate people who have both of those kinds of happiness from people who don’t?

Dr. Santos: Well, there are lots of different factors and they’re not the ones we expect, you know, we assume that the people who have lots of joy and happiness with their life are, like, the incredibly successful people, you know, people with tons of accolades or really good circumstances. But the data suggests that our life circumstances matter a lot less than we think. You know, how rich you are, what job you have, if you’re in a relationship. All that stuff doesn’t matter as much as we think.

What matters more are a few things. One is kind of exactly what you were saying, healthy habits. And those can be healthy habits in regard to eating, those can be healthy habits in regard to sleep and especially in regard to exercise. There’s work suggesting that a half-hour of cardio a day is about as effective as a prescription of Zoloft, the anti-depression medication for reducing depression symptoms. So we forget that, you know, the way we treat our bodies can matter a lot.

But a second thing that we really need to improve happiness in our life and with our life is social connection. We think of happiness as being about self-care, you know, this idea of “treat yourself” sort of thing. But in practice, the truly happy people out there tend to be really other-oriented. You know, they’re worried about what’s going on with other people. You know, they really want to reach out and do random acts of kindness. They’re really grateful for the people who are around them and they express that gratitude.

And most importantly, they really prioritize time with the people they care about. Every available survey of happy people that I know about suggests that happy people spend more time with others, so they’re physically around other people more often and they often prioritize the people that they care about, you know, so they make time for, you know, their friends and family members and loved ones.

And so then a final piece of happiness I would say is generally sort of our mindset. You know, if we’re bringing a mindset of gratitude, of presence, of mindfulness, of noticing how we feel on a daily basis, those kinds of habits can really promote both the kind of the life satisfaction part of happiness but also the mood part of happiness, like feeling happy in your life also.

Katie: Got it. And I feel like there’s often an internal script, at least I know I can say this for myself of, “If only,” you know, fill in the blank, “then I would be happy.” And for me, it was like for a very long time struggling with weight, like, “If only I was this size, then I would be happy,” or, “If only my finances were this, then I would be happy.” And I think maybe we all have some version of that script that we kind of believe, even if it probably isn’t actually true. And I know for me, with the health and the body side, I actually had to completely shift that. And it was when I started loving myself and choosing to be happy and choosing gratitude that the weight stuff actually started resolving itself. But it took that getting rid of that script of, “If only this happened, then I would be happy,” and choosing, “I’m gonna be happy now,” and then that eventually resolved itself. But why do you think we want these things that don’t actually make us happier? What gets us in that script or that loop?

Dr. Santos: I mean, that’s the million-dollar question because I’m with you on every single part that you mentioned about like, you know, “When I’m skinny, I’ll be happy,” or, you know, “When my podcast gets to number one, I’ll be happy,” or whatever, right? Like we’re constantly putting our happiness on some circumstance in the future. And it’s wrong for two reasons. One is that, you know, we’re less likely to get there if we’re not happy actually.

So a lot of the research suggests that our causal arrow about happiness is backwards. We think success at reaching our goals will make us happy but there’s also a lot of research suggesting that happiness itself can help us reach our goals. So people who are happier tend to be healthier. You know, if you’re happier at time one, you’ll be less likely to catch diseases, you’ll be more likely to live longer. Happy people tend to perform better at work, you know, so happy people are those who get better performance reviews and so on.

Happy people are more likely to be in a relationship and more likely to be in happy marriages later on. And these are all studies that have been done longitudinally. So we can look at happiness at time one and see if that predicts, say, if you’re in a relationship at time two. And so I think that’s kind of part of it is that one of the biggest mistakes is that we get the causal arrow wrong. We think, “When I get, you know, X, Y and Z, I’ll be happy.” But actually for a lot of the things we want, focusing on being happy first will help us get the things that we want, the circumstances in life we want later.

But the other problem is that really, our circumstances aren’t the key to happiness, that’s really what the data suggests particularly with body image stuff. There’s lots of evidence suggesting that, you know, people who achieve their weight loss goals or people who get plastic surgery, you know, assuming that these kinds of things will make you happy. Like, they don’t make you as happy as you think or often for as long as you think. So then you can just kind of go back to those other random patterns.

Even if you get the things you want, if you’re stuck in that, like, bad loop of thinking, what happens is as soon as you get what you want, you just go back to thinking that but just for something else. And we’ve seen this, we actually have a whole episode of this on our podcast, an episode called “The Unhappy Millionaire” where we talk about this in people’s circumstances with money where people think, you know, “If only I could make $1 million, I’d be happy.” But then the research shows that as soon as people actually get that million dollars, then they’re like, “Well, now I need $50 million,” you know, “Now I need to be a billionaire,” right? “I can’t be happy until I’m actually a billionaire.”

And all the results suggest that, you know, once you get there, you’re still not gonna be happy. And so I think one of the things the research shows is that we need to break out of those thought loops and a way to break out of those thought loops is to realize the stuff that really does matter. Kind of exactly as you’ve shown in your story that once you got out of that loop and really focused on the stuff that mattered, like all of a sudden, the things fell into line anyway, all the circumstances fall into line anyway.

Katie: Exactly, that makes sense. And I love that you brought up, that’s a great episode I’ve listened to of yours, “The Unhappy Millionaire.” I’ll make sure I link to that. And I think we have a unique time to actually see that right now with all of the strange social dynamics and isolation that’s happening. And we have all of these celebrities that are stuck in their multi-multi-multimillion-dollar mansions and they’re not happy and they’re isolated. And we’re seeing this play out on social media and I know there’s been a lot of backlash against celebrity culture because of some of those factors.

But I think it’s also a really important time to talk about, you mentioned relationships being one of the big factors in happiness. And right now we’re kind of in this unprecedented time of isolation for a lot of people. So I’m curious if, A, if you have any just overarching strategies for dealing with a lot of the emotions that are happening for a lot of people right now that probably are interfering with happiness.

Dr. Santos: I think it’s really critical. I mean, I think just to kind of validate, like we are in a really incredible, surreal, strange, awful time in lots of ways. And so I think doing strategies that improve your wellbeing is more important now than ever. If in part because of the kinds of things I was saying and, you know, we get the causal arrow of happiness wrong. And there’s evidence suggesting that being happier can actually provide a little boost to your immune function. There’s studies where you introduce, like, subjects to respiratory viruses and you vary their mood and you look at who actually catches the respiratory viruses and you find that, like, having a happy mood or having a stance of being more positive actually makes you less likely to catch viruses.

Again, not like immune to viruses, obviously, like you should still be washing your hands, and socially distancing and all this stuff we know we need to do during COVID but, you know, it’s another way to kind of protect your body, too. So I think it’s even more essential now to be a little happier. But, you know, one of the main things I listed as relevant for happiness, social connection, is pretty hard in a time of social distancing. You know, many of us can’t do the social things that we are used to doing. You know, go out for brunch with friends or, like, hang out with our family members if they live far away. Like, those are the things that we’re not allowed to do because we’re trying to protect our physical health.

The good news is that social distancing doesn’t have to mean social disconnection. We can find ways to connect with other people, you know, through all kinds of technologies that we in our modern age are lucky enough to have. You know, you and I are talking right now over Zoom and even though you’re far away and, you know, we’re socially distanced from each other, we can really connect and have this really cool conversation. These are ways that we should be connecting with other people around us, using technologies from just, like, the good old fashioned phone to things like FaceTime and Zoom to talk to the people we care about just to see their faces, connect with them, that’s gonna be incredibly powerful during this tough time.

But we can also do things that are not necessarily as formal as we like to think with these technologies. I think lots of us know that we can use these technologies to connect, like, say, in like a work conference call or something like that or like you and I are doing, like for a podcast interview. But we forget that we can use these technologies to connect really informally, and that’s the social connection that we’re super missing right now. You know, like the chat with your friend at the water cooler at work or, you know, like having your neighbor stop by, you know, while you’re, you know, making dinner and she comes in for a couple of minutes or something. Those are the kinds of informal interactions we need to replicate over technologies, too.

And so I’ve been trying to do this myself of simple things like, you know, “I’m gonna do a yoga class online,” it’s like, “Well, let me just text my friend and see if she wants to do the same one with me.” Or I’m like chopping up, you know, vegetables for dinner or something and I’m just gonna be doing that for, like, a half-hour. And it’s like, “Oh, let me see if I can, like, Zoom call a good friend of mine up the street so we can just chat while I’m chopping vegetables,” or something. These kinds of informal uses of these technologies are gonna be really powerful for our wellbeing because they’re making up for the informal interactions that we’re missing during the day because of this crisis.

Katie: Those are great ideas. And my hope, I mean, like you said, this is completely unprecedented, we’ve never had to face something like this in our generation certainly before. My hope is that societally and then like as a group, we can keep some of the good things that might come from this. Like I’m hearing so many people gardening for the first time, for instance, or many people are learning or relearning how to cook at home and spending more time with their kids. And I think there can be good in a lot of the things that are happening right now. I also hope that as things start to open up eventually, it reminds us to have gratitude for those things we used to take for granted, for those quiet moments in the coffee shop or just getting to hug a friend or just getting to have those informal moments together, like you said. But I think from having listened to your podcast, another common theme when it comes to that, even while we’re still isolated, is gratitude. And you talk about gratitude in lots of different forms, but how does gratitude relate to happiness?

Dr. Santos: So there’s lots of evidence that gratitude is, in some ways, essential for happiness, like a completely free intervention you can take right now that will boost up your wellbeing significantly and for a really long time. We have a whole episode coming out in our second season of the podcast, which I don’t remember when you’re, like, you’re launching this, but I wanna say, we have a whole episode coming out in the second season of our podcast about the power of gratitude. And the problems with the opposite of gratitude, which is a great thing, right? Which I think is, like, very in right now culturally. Like everyone wants to complain and I feel like, especially in the context of COVID-19, there’s a lot of kind of complaining going around from, you know, sharing kind of memes about how stupid this is and complaining about socially distancing and all this stuff.

But the data suggests that really taking time to experience your blessings can be really powerful. There’s some work suggesting that the simple act of scribbling down three to five things you’re grateful for every day can significantly start boosting your wellbeing in as little as two weeks. And there’s also evidence suggesting that expressing your gratitude to the people around you can give longstanding boosts to your wellbeing. One study by the positive psychologist Marty Seligman and his colleagues show that the act of doing a gratitude visit where you, say, call somebody up and sort of share what you’re grateful for about them, with them, that can actually boost your wellbeing for over a month, so you see significant increases in wellbeing that lasts for over a month, which is kind of crazy and all we can all use right now.

But I think that the power of gratitude is that it’s just an emotion that makes you feel better and it also builds up resilience over time. And so right now the key is just to find, you know, blessings of our daily life or experience things that we’re grateful for. And I think kind of exactly what you said before is that this crisis has caused so many of us to realize all of these things that we should have been incredibly grateful for that we were just actively taking for granted. You know, for me, it’s like the weekly, you know, daily, even, like going to my coffee shop. Like, you know, I have my favorite coffee shop here in New Haven and I would go there and get coffee every day.

It wasn’t like every morning when I went there, I was just, like, incredibly happy and, like, savored that coffee and, like, knew that it was this huge blessing in my life, I just assumed it was something that I’d be able to do every day forever. But now in the context of this crisis, I realized like, “Oh, my gosh, I should have been incredibly grateful for that.” When I finally get out of this crisis and get to go get my favorite latte again, like, I’m gonna be ecstatic. And I think exactly as you were saying, there’s going to be so many things for which that is true. So many new habits that we can be grateful for but so many things we took for granted before that we’re going to really deeply appreciate once we get out of this.

Katie: Absolutely. I know, hopefully by the time this airs, maybe that’s starting to be in process in a lot of places, but even if it’s not, I think I’ve always thought, you know, it’s easy. I use the motto in my life quite a lot, “Amor fati,” which comes from Stoicism and it means basically “love of fate” or “love what is.” And I always think, you know, that’s an easy thing to follow when life was great and, you know, two months ago when life was normal and wonderful and I had so many things that were just, it was easy to find gratitude. And I feel like things like that or this is the actual measure of them and the test of them for us in our lives is, can we still find that gratitude when it’s hard?

So in some ways, this is a kind of a perfect time to practice gratitude because there are still many things to be grateful for, like you said, even in this crisis. And if we start looking for those now and develop that habit now, it’s gonna be even easier when things start to return, hopefully to more like they were before when we have even more to be grateful for. And in my own life, I know a couple of things that have really helped me is, like you mentioned, keeping a gratitude journal and I have a gratitude/art journal. So every day I just spend time jotting down things I’m grateful for and then also just doodling because that helps me just, like, mentally feel happy and I enjoy it and it’s kind of a therapy for me.

And then also with my kids at dinner, we try to make an effort to ask them, “What are you grateful for today?” Just to keep, even from a young age, have them start thinking of life through that lens of what are… And then they now look throughout the day to have ideas of things to be grateful for when we ask them just to start kind of framing their mind to look for the good and to look for the things to be grateful for. And I absolutely can understand, for a lot of us, it’s much harder than normal to do those things right now. But those are just a couple of practical strategies that have been really helpful for me personally.

Also, a lot of the people listening are parents and I feel like this crisis is maybe especially hard on parents who have kids now home 24/7 and who are now homeschooling with no notice whatsoever and who are taking on all of these extra roles and extra responsibilities and isolated for so long. So as parents right now and overall are there ways that we can improve our happiness or practical strategies specifically for parents? Because I think moms often get the advice of, “Oh, you just need to do more self-care. You need to find time for yourself,” and often that just feels like another to-do list item. So any advice specific to parents?

Dr. Santos: I mean, I think first is validating. Like, this is an incredibly challenging time generally. And it’s definitely not a time when we should start, you know, our new babysitting service or our new, like, math tutoring service for our kids but many of us are in this position. And so I think one of the pieces of advice for parents is just to employ some self-compassion here. And by that, I mean, like, don’t beat yourself up, you know, this situation is hard enough as it is without you feeling the, like, kind of social comparison of, you know, “That other mom is, like, teaching her kids about the planets and I’m just letting my kid, like, play Xbox.” Like, it’s fine. Like, this is not the time to beat yourself up.

And in terms of, like, how to do that because it’s one thing to say it, but it’s another to, like, actually do it, there’s some techniques that come from science that can be really powerful here. And so one of those techniques is a form of meditation known as loving-kindness meditation. It sounds a little cheesy but it’s a form of meditation where you really just try to experience compassion for the people in your life. So the practice is you literally sit down and you get in your kind of meditation seat or something and then think through the people in your life and wish them well. You know, so think about your kid or someone who’s really easy to feel compassion for and just say, you know, “May you be happy, may you be well, may you care for yourself joyfully,” these kinds of expressions of wishing the person well.

And then you kind of go through other people in your life. But the reason this practice is relevant for self-compassion is that one of the people you’re supposed to think those compassionate thoughts about is yourself. You know, so at some point in the meditation, you’re supposed to think, “May I be happy, may I be safe, may I care for myself joyfully,” and so on. And what the research suggests is that the act of doing these kinds of practices can really bump up the compassion you feel generally but it can especially bump up the compassion that you feel for yourself. It can make you stop beating yourself up a little bit.

These kinds of practices, they can also be really helpful against burnout because burnout is really about trying to do too much, either kind of not being compassionate for yourself or kind of just, like, so taking on the suffering of everybody else about, like, “What’s my kid gonna think?” or, “What’s my husband gonna think?” or, What’s my kid’s teacher gonna think?” and so on that you kind of don’t do the right things. You don’t end up protecting yourself. You take on more than you need to. And so through this power of self-compassion, you realize, like, the goal isn’t perfection, the goal is, like, “May I be well,” you know, “may I be happy,” and so you end up putting the right things into place. And so this is a practice that can be really powerful. It, too, is a thing that you kind of have to add to the to-do list, but it’s really part of the to-do list that is, like, a two-minute part of the to-do list.

You know, you can do a loving-kindness meditation by sitting on your meditation cushion for five minutes but you can also do it and think those positive thoughts, like, when you’re brushing your teeth or when you’re in the shower or when you have a kind of quiet moment when you’re first waking up in the morning. I’ve been trying to institute more positive thought meditation practices before I do the, like, pick-up-the-phone thing in the morning as the first thing. I’m like, “Wait, let me leave the phone and let me, you know, like, wish the people in my life a little compassion before I kind of pick up the phone and start checking email or panic-scrolling.” So, it is another thing you have to do, but it doesn’t actually take that much time and it can have huge, huge benefits.

Katie: I love that, that’s such great advice. I think anything practical right now is so helpful. To kind of loop back to something earlier, why, I know we talked about loops a little bit and that mental loop and focusing on happiness first. But why do humans, in general, want to pursue these things that don’t make us happy in the first place?

Dr. Santos: That is a million-dollar question. I feel like if we could just solve that one scientifically, we’d be such happier critters and, like, solve so much suffering in the world. One hint comes from the fact, I guess I’ll go with two hints, one hint comes from the fact that, you know, over evolutionary time, the goal of natural selection wasn’t necessarily to make us a happy species, it was to make us a striving species. You know, that got as many resources we could or as many reproductive partners as we could. And so, you know, our systems aren’t built to be happy, they’re built to, like, get more and more stuff and never feel satiated. And so that kind of comes a little bit from our evolutionary history.

We can fight it, of course, you know, we can be more mindful and come up with better strategies. But our natural habit, unless we put in some work, might be to kind of, you know, work and strive a little bit more than we need to to be happy. But a second insight actually comes from the way our brains are set up, which is one of the kind of annoying features of our own minds is the fact that we have different neural circuits for wanting things. So, like the things we crave are the things we seek out versus liking things like what we actually enjoy out there in the world. And so you can see these circuits dissociate most powerfully in the context of addiction.

So, say, if you have a heroin addiction and you’ve had a heroin addiction for some time, you’re gonna have incredible wanting for the drug. You’re gonna crave it like crazy and, you know, hurt people to get it. You’re gonna do all this stuff wanting this drug really badly, but when you finally get the drug, you’re so habituated to it that you don’t actually even enjoy it. Like it kind of just moves you to baseline, it doesn’t have the boost that it had before. And so that’s just one example that wanting and liking can dissociate.

But I think that this happens in all different contexts of our lives, you talked about body image and stuff. I experienced that myself where I could have many points in my life where I was, like, obsessed with how my body looked and really wanting to be skinnier and it would, like, my wanting system would get stuck on that all the time. But then at times when I actually had lost weight in my life, I didn’t even really enjoy it. Often, I wasn’t even really that mindful of it, it felt fine but it wasn’t, you know, the thing I was really looking for. And I think we can get that in all these different habit loops. “I really, really want a relationship,” or, “I really, really want this salary level,” but then you get it and you don’t actually like it, there’s this disassociation.

The same I worry is really true of the opposite, I’ve experienced this with a lot of wellness practices, right? Like, I really, really like doing yoga. I really, really like exercise, but I don’t have the same craving for it that I do for, like, a really unhealthy, you know, sugary food. Like even though I really like it, my, like, wanting system hasn’t gotten into gear. And so, you know, this raises a question of how you can get those two systems talking to each other, how you can link them up better. And the honest answer is, like, they’re just kind of separate and so it’s hard to do. But one way you can do a little bit better is to take time to be a little bit more mindful, is to kind of notice how practices really make you feel.

So if you have something that you’re really craving and you finally get it, take time to notice. Like, “Did I even really like that?” You know, like, I experience this a lot in my daily life with things like social media, right? Where I have this really strong urge to, like, check my email or, like, go on Twitter or something and I’ve been trying to take time to notice it. “How did that actually feel? Did I really like that?” Like, “No, like I felt kind of apathetic or a little gross,” or whatever versus things like, you know, healthier eating or meditation or yoga or something like that where afterwards I was like, “Huh, like I actually really liked that more than I expected, I feel resilient now, I feel healthier, I feel just calmer.” Taking time to notice and be mindful about what you like can sometimes help you update that wanting system where the wanting system can notice and be like, “Oh, that was pretty good. Like, maybe I should crave that a little more in the future.”

Katie: I love that. And I think you’re right. I think body image is especially a sticking point for a lot of women. Even women who have a lot of the other areas figured out and who are really, like, dialed in with their wellness practice or their kids or their career, I think that one is just, we’re probably evolutionarily wired because of those factors you mentioned in reproduction or, and also now society, there’s billion-dollar industries built on telling us we need to be and look a certain way.

And for me, I think it was realizing over time and then consciously changing that script in my head, it wasn’t that being skinny, I thought being skinny was gonna make me happy, but it was being skinny in my mind was a representation for feeling comfortable in my own skin and accepting my body and accepting myself. And I realized that was something I didn’t have to wait until I was a certain size to do. And so moving toward that, it was just amazing how I thought I was so laser-focused on the weight. And when I started changing the mindset, I realized I had the choice to have happiness right now. And that didn’t mean I wasn’t still gonna focus on wellness and I wasn’t still gonna try to lose weight and be healthier, but I was able to start choosing happiness to a large degree and accepting myself much more by switching the way that I thought of that in my mind. And certainly it was a long process. It wasn’t like I just woke up one day and did that. I just think women especially, that’s a really tough one to get through.

Dr. Santos: I know, I agree completely. And I think, I love this idea of, you know, change your mindset rather than try to change the circumstances because that can do a bunch of different things. One is it can make you grateful for what you have, right? Like it can make you realize like, you know, “Maybe my body is not totally perfect but it’s actually healthy, it’s doing what I want.” Like, you know, “It’s carrying me from place to place, it’s letting me take care of my kids.” Like it can allow you to realize that there are so many things to appreciate about your body.

And then what that does is it winds up, like, through the mechanism of appreciation, making you want to take care of your body, right? You know, so then you want to eat healthy or you want to sleep more, you want to exercise more. And doing those things is gonna wind up making you healthier no matter what your body size. You know, I subscribe a lot to these ideas of sort of health at any size which is that, you know, there’s a lot of things that control our body weight that are kind of out of our control, you know, your thyroid function and all this stuff.

But all of us, the thing we can control is what we’re putting into our bodies, how we’re moving our bodies, you know, how much sleep we’re getting and so on. And if you’re focusing on those things, then, like, the stuff you were really worried about with your body weight, you know, it’ll come into line naturally. Maybe because your body weight comes more into line with what’s healthy for you. But even if it doesn’t, like, the things you really wanted to get out of a healthy body weight, you’re gonna get anyway if you change your mindset.

Katie: That’s a great point.

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Another factor that I know you’ve talked about in your podcast and that people probably can understand leads to happiness is some kind of version of charity or helping others. And I know personally, like, some of the times I felt the best have been when I wasn’t self-focused at all but focused on other people. And we see it certainly like in, when there’s natural disasters. We live in an area that got hit by a hurricane a couple of years ago and the community came together and we all focused on helping each other. And I know, like, the feeling of that, even though it was exhausting and it was horrible to see people who had lost so much but I felt so incredibly happy being able to tangibly do something to help other people. So can you talk about that link between happiness and charity and how focusing on others can often help us shift as well?

Dr. Santos: I’m glad you brought that up because I think this is another one of the misnomers about happiness. You know, we think happiness is about, you use the term “self-care,” but even more things like, “Treat yourself,” you know, “Do for yourself,” like, “Focus on yourself,” like self, self, self. But the science suggests that happy people don’t do that, happy people tend to give more to charity than not-so-happy people controlled for income. Happy people tend to volunteer more of their time.

And there’s research suggesting that if you take not-so-happy people or just average people and you make them do nice things for others, they will over time get happier. There’s one lovely study by the psychologist Liz Dunn and her colleagues where she has people, she walks up to people on the street and just gives them some money so, you know, “Here’s 5 bucks,” or, “Here’s 20 bucks,” on the street. But she tells those subjects how to spend it, they either have to spend that money on themselves by the end of the day, so kind of treat themselves, or they have to spend the money on someone else, they have to do something nice for someone.

And what she finds is that at the end of the day, the people who did the nice thing for others are happy. And I find this work so striking because, you know, often when I think if I’m in a bad mood or if I’m stressed or even, like, in the context of this crisis and kind of feeling panicked or whatever, often my instinct is to do something nice for myself. Like, “I’m gonna buy something for myself.” Like, you know, “I’m gonna do something for my money that just benefits me selfishly.” But the data really suggests that if I took that intuition when I was feeling yucky and did something for someone else, that would be even more powerful for my happiness.

And I think this is a really important thing to remember in the context of COVID-19 in part because, you know, so many of us want to do stuff to kind of improve our wellbeing and doing nice things for others is a good route for it. But also because many of us are getting these tiny little financial and temporal windfalls that we don’t expect, you know. So if you’re socially distancing at home, you might not be paying money for gas or for that subway token to do your daily commute, you know, so you’re saving some money that way. You might not be buying that daily coffee or that daily, you know, whatever you bought at the restaurant, you know, up the street from work, like, and so those are the, you know, $5 here, $10 there, those are little financial windfalls that a lot of us could use to do something nice for someone else.

So could you take that money that you’re saving on your daily coffee and donate it to a local business that you want to make sure survives this crisis? Could you take that little bit of money and donate it to a good cause? Or even if you don’t have any money because realistically, a lot of us are out of work or in worse financial situations now than before, but a lot of people have extra time on their hands. They’re getting these little temporal windfalls either because you’re not at work or even if you’re just not commuting, you have those extra few hours that you’re kind of saving.

And so if you’re in a situation of having a time windfall, what could you do with that time to help other people? Could you call an elderly neighbor who might need your help or could you make a call to a political campaign that you really cared about or advocate for, say, health care workers and make sure they get protective equipment that they need? All those little 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there that we might be saving in the context of this crisis, we can put those to good use.

And doing so, again, doesn’t just help our community and do exactly what you said in the context of the hurricane where you’re really helping other people out, it’s also helping your wellbeing, you know, which is a lot of why we want to spend our money and want to spend our time in the first place. We want to use it in ways that make us feel good and doing nice stuff for others is one way to do that.

Katie: That’s so great. And especially finding those practical ways, like strategies you mentioned, even right now while we’re still kind of disconnected physically from each other, we can still do that and use that as a strategy for happiness. So you mentioned your Yale course that, it was extremely popular, I believe I actually read it was the most popular course in Yale history. And you had all of these college students who really probably were struggling with trying to find happiness and there were probably a lot of overachievers and type-A personalities.

A lot of the people listening probably have younger kids, so not quite to the college-age yet. But I know that’s, I think that’s top of mind for me, which is how can I give my kids a strong foundation for happiness from an early age so that they’re not getting to college and finding that they’re unhappy to begin with. And I would guess some of the same strategies that apply for adults also really work for kids. But do you have anything specific that we can nurture? Like you mentioned, gratitude was a great one, but with our kids, even from a young age to kind of set them up for that mindset of happiness?

Dr. Santos: Well, I think the recommendation that you gave about, you know, having your kids talk about the things they’re grateful for over their dinner table can be incredibly powerful. You know, building these habits in early, I think, are really essential. But another one is to kind of make sure that as a parent, you’re not focused on your kids’ circumstances to make sure they’re happy. And so by that, I mean things like how many accolades they get, whether they’re winning their games, whether they’re getting perfect grades, like all of those things are the kind of things that, culturally, I think we think of as perfect.

You know, as a parent, you have to make sure, like, your kids are setting themselves up as well for their futures as possible. But, like, the way you do that might be to teach them these strategies to really make sure they’re prioritizing time with their friends and time with your family and building social connections, that they’re really prioritizing taking time off and taking time to be mindful and savor and notice the things around them. I often think that parents who try to instill in their kids things like a strong meditation practice or a strong habit of gratitude, like, you’re almost doing better for your kids than getting them perfect grades. Because actually the data suggests that by high school, there’s an inverse correlation between good grades and happiness. In other words, the happiest students tend to have the worst grades or vice versa, the students who have the best grades are not necessarily the ones that are happiest.

There’s also an inverse correlation between grades and optimism, so the students with the highest grades are the least optimistic and there’s also an inverse correlation between perfect grades and self-worth. So the kids who have the best grades actually, statistically, have some of the lowest self-worth. And so, again, just kind of getting the balance right in the kinds of things that you as a parent prioritize and the skill sets that you’re building in your kids, I think, can be incredibly powerful if giving them these tips early on. You know, I wish that I had kind of taken this class and, like, learned some of these tips when I was a kid because then I wouldn’t kind of be, you know, taking the wrong path for as long as I had in adulthood before I started to learn some of these techniques.

Katie: That’s awesome. And another area, so in researching you for this episode, you study happiness a lot and you’ve taught this at Yale, but from what I’ve read, you also study kind of what makes the human mind unique and, like, the differences between humans and nonhuman animals, and this is a fascinating topic to me. So I’d love to hear just kind of what that study looks like and what are some surprising things that you found in that?

Dr. Santos: So this was kind of my day job before I became sort of a happiness expert is that I’ve always been a psychologist. But as a psychologist, I really focus on this question of what makes the human mind special. And I’ve studied that by both working with nonhuman primates who live out in the fields. I worked with a group of rhesus monkeys on this island off the coast of Puerto Rico. But even more close to home, I do a bunch of studies looking at how dogs make sense of the world.

Dogs are this wonderful analogue for humans because they grew up in similar environments to humans, you know, they’re also, are around learning in the same way as your kid is learning. You know, they’re picking up on language and they’re watching you do stuff and so the question is like, you know, why does your kid turn out to be a human adult and your dog kind of doesn’t figure that out, right? And so we do that by sort of setting up a bunch of studies with pet dogs, so people bring their dogs in from the community and we do little quick studies with them that look like dogs playing little puzzle boxes or playing games.

But it lets us test what the dogs know about the world. And so we’re really interested in whether dogs share the same strategies in terms of learning from people as humans do, whether they understand some of the same things we do, we were really focused on how they socially evaluate. So humans often don’t just, like, see people out there, but we evaluate whether somebody is nice or mean or, you know, helpful or not helpful or, you know, competent or incompetent. And so we’re interested in whether or not some of those ways of viewing the world are shared with dogs, too.

And there’s not that much overlap between the kind of studies of animal thinking and the studies of happiness. I think one of the spots where we’re seeing similarities is that we’re finding lots of domains in which some of the biases that we have as humans, particularly the biases that we have to, like, learn from other people, those kinds of things might be more ingrained than we thought. You know, they might be either, like, new in humans and animals don’t show them or even some biases that are so old that they’re shared with monkeys.

And I think once you see that these biases can be really built into our evolution, it makes you realize that things like, you know, the fact that we’re prioritizing the wrong things or that we have these wrong intuitions, in some ways, it’s not really our fault. Like, it’s kinda evolution’s fault that they kind of built us sort of crappily, but through understanding the right science and through the right interventions, we can really overcome the limitations that evolution gives us and we can become better decision-makers in ways that we’re using our decisions to lead us to even more happiness.

Katie: That’s so cool. I think this whole area is fascinating and I know that you have many episodes on “The Happiness Lab” if people want to keep going deep on this and it’s really, truly a fascinating topic. And I think even just sometimes learning about this, it just kind of rewires your mind to look for the ways, look for gratitude, look for ways to be happy and to shift that focus. As we start to wrap up, what do you feel like are a few of the most important takeaways? If you had to kind of distill the research on happiness right now, and especially maybe through the lens of the current crisis, what would be a few of the most important takeaways that you would leave with the listeners?

Dr. Santos: I think we’ve talked about some of these but I think one takeaway is just that happiness is really important. You know, we think that happiness is the outcome but happiness can make it easier to have good relationships, it can make it easier to be productive in your life, it can even make it easier to protect your immune system. So focusing on happiness first is important. The second big tip, and maybe a big misconception is that happiness isn’t what we often think. You know, it’s not built into our circumstances, it’s not built into how much money we have or the stuff we often assume. We need to do something different if we want to be happier.

And then I think the third takeaway is that those things that we can do to be happier are within our reach but they really take some work. You know, it’s just as simple as taking time for gratitude or taking time to get your meditation in and eat, you know, eat a little healthier, exercise. But those things, if we put the work in, can reap huge benefits. So it takes some work but the benefits are huge.

Katie: I love it. And lastly, I always love to ask if there is a book or a number of books that have had a dramatic impact on your life that you’d like to share and if so, what they are and why?

Dr. Santos: So many books. I think I’ll pick up, just to pick one book, I’ll pick up on your Stoic quote from earlier before, I’ll give a nod to Epictetus who is one of the famous Stoics and his old book, “The Enchiridion,” which is, it kind of loosely translates to the manual, but Epictetus starts his book with one of the important premises of Stoic philosophy, which is that there are kind of two things in life. The things we can control like, you know, our thoughts and our feelings and so on, and then the things we can’t control, which is our circumstances. And Epictetus notes that, you know, if you try to control this stuff that you can’t control, you’re gonna be miserable or you’re gonna suffer, everything’s gonna suck. But if you just focus on the stuff that you can control, which is your emotions, your mindset, and so on, no one can ever harm you, you’ll always be happy.

So I really, I think that, you know, there’s a lot of modern science on happiness and that’s mostly what we talk about in our podcast. But I think the Stoics and a lot of the ancients got it right and that’s just one of the wonderful manuals for how to, like, kind of turn your mind into a mind that is really good at focusing on the stuff that makes you happy.

Katie: I love that. Laurie, this has been such an awesome interview, I think extremely timely and important right now as we all navigate this kind of worldwide crisis together. And I really appreciate you taking the time to be here and to share all these years of research with us today.

Dr. Santos: Thanks so much. It was great to chat.

Katie: And thanks as always to all of you for listening and in echoing some of the themes of this episode, we’re very grateful that you did and that you were here. And I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of “The Wellness Mama Podcast.”

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.