Laurie is best known for her course “Psychology and the Good Life”. It is the most popular course at Yale.
By Hadassah Penn.
When did you decide that happiness could be taught?
I got the idea for the class when I first started up as one of Yale’s head of college. In this new role, I worked with students more directly, living with them on campus. It was in this new role that I saw the mental health crisis college students are facing up close and personal. The class was my attempt to teach students better strategies to improve their well-being. There are many findings showing that we can in fact improve our happiness levels if we know the right strategies. The goal was to teach students what the science explains about improving well-being with the idea that they could put these scientific tips into practice in their own lives. After the success of the live class at Yale, we decided to share this content beyond campus with our online Cousera.org class, where we now have over 500,000 learners. We also developed our new podcast, The Happiness Lab, which is now past 8 million downloads since September.
What would you tell people who are skeptical about your course?
Well, I guess the first thing I’d say is that it works. We were able to document this clearly with our Coursera learners, where we asked students to do pre- and post-measures using a standard well-being survey. We found that learners show a significant improvement in their happiness levels, suggesting that the course really does help people improve their mood and well-being over time.
How has teaching this course taught or surprised you?
I definitely didn’t expect the class to go as viral as it did. I only expected about forty students to take the class, so I was really surprised when we got several orders of magnitude more than that— nearly one out of every four students in Yale College. I’ve also been surprised by how much people off campus paid attention to the class and have asked for tips that they too can follow to be happier.
Why do you think the course is so popular?
I thinking students on campus really don’t like the culture of feeling depressed and overwhelmed and they wanted an evidence-based way to do something about that. Beyond campus, I think many of us feel like we’re trying to improve our well-being but not getting anywhere. So many of us want to feel better and less stressed.
What is real happiness, and is it attainable?
I often use the social science definition of happiness. Under this definition, happiness involves feeling good in your life and with your life. Feeling good with your life is about life satisfaction— you’re satisfied with how things are going and are happy with the path of your life. But feeling good in your life is about your emotional state— are you experiencing more positive than negative emotions. Maximizing both of these parts is what happiness is all about. And the good news is that science suggest that you can improve both of these factors through your own actions.
Are there any misconceptions about happiness that you’d like to correct?
Yes! In fact, that’s the whole premise of my podcast— that our minds lie to us about the kinds of things that make us happy. There are lots of misconceptions, but the biggest one is that happiness lies in our circumstances— how much money we make, what things we can buy, etc. The science shows that unless you’re really living in dire straits, circumstances don’t matter as much as we think. What matters more is our behaviors and our mindsets.
What do you hope that students of your course will remember once the semester ends?
I hope they’ve learned specific practical tips for improving their well-being through the “rewirement” practices we talk about in class. Things like taking time for gratitude, being more social, focusing on helping others, increasing mindfulness, and making room for healthy practices like sleep and exercise— these are the things that really improve well-being. So I hope my students continue focusing on these when the semester ends.
How has your perspective on happiness changed over time?
I think I’ve definitely become happier since teaching this class, mostly because I too focus on actually doing the sorts of behaviors that improve well-being.
What skills or techniques do you use to maintain your happiness?
I try to do all the practices I suggest for my students. Things like showing a bit more gratitude, working to be a bit more social, and taking times for things like meditation. All of these have helped me improve my own well-being levels.
What are some things that make you truly happy?
Time with my husband. Time off. Knowing that I’m helping the people who listen to my podcast and take my class. All of these things contribute to happiness and meaning in my life.
What are some ways that people who struggle with mental illness or other negative circumstances can realistically pursue happiness?
The tips we talk about in the course have been shown to improve well-being even for those with mental illness. And mindset changes like reframing and mindfulness can help even when circumstances are bad.
What was the catalyst for starting The Happiness Lab?
We decided to start the podcast because many people approached me who wanted to learn about the science of happiness but didn’t have time to take a whole Ivy League class. The podcast allows listeners to learn about the science of happiness in episodic, bite-size doses. I’ve gotten lots of feedback that people are using the tips we explore in the podcast and that doing so has made them happier.
When you aren’t changing lives teaching people about happiness, what can we find you doing?
Enjoying my brief periods of time affluence with my husband and friends.
Follow Laurie on Twitter: @lauriesantos
Photo courtesy of Yale University.