Dr. Laurie Santos
Some college classes you’d never skip even if extremely hungover—like Dr. Laurie Santos’s “Psychology and the Good Life.” The class, which explores the science behind decision-making and what comprises a fulfilling life, is Yale’s most popular course in over 300 years.
Luckily for us, Santos doesn’t keep her happiness secrets confined to New Haven, and she released the newest season of her acclaimed podcast, The Happiness Lab, this month.
Santos was kind enough to grant us time during office hours to ask a few questions.
Given what we know about the relationship between nostalgia and happiness, what’s the optimal amount of pictures to take on vacation?
I think pictures are kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, pictures can help us remember things better, which helps us to access all our fondest moments. But there’s also a problem with pictures—they often take us out of the moment. And one thing we need for forming new memories is to be paying attention.
So my advice is that if pictures help you stay present, if they cause you to attend to a scene and notice more things, then great. That’ll allow you to have a memento that will help you remember after the fact. But if taking pictures means that you’re worrying about how your hair looks or forcing people out of the moment to take a picture, then they might not be such a good idea.
What are some tips on coping with rejection?
The most important tip is realizing that rejection really hurts. And neuroscience suggests that it hurts in the same way that an awful physical wound might hurt. That means we really need some rejection first aid—we need to treat the pain right away. The best thing we can do when we’re feeling rejected is to remember why we’re valuable. Take time to write down the things you like about yourself, why you’re valued. Literally write your values and strengths down to remember why you’re important and why you matter.
A second important method of rejection first aid is to get some social connection. Meet up with the people who really care about you, and if you can’t meet up with them directly, then do some “social snacking” and just look at pictures of people who are close to you. Just like getting a snack when you’re hungry, a little social snacking can help you feel a lot better.
How does a person know when they are happy? Is there a way of quantifying it?
The best way to know if you’re happy is to ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?” There’s no thermometer for happiness. Even as scientists, we do rely on people’s self-reports. But the good news is that those self-reports are valid for happiness and well-being. Self-report measures seem to correlate with other important things like textual analyses of your journal entries or detailed interviews with your family. So really the best way to know if you’re happy is to ask yourself.
Is it easier for someone who studies happiness for a living to be happier than someone who doesn’t?
I think you’re asking if I’m actually happier. And the answer is yes. Since teaching this class, I’ve gone up about a whole point on standard 10-point measures of well-being. One of the great things about being the person who teaches a happiness class is that I have to practice what I preach. Otherwise my students will notice and will call me out on it. And that means that I’m engaging in more gratitude lately. I’m taking more time to meditate. I’m doing all of the habits that I suggest to my students and my podcast listeners, and as the data might suggest, that has made me happier.
You’ve spent a lot of time studying nonhuman animals. How often when you observe human behavior do you think, wow, I’m just looking at a bunch of monkeys?
Well, it happens a lot in department faculty meetings, I’ll be honest. But joking aside, I think one of the things you learn when you study primates, in particular, is that humans really are just animals ultimately. Lots of the kinds of things that we worry about come from our biology, and really mirror what we see in our closest living relatives, which I kind of take heart in. It’s nice to see that humans are connected to their own biology.
If your life were made into a movie, what genre would it be and who would play you?
Well, statistically speaking, if my life were made into a movie it would probably be a documentary. Since it’s about my life. But if I had a choice I would love for it to be a comedy, and for me to be played by J.Lo.