About a month ago, Yale University offered a free online six week course open to the public that studies factors in happiness. As a mental health practitioner, this course taught by professor Laurie Santos was a boon not only to myself and my colleagues, but also helps in approaching people who have psychiatric symptoms in finding outside the box solutions for combating anxiety and depression.
Misconceptions about what make us happy. As she addressed the Yale freshmen class, Professor Santos asked what kind of job would make them happy. Most said that a high paying job would make them happiest. She dispelled this misconception with the statistic that after a household has an annual income of about $75,000, there is no more increase of happiness related to income. Albeit many out there may be far from attaining this figure, it shows that after a certain point money does not equate to happiness.
Also, for those who want what Santos calls “awesome stuff” like a new sports car or house, research shows that while people have a spike in happiness after acquiring these, shortly they return to their baseline level of happiness. That is because of hedonic adaptation, or getting used to something you are happy about. To counter the effect of hedonic adaptation, Santos suggest we need to seek experiences, rather than things, as experiences are terminating, so we never get “used” to being on vacation, or going to a special restaurant, or special yoga event.
There is overwhelming evidence that social media makes us unhappy. Citing numerous studies, Santos delineates that social comparison is a destroyer of self esteem. Often times on Facebook we see our friends and relatives on some exotic vacation or landing some great high paying job. Even though we may have just taken our own vacation, or are happy with our current job, this makes us compare. Even if you perceive your vacation or jobs as better, it still creates disconnection. There is a famous study about olympic medal winners where the gold medalist is the happiest about their achievement, the bronze medalist is almost as happy as the gold medalist, but the silver medalist is much less happy than the other two. This is a result of social comparison.
Kindness, gratitude, and social connection pay huge dividends. One of the studies that stuck out in my mind is a researcher gave someone either $5 or $20 to spend on themselves or someone else if they agreed to follow up with how happy the purchase made them. A large majority just bought themselves a Starbucks and didn’t have much fluctuation in their happiness. However, those who spent the money on others bumped up their feeling of well being by a large percentage. The study was replicated in an underdeveloped country where both of those amounts of money are worth far more. Same results happened which suggests that giving has the same effect cross culturally. People who are socially connected and feel gratitude are also far less susceptible to premature death and psychiatric symptoms.
Meditation works. Sage Patanjali defines yoga as: yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ” or yoga is the cessation of fluctuation of the consciousness. As it turns out, science backs the fact that a wandering mind is a unhappy mind. Professor Santos points out that humans have the unique ability to think about the future and the past, but thinking too much about the future and the past shows that it makes us less happy according to studies. She cited numerous studies that show that mindful activity helps to offset mind wandering even after the subject was completed with the meditation exercise.
Set yourself up for success. Lastly, Santos taught that people who are trying to achieve a goal should visual attaining the goal and having realistic expectations that if he they don’t meet the goal, then have a secondary plan. She cited a study where people who wanted to lose weight had much more success if they put fruit on the table instead of cookies. Having cereal on the table correlated to the worst outcome as far as weight loss. This show that if we adapt our environment to our goals, they become easier to achieve according to to study.