What Makes Your Brain Happy?
What really makes a person happy? What is “the good life”? Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos spends her research hours studying primate and canine cognition for clues to how humans think and learn. She also teaches Yale University’s most popular course (also available free online), “PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life.” She joins Ira to discuss her work and the psychology of happiness.
On the stress of college life today.
Students are much more unhappy than I think folks realize, particularly at college levels. It got me to look at the national statistics, and you find that over 30 percent of college students report being too depressed to function. Over 50 percent say they feel overwhelming anxiety, and over 80 percent feel overwhelmed by all they have to do. This isn’t the college of my youth. It’s a really stressful place.
On change, circumstance, and attitude.
If you think about what will make you happy, people [tend to think], “I have to change something. I have to change my circumstances or get a new job or get a higher salary or move somewhere new.” But what the research shows is that our circumstances matter incredibly little for how happy we are. Researchers try to estimate it, which is kind of tricky. But they they say that [circumstances] matter only about 10 percent of your happiness, and so much more of it is the way you frame things and what behaviors you engage in.
On “time affluence.”
Researchers talk about this concept called “time affluence,” which is a foreign concept, particularly to my students, because we were always in the opposite, which is “time famine.” We’re constantly so scheduled that we don’t even have these simple breaks for things that make us happy, [like] having coffee with a friend. So, what the research suggests is that folks who prioritize their own time affluence are happier than folks that don’t, even when that comes at a cost of, say, how much money you make. If you’d give up salary time to have more free time, those folks tend to be happier on average.
On how research on different non-humans primate animals lends insight into human happiness.
When you watch them, you realize they’re doing a lot of things that research on humans suggests would be good for [happier] humans. For example, they have tons of time for social connection—something that their work in humans shows is really important for happiness. I think they stay in the present moment all the time, in part because their minds can’t think about the future. It’s funny, because the Buddhists talk about getting out of our “monkey mind,” that our goal is to be in the present moment. But I actually think the monkey mind is in the present moment all the time.
On how small changes can make a big difference.
In the course, we preach a bunch of very simple habits from just simple healthy behaviors like sleeping seven to eight hours a night to exercise. And there’s work suggesting that a half hour of exercise every day is equivalent to the antidepressant medication Zoloft.
On unexpected sources of happiness.
The things we think are going to make us happy don’t necessarily make us as happy as we think. [There’s] work suggesting that we will feel better if we do nice things for others. There’s this lore in our life that we want to treat ourselves. But it turns out that if we’re having a bad day, you’d be much better off not treating yourself, but treating someone else. And this is something that I have to very explicitly make myself do.
On the effect of social media on happiness:
[Students are] spending much more time alone than we’ve ever seen in college days. And that comes a little bit through things like technology. There’s this myth of social connection on things like Instagram and so on. But the research kind of suggests that you need to be there in person having these social connections…I think social media is this real opportunity cost on the kinds of things that make us happy.
This interview has been edited for clarify and length.
Laurie Santos is a professor of Psychology and Head of Silliman College at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.