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.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When psychologist Laurie Santos posted her course at Yale, it was Psych 157, she expected perhaps a few hundred students to sign up. Instead, over 1,000– 1,200 wanted in. Dr. Santos studies primate cognition, looking for clues to how humans think, and learn, and behave.
But she also teaches now the most popular class at Yale University, Psychology and the Good Life, or as many students call it, the happiness class. And she’s here in our New York studios. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology and Head of the Silliman College at Yale. Welcome to Science Friday.
LAURIE SANTOS: Thank you so much for having me.
IRA FLATOW: What do you do with all those kids? 1,200 kids?
LAURIE SANTOS: You try to stick them somewhere. That was the real challenge is, what classroom is going to fit everybody?
IRA FLATOW: And why did you come up with that idea?
LAURIE SANTOS: So it started being Head of College at Silliman– so for folks that don’t know, Yale is kind of like Hogwarts, where you have Gryffindor, and Slytherin, and things– so I’m Head of Silliman, which means I live with students on campus, and I hang out with them. I eat with them in the dining hall. And I hang out with them in their coffee shop.
And it was interacting with students at that level that made me realize that students are much more unhappy than I think folks realize, particularly at college levels. And so it got me to look at the national statistics. And you find that over 30% of college students report being too depressed to function, over 50% say they feel overwhelming anxiety, over 80% feel overwhelmed by all they have to do.
This isn’t the college of my youth. It’s a really stressful place. And as a psychologist, this was really frustrating because we know from the science of psychology all these things you can do to feel less stressed out, and bump up your mood, and so on. So I thought, I’m a researcher, I can develop a course on these topics to teach students better ways to behave and better strategies they can use.
IRA FLATOW: The fact that so many turned up pointed out how right you are, about how stressed– they wanted to go to the class to find happiness.
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah, I think two things. One is that really there was a need on campus, but also that students, they don’t want platitudes. They really wanted to know what the research said about what they could do to feel better.
IRA FLATOW: So tell us, in very few words, what is happiness to your definition?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah, so we, in the class, use the social scientist’s definition, which is a little clunky, but it’s really about subjective well-being, which has two components. It’s what you think, like how satisfied are you with your life? If I just asked, on a scale of one to five, how satisfied are you? And that’s this cognitive component.
But there’s also more of a feeling component, like what does it feel like? Do you have positive emotions most of the time? And that’s the affective side of happiness. And usually, these things are measured in the way that social scientists measure things, there’s lots of scales and so on. But really what it’s just trying to capture is, how is your mood? Are you feeling like your life is going OK? And are you in a good mood a lot of the time?
IRA FLATOW: Does control of your own life, is that a big part of happiness?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah, what the research suggests is that having paths that you find meaningful, not just necessarily control, but feeling like you’re doing things for a purpose, can be really powerful in terms of our mood.
IRA FLATOW: Do we go chasing the wrong things in life?
LAURIE SANTOS: I think the surprising amount of research suggests that yes, that’s the case. In fact, psychologists have a term for it, they call it miss wanting–
IRA FLATOW: Miss want– that’s a good one.
LAURIE SANTOS: –wanting the wrong things. I think what we tend to believe is, if you think about what will make you happy, people think, I have to change something. I have to change my circumstances, 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 like, how much does your circumstances matter? But they say that they matter only about 10% of your happiness. And so much more of it is the way you frame things and what behaviors you engage in.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because you hear people who don’t have a lot of money saying, you know, I’ve got other things that are higher priorities. I’m very happy.
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah, and you also get people who’ve had terrible life circumstances, hit by a car and are paraplegic and they say, well, that’s taught me what’s important in life. I’ve never been happier since I stopped being able to walk. And it’s shocking to our forecasts. Our minds don’t think that that will be good for us, but it actually fits with what the research tells us.
IRA FLATOW: How much is our concept of, we haven’t got enough time to do things important?
LAURIE SANTOS: This is another big one that researchers have been working on. Researchers talk about this concept called time affluence, which is a foreign concept, particularly to my Yale students, because we’re always in the opposite, which is time famine, which is like somebody is like, do you want to grab a coffee? You’re like, sure, when? You’re like, I don’t know, never. I don’t know.
We’re constantly so scheduled that we don’t even have these simple breaks for things that would make us happy, like having coffee with a friend. And 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 give up salary time to have more free time, those folks tend to be happier on average.
IRA FLATOW: But are these students willing to do that?
LAURIE SANTOS: Well, when I taught the course, I was really worried about that. I was going to give this lecture on time affluence. And it also felt really ironic, I was going to make them read a paper and come to class. So we did this funny thing where we had students come to class on this time affluence lecture day. And they got there and they were handed a flyer that said, today’s lecture’s on time affluence, and to teach you about it, I’m going to give you some. You have no class today.
And the only rule is that they couldn’t use the time to study, or prep for a midterm, or something. They had to do something that increased their well-being. The amazing thing is that students completely lost it at this moment. Some students hugged me. One student burst into tears. This was central midterm time on Yale’s campus where everyone was really stressed. And I gifted them an hour. And one student even said this was the first free hour she had all semester, which is sad.
IRA FLATOW: That is sad. 844-724-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us at @scifri. I’m talking with Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology and the Head of the Silliman College at Yale University in New Haven. They were actually crying because they were so excited and relieved that you gave them an hour–
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah, I mean–
IRA FLATOW: –to do nothing?
LAURIE SANTOS: To do nothing. And I actually gave students a list of things to do because I thought it would be so– I was like, go to the art gallery, take a break, savor a bubble tea.
IRA FLATOW: Do you shake your head at this, say, how did this happen because, you said, when I was a student, we had none of these issues?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. I think partly student life is different. They are so focused on grades. They’re so worried about what’s going to happen in the future. They’re just focused in this future-oriented way, in a way that I wasn’t in the ’90s.
But I think it’s not just college students. I think all of us face this to a certain extent. I tell my friends about time affluence and my professor friends joke like, man, I wish you could show up at my office and give me a flyer and tell me I had an hour off. This isn’t just college students who are facing this.
IRA FLATOW: That’s a good point. That’s a good point. Now your research involves studying in non-human primates, animals such as rhesus macaques. Do they have insights into happiness that you’ve learned to teach other people?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. The work on monkeys is a little bit different from happiness. But I think when you watch them, you realize they’re doing a lot of the kinds of things that research on humans suggest would be good for humans to do to be happier. So 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.
IRA FLATOW: They’re mindful.
LAURIE SANTOS: They’re mindful. It’s funny because the Buddhists talk about getting out of our monkey mind, that’s our goal to be in the present moment. But I actually think the monkey mind is in the present moment all the time. They can’t think about the future. They’re not worried about what happened three weeks ago.
IRA FLATOW: Could it be because parts of their– I’m thinking about the prefrontal cortex idea, that it has not matured till like maybe you’re 25– could that have something to do with why there’s all this stress, and pressure, and time feelings?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah, I think part of it is that. But I think part of it is how these students are really spending their time. They’re 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 suggests that you need to be there, in person, having these social connections. That’s what matters.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones, because we have people who’d like to chat with you. From Boston, Michael in Boston. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.
AUDIENCE: Hi. I was wondering if the research indicated any basic or notable differences for people on the autistic spectrum? I find that social interaction is basically painful. And I find if I get what I want, I’m happy until maybe it’s taken away. And I don’t seem to have the regret that most people seem to have.
IRA FLATOW: Good question. Thank you.
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. I think there are definitely individual differences, and important differences, that come from things like being on the spectrum and so on. But again, the research suggests that our forecast can be off, that even people who are incredibly introverted can benefit, a little bit, from having a bit more social interaction. And so I think that’s the kind of major claim from the research is that these things we forecast, the things we think are going to make us happy, don’t necessarily make us as happy as we think.
One of the things I struggle with is, not just the social connection part– because I’m a Massachusetts native and don’t like talking to people, even though the research suggests this– but another one comes from work suggesting that we’ll 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. I want to get a manicure myself, or I want to get a nice latte. I don’t want to gift somebody else a nice latte. But in fact, that would make me feel better.
IRA FLATOW: That’s the argument I always use on pitch week on public radio is, you will feel better if you give to this public radio station.
LAURIE SANTOS: It’s true. The science bears this out.
IRA FLATOW: 844-724-8255. You say you see the difference between your generation and these kids, has social media played a large role in this?
LAURIE SANTOS: I think it really has. It’s tricky to nail down exactly what the causes are. But I think social media is this real opportunity cost on the kinds of things that make us happy. So the list of things I give students are things like social connection with real people in real life. The more you’re on Facebook or Instagram, the less you actually talk to real people.
A second thing that we find is that a really important thing for well-being is just sleep. And one of the things we know is that students who are on social media later at night are sleeping less and less. In fact, there’s some terrifying statistics of how many 15-year-olds sleep with their phones. It’s about 80% of 15-year-olds who have phones sleep with them in their bed.
And so this is impacting our sleep. It’s impacting our social connection. It’s definitely impacting our ability to stay in the present moment. The first thing I do, when I’m standing in line at the coffee shop, as soon as there’s a moment of pause, is to take out my phone and pop on Twitter. And that’s just breaking up how much we’re paying attention to the real world.
IRA FLATOW: Do we need to teach kids mindfulness more now?
LAURIE SANTOS: I think so. And the research suggests that these kinds of techniques, like meditating over time, can have much bigger effects than we think and more quickly than we think. You don’t need to be an expert meditator and spend 30,000 hours to get a big effect.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Renee in Cleveland. Hi, Renee.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call. It’s a two-prong question. First, I was wondering if you’ve done any research to scale down to high school and middle school, or up to just the general population that’s working? And then also, as an educator, how do you give your students the ability to have more time to engage in this kind of behavior? So thank you for taking my call.
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. Really great question. So on the scaling upward side, we realize that so many people are interested in this stuff that we’ve decided to make the content of the class available, for free, to anyone who wants to take it. So right now on Coursera.org at YaleSite, you can take a shorter version of this class completely for free. And it’s caught on. Right now, we have over 130,000 learners, which is kind of incredible.
But I really love that the caller brought up bringing this downward to K-12 students, because the kinds of patterns that we’re seeing right now in college students, we see the same kinds of patterns in high school students. And that worries me. And it gets to her second question about what we can do to give kids more time affluence. One of the things I think we are seeing is that high school students are more stressed than ever, in part because they have way more homework and way more academic stress than ever.
IRA FLATOW: Is that right?
LAURIE SANTOS: I was just visiting an elite high school and they gave me their stats on all their students. And one of the things buried in there, were two facts that were worrying for well-being. One is that these high school students report getting only four hours of sleep on average, which research suggests is enough, over time, to induce psychosis, and depression, and all these things.
But at the same time, these stats reported that these students have four to five hours of homework on average a night per person. And I think again, with that much homework, and then these hits on well-being and sleep, we can’t be achieving our educational mission with this much work. And so my advice to teachers is to find some ways to scale back because we might be doing something that’s really counterproductive, both for students learning and for their health.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Talking with Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University. My question about all of these things is, you can bring a horse to water, but can you make it drink? Can you tell students things that they will actually listen to and certainly at that age?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. Well, it’s not just listening. It’s you can have the best of intentions, and it’s still hard to change your behavior. This is why, we’re in July, and I’m sure half your listeners have forgot completely about their New Year’s resolutions that they made just six months ago, and so on. And that’s why one of the things we tried to do with the course was to really harness the science on this.
The class focused a lot on the science of behavior change. And the cool thing is that we’ve learned a lot about say, how we form habits and the kinds of situations we can put into place to get people to achieve their behaviors. And we tried to build a lot of that into the course, not least of which is just following up on all the research suggesting that social support can help you.
Inadvertently, the course ended up having a tremendous amount of social support just because one out of every four students at Yale was taking it. And so you could just ask a student in the dining hall, what’s your gratitude list look like this week? Or did you exercise this week? It really was a context where the situation was promoting some of this stuff.
IRA FLATOW: You’re through with the semester, do you think the course made any real difference in the students’ lives?
LAURIE SANTOS: Well, the sad, heartbreaking thing for my scientist’s hat is that, because we thought it would be 40 students taking the class, I didn’t put rigorous pre and post measures in to do the science of this stuff. But we do have anecdotal reports. And anecdotally, students who did these practices, who actually did the hard work of the class, self-reported that their well-being went up a lot.
Students who are sleeping more, exercising more, even doing things like listing their gratitude at night, they self-reported feeling a lot better. And having resilience for bad things. One student, who was doing her gratitude letter, said she got turned down for a bunch of summer internships, would normally would have put her through the ringer. But she said, every night, I realized I had all these things to be grateful for, who cares about a few rejections?
IRA FLATOW: I think I have room for one more caller. Let’s go to Jean in Harrison, Michigan. Hi, Jean.
AUDIENCE: Hi. How are you?
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Quickly please.
AUDIENCE: OK. Yeah, I’m a sociologist and I teach at a local community college. And I’m finding that we’re getting a high rate of, like she said, a lot of students that are just so stressed, they disappear. A lot of students disappear during the middle of the semester and we never see them again. I may talk to them from time to time.
So I’m wondering, with all the hierarchy that we have in our culture, we have a great social inequality right now, and we also have people who have a lot of long-term depression, and they’re being treated even, are there coping techniques that you teach in this class that can help them rewire their brain back, reset it back to where it needs to be?
LAURIE SANTOS: Yeah. In the course, we preach a bunch of very simple habits from just simple healthy behaviors like sleeping 7-8 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. So it’s surprisingly simple techniques that can have really big effects.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ve run out of time. But next time, we’ll have to have you on to talk more about your research.
LAURIE SANTOS: Excellent. Thanks so much, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: This was fascinating. Maybe we’ve helped a few people–
LAURIE SANTOS: Thanks so much.
IRA FLATOW: –on college campuses or just the general public. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology and Head of Silliman College at Yale University.