2020 has been a wild one, and we’re still in the first half.
A pandemic. Public life shuttered. Stock market volatility. Rising unemployment. Social unrest. Presidential impeachment. Kobe. As Lenin said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Does anyone even remember that we have a presidential election coming up in November?
The halftime show better be at least as good as J. Lo and Shakira’s.
To preface, I’m a relatively happy person. Friends have described me as “relentlessly optimistic” and “uncannily capable of finding the silver lining in literally anything”. I’m basically a walking Chumbawamba song. So I was a bit surprised when current events left me feeling moody and listless.
In response, I registered for an online Yale course titled The Science of Well-Being, taught by Professor Laurie Santos. It seems that other people had the same idea. A lot of other people.
Total enrollment for the class from March 20 of 2018 to March 19, 2019 stood at 539,000, making it the most popular online course in Yale history. By the end of the day on March 24, 2020 enrollment stood at 1,153,744, with 631,980 people enrolling in March alone. In addition, 10.5 million people have visited the site recently.Yale News: “A housebound world finds solace in Yale’s ‘Science of Well Being’ course“
Eight weeks later, I’m my usual chipper self again. Although I would’ve bounced back sooner or later, the course certainly had a positive effect. If you’re not sure if it’s worth the time investment, the following is an overview. And if you’ve already taken the course, I’ve added some of my own observations to Professor Santos’ material.
Happiness can be learned
I’ll start with the bad news: how happy of a person you are is largely determined by your genetics. In 2005, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues ballparked it at 50 percent (PDF). More recent research suggests that the heritability of happiness is 70 to 80 percent. That’s quite a bit. If your personality was set to “melancholy” at birth, happiness will be an uphill battle for you.
Disheartening, I know. You could double down on sorrow and produce great literature, like some of the Russian greats did. Or you could develop a belief in an afterlife where your bad DNA roll is reset or irrelevant. However, if you would rather be happy in this life, you have to work with the hand that you were dealt.
And look on the bright side: only 80% of your happiness is determined by genetics! Let’s subtract the “life circumstances” section because that’s not entirely up to you either. You’re still left with 10% of the happiness pie that is completely under your control. (Told you I am relentlessly optimistic.) The course teaches you how to maximize your genetic happiness potential.
Pierre was right when he said that one must believe in the possibility of happiness in order to be happy, and I now believe in it. Let the dead bury the dead, but while I’m alive, I must live and be happy.Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Knowing is not enough
I’ll be honest, I don’t think this course taught me anything that I didn’t already know. I’ve read enough psychology (and self help) books over the years where not much is going to be new for me in terms of “how to be happy”. Then why did I find the course helpful? Because knowing is not enough.
Everyone knows that BBQ chips are not good for you. We don’t binge eat bags of BBQ chips because we’re unaware of the harms; we do so because they’re bloody delicious.
When it comes to behaviors that run contrary to human nature, it is not enough to know something. Time and again, we default to behaviors that have been hardwired into us over thousands of years, such as seeking salt and sugar in the form of BBQ chips. Or being ungrateful and unsatisfied.
Assuming that we want to eat healthier, we have to repeatedly remind ourselves that BBQ chips are not good for us. And then we act on that knowledge by not visiting the chip aisle or reading essays that reference BBQ chips a lot (sorry, I’ll stop). And if we want to be happy, we need to repeatedly override our biological predilections with more useful mindsets and behaviors. Knowledge is only as useful as the thoughts and actions that it inspires.
Professor Santos’ course wasn’t helpful because it taught me anything new. It was helpful because it reminded me of that which is easily forgotten. “How to be happy” is not something you can learn once. Instead, you have to periodically remind yourself for the rest of your life.
What Won’t Make Us Happy
Week 2 covers the common things that we think will make us happy. Examples include “money, high paying jobs, awesome stuff, true love, a perfect body, and good grades”. (That’s quite a mouthful. I’ll refer to them as “money et al“.) The course then suggests that we are wrong – that these things won’t actually make us happy.
Wait, won’t make us happy? I’ve always been skeptical when psychologists say that more money et al won’t make us happy. Of course, their disclaimer is that a certain baseline of money has to be there for happiness. However, psychologists themselves don’t seem content with making 75K a year or whatever the magic happiness salary number is (which also doesn’t take cost of living into account).
Do as they say, not as they do?
Money et al helps…
It seems like people incorrectly conflate “money et al won’t make you happy” with “money et al won’t have any effect on your happiness”. Having those things can and do make life more enjoyable – that’s the “life circumstances” portion of happiness.
I do not regret aggressively pursuing money for years after college because now I can read and write full time. My Briggs and Riley carry-on suitcase brings me joy every time I travel. And seeing the beauty and strength that my body is capable of is an underrated pleasure (thanks Socrates).
I don’t think I need to sell anyone on the benefits of true love.
… but it’s not enough.
Conversely, it’s apparent that you can have all of those things in spades and still be unhappy (ask any big city shrink). Believing otherwise is dangerous. What if you are unhappy despite having all of the above? If you believe that having money et al is sufficient for happiness, you might think that something is irreparably wrong with you and kill yourself.
Oh, he surely must be happy
With everything he’s got.Simon & Garfunkel, Richard Cory
If we eliminate the all-or-nothing of “money et al has no impact on happiness” and “money et al is sufficient for happiness”, we arrive at a more reasonable middle ground: money et al can only be the frosting on top of an already-happy existence. They cannot be the foundation. You cannot make a good cake with only frosting.1Maybe that’s not the best analogy!
Why It Won’t Make Us Happy
Week 3 explains that money et al can’t be the foundation of our happiness because of four “annoying features of the mind”:
- Our strongest intuitions are often misleading.
- We judge ourselves relative to reference points which are often irrelevant and make us feel worse than we should.
- Our minds are programmed to adapt and ultimately get used to things.
- We don’t realize how good we are at adapting and coping and mispredict how certain outcomes will make us feel.
The second and third annoying features are the course’s most impactful insights. When Professor Santos gave the “shortest possible crash-course version of the class” at the 2019 Aspen Ideas Festival, she cited these two concepts (and nothing else):
Everything is Relative
We perceive life on a relative basis. Someone who grew up in Trinidad is going to have a very different definition of “cold” than someone who grew up in Chicago. A Reddit thread about city sizes got heated as everyone insisted on a definition of “small city” that matched their own life experiences.
Our minds’ relative approach to reality is best illustrated by the Ebbinghaus illusion. Even though the two orange circles are the same size, our minds perceive the left circle to be smaller simply because it’s surrounded by larger circles. An object will actually physically appear smaller or larger depending on the relative size of nearby objects.
Our minds feel similarly about how much money et al we have. We don’t tend to think “I have enough money to eat, drink, and live out the rest of my days”.2I originally added “in relative comfort” before realizing what I was doing. We don’t tend to think “my girlfriend loves me and I love her”.
All too often, we’re thinking “my friend has more money than me and his girlfriend is hotter too”. Even more insidiously, our minds have no reasonableness filter for comparisons. If you follow Dan Bilzerian on Instagram, your mind will happily make you unhappy by comparing your life circumstances to his carefully curated feed.
It doesn’t help that our minds like to make comparisons to people who have it better than us, not the people who have it worse. The decamillionaire sitting on his yacht isn’t thinking about the 99.9% of the world that is yachtless; he’s thinking about his billionaire buddies and their much bigger yachts.
We Get Used To Stuff
If you walk into an air conditioned room on a hot summer day, a feeling of bliss will wash over you (especially if you’re not from Trinidad). But half an hour later, that blissful feeling is gone. You’ve already acclimated to the comfortable temperature.
Ten years ago, I spent three weeks in the Azores after finding a cheap plane ticket and deciding it would be a better place to study than the university’s libraries. I primarily couchsurfed to save money, even sleeping on a rocky outcropping overlooking the Atlantic Ocean one night. On my last day, I provided a local general store with English-Chinese translation services for lunch and dinner. I was happy.
Fast forward to earlier this year. As I settled into yet another lie-flat seat, I thought to myself, “I’m somewhat sick of business class flights. The liquor is middling at best and the food will never compare to [insert Michelin star restaurant here].”3I should stress that I am not rich. Like most people sitting in business class, I redeem airline points.
Hedonic adaptation is a bitch.
Dan Bilzerian spoke with Joe Rogan about his personal experiences with hedonic adaptation.
What We Can Do About That
There is a social treadmill effect: You get rich, move to rich neighborhoods, then become poor again. To that add the psychological treadmill effect; you get used to wealth and revert to a set point of satisfaction.Nicholas Nassim Taleb, “Fooled by Randomness”
Thankfully, Week 4 teaches us how to get off of the social and psychological (un)happiness treadmills:
Resetting Reference Points
Naturally, a foolproof way to end comparison-driven unhappiness is to stop comparing. If you are content with your dinner, it shouldn’t matter whether someone else’s dinner is better. If you enjoy what you are currently doing, it shouldn’t matter whether there’s something more fun that you could be doing. (FOMO solved.)
But not comparing is hard. Remember the Ebbinghaus illusion? We are wired to perceive the world comparatively. To the extent that we can’t avoid comparing, we can be more conscious of the environments that we surround ourselves with.
Years ago, I needed to find a new place to live. One of the buildings I considered was the Shangri-la in Toronto, a luxury residence with price tags to match. Although I could barely afford an entry-level rental, the marble finishes were alluring. Then one day, a friend remarked, “It’s a nice place, but it’ll suck to be surrounded by people whose bar tabs exceed your biweekly paycheck.” And with that, I struck the Shangri-la from consideration. Eventually, I moved into a building that better fit my budget, saving money while avoiding unhappiness from directionally-incorrect comparisons.
Resetting reference points applies to more than just material wealth. If you’re going through a rough breakup, hanging out with happy couples is inadvisable. If you received a C on your final exam, seek out the people who failed rather than the A+ crowd.
And stop following celebrities on Instagram.
Stopping Hedonic Adaptation
Along the lines of “just stop comparing”, hedonic adaptation can be countered with a healthy dose of savoring:
The act of stepping outside of an experience to review and appreciate it.The Science of Well-Being, Week 4, Part 2
What is adaptation? It’s your brain saying, “This stimuli isn’t new anymore, so I’ll stop telling you about it.”4The same phenomenon is why varied experiences are the key to a “long” life: your brain combines similar memories. Unsurprisingly, focusing on an experience will bring it to the forefront again as if it were brand new.
While savoring is effective, you should go one further and periodically subject yourself to crappier experiences than your normal. By doing so, you’ll recapture at least some of that initial joy when you go back to your previous hedonic level.
There are many ways to do this. If you’ve grown accustomed to ritzy hotel rooms, mix it up with some shared-dorm hostels. Used to three square meals a day? Periodic fasts increase your appreciation of food. Flying economy makes business class more enjoyable. Turn off the air conditioning for a day (or a week).
Maybe don’t un-adapt to your wife by cheating on her with less attractive women though.
What Will Make Us Happy
The more you know what you really want and where you are really going, the more what everybody else is doing starts to diminish.Alain de Botton
Still with me? Here’s a quick recap: You can learn how to be happy, but learning it once is not enough. Money, true love, and an awesome body can only be the frosting on your happiness cake and it won’t even serve that purpose unless you resist upward comparisons and hedonic adaptation.
What the heck are the building blocks of happiness then? Week 5 obliges:
- “Flow” state
- Growth mindset
- Kindness and social connection
- Time affluence
- Exercise and sleep
“Flow” is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment, i.e. “the zone”. It is most likely to occur when you’re performing an activity that uses your character strengths, you have a high degree of skill in, and presents a challenge appropriate to your skill level.
The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Using our character strengths injects meaning into what we’re doing. Having a high degree of skill gives us the confidence to perform that activity. And being challenged at the limits of that skill causes us to grow.
Popularized by Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can be trained and that most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Conversely, a fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence and other basic abilities are set at birth and cannot be improved.
We will all experience failure and setbacks in life. If you have a fixed mindset, you’re likely to perceive those failures as indictments of you as a person. Failed a test? You must be stupid. Having a fixed mindset can even cause you to avoid scenarios where you might fail, either directly (e.g. skipping tests) or indirectly (e.g. making excuses for your potential failure in advance).
Meanwhile, a growth mindset treats failures as opportunities to improve. Seeing improvement from our efforts makes us happy. And improving at activities increases the amount of time we spend in flow state.
I see a direct parallel between growth versus fixed mindsets and abundance versus scarcity mindsets. Growth and abundance mindsets are hopeful, whereas fixed and scarcity mindsets are fearful. The former leads to happiness; the latter leads to a constrained and unsatisfying life.
Kindness and Social Connection
Studies show that we feel happier after performing acts of kindness. We get the most happiness out of doing a lot of kind actions in a single day, as opposed to spacing them out. And, nonintuitively, we feel happier when spending money on other people than we do when spending it on ourselves.
I think people are self-interested by nature, but innately understand that helping others is in one’s self interest. It’s probably an evolved trait. The dummy that tried to slay the woolly mammoth by himself wound up dead. The people who teamed up to do it and then shared the proceeds lived to reproduce. We’re the descendants of people who helped other people and received help in return.
This evolved preference for togetherness is likely the reason why we’re happier just by being around other people. Simply being around other people, even strangers, increases how much we enjoy what we’re doing. And, nonintuitively again, we report being happier after conversing with strangers on a train than if we had spent the time by ourselves.
When I shared a house with eight friends in college, I occasionally imagined how great it would be to live by myself. However, only once I started living alone did I realize how happy their company made me.
When we think of affluence, we tend to think of money and not time. However, time affluence is far more important to our happiness than monetary affluence.
I’m convinced that the best way to buy happiness with money is by buying your own time. Raised to be thrifty, it occasionally pains me to think about how much salary I’ve forewent by not punching a clock for the past two years. But then I think about all of the time affluence I enjoyed as a result and I don’t feel as bad. And it’s occasionally been financially rewarding as well. I don’t think many jobs would have let me take three weeks off in March on short notice to day trade.
The ultimate purpose of money is so that you do not have to be in a specific place at a specific time doing anything you don’t want to do.Naval Ravikant
We’re happier when we’re living in the moment. Unfortunately, the default state of our brains is not living in the moment.
One way to increase our mindfulness is to decrease the number of distractions that we’re bombarded with. Turn off as many notifications as possible. Over the long run, you will be happier and enjoy higher ROI on your efforts by doing focused work.
Another way is to meditate. Don’t think that meditation has to be sitting still and blanking your mind though. Personally, I find riding a bicycle around a 400m track to be helpful in staying present.
Finally, have more sex. We are very present during the horizontal cha-cha!
Exercise and Sleep
I won’t belabor these two because I think most people are well aware of exercise and sleep’s happiness benefits. Exercising three times a week for 30 minutes at a time makes us as happy as taking a Zoloft, with none of the side effects.
Sleep is similarly powerful. Not long ago, a friend kept a mood journal along with attendant life circumstances and statistics. Once he’d collected enough data, regression analysis showed that his happiness level was most correlated with how much sleep he got.
When I went through severe rough patches in my early 20’s, it was always exercise and sleep that got me out.
Professor Santos originally designed the course not only because she thought that Yale students needed it, but also because she realized that she did too. It was an instant success at Yale, and now all over the world as well. If you enjoyed the course (or this summary), Professor Santos hosts a popular podcast on the same subject, titled The Happiness Lab.
We can be happier by:
- Cutting out unhealthy comparisons, e.g. celebrities on social media
- Injecting suffering into our lives to make the highs sweeter
- Living in the moment
- Doing things that use our character strengths until we’re skilled at them and then experience “flow” state by pushing the envelope
- Using money to buy time and help people
- Using time to build and maintain connections with people
- Exercising and sleeping enough
- Reminding ourselves of the above on a periodic basis
The world is getting better and better on almost every metric, yet we are more and more miserable with each passing year. Do yourself a favor and choose to be happy instead.
Thanks to Helen Ouyang and SL for reading drafts of this essay. Featured photo by MI PHAM.