This post originally published on June 30, 2020.
At the start of quarantine, a top activity suggestion making everyone’s list was this class, “The Science of Well-Being” by Dr. Laurie Santos. Dr. Santos’ course on how to cultivate happiness is the most popular class in Yale history, as it teaches students happiness theory in a way that they can actually apply to their everyday lives. Happiness becomes a skill you can learn!
I took the course for free through Coursera in early March and it has already changed my way of thinking dramatically. If you don’t have the hours to commit to taking the class yourself but you’re curious about how to cultivate happiness, I’ve got you covered. Here are my three biggest takeaways.
1. Expensive stuff and a high-paying job won’t make us as happy as we think.
“Our minds are programmed to adapt and ultimately get used to things.”
This realization hit home for me. At a surface level, this may seem like an obvious truth–in fact, when I excitedly mentioned this to my boyfriend over the phone, he looked at me a bit like, “doesn’t everyone know that?”
But the truth of the matter is many of us are constantly chasing these ideals, whether consciously or subconsciously. I was fortunate enough to go to an elite college, and the end-goal for most of the students was a well-paying, prestigious job. Whether we wanted a coveted internship to help us land that big firm interview, or great grades to qualify for that consulting role, we were always thinking of the next big thing that would get us to the ultimate goal: A “great” job.
I think the first action step here is to become cognizant of what you want and why you want it. Is the quality material driving you to buy that Gucci belt or is it because your favorite artist wears one? Dr. Santos notes in her class that “our minds are programmed to adapt and ultimately get used to things,” meaning that the joy you get from that new Gucci belt high only lasts so long, then you get used to it and move onto the next thing.
Since completing the class, I have taken a page from Dr. Santos’ book and started asking myself how happy I predict I’ll be when I buy my next wish-list item. While I may feel like a 10/10 for a moment, by the next day the feeling is nearly always gone and my happiness resumes to its previous level.
2. We overestimate how happy we’ll be when we reach a goal or milestone.
“I had a brief moment of pride, then I immediately buckled down to set the next big goal for myself.”
I’m guilty of setting high standards for myself without thoroughly examining why I want to achieve that goal, to begin with. Dr. Santos shares that humans tend to “mispredict how certain outcomes will make us feel.” We think that getting into our top college choice, landing our dream job, or getting the perfect partner will make us happier than it does in actuality. While all of those events are exciting, if we directly correlate our happiness to the achievement of them, we are likely to be disappointed. I’ve done this myself in the past in truly countless ways–whether thinking that moving to a new city would solve interpersonal challenges or that a better-paying job would solve all of my financial stresses.
Perhaps the best personal example of this tendency in action is a recent goal of mine–I wanted to reach a new and hefty net worth goal by June. However, when I achieved this difficult goal, I felt little true happiness. I had a brief moment of pride, but then I immediately buckled down to set the next big goal for myself. Achieving large goals can make our lives better, but if you find yourself thinking you’ll be happy when you achieve them, it might be time to reevaluate.
3. Day-to-day habits make us far happier than we realize.
“I have yet to feel regret over taking a phone call that I didn’t initially feel like answering.”
Ultimately, my biggest takeaway from the course is that building strong, daily habits will serve as the foundation for my own happiness. Dr. Santos described incredible research on the positive impact of everyday activities like getting enough sleep and practicing a regular exercise routine. While I know those two activities are constantly touted as catch-alls for life challenges, testing them out in my own life has proven to me why this is true.
In quarantine, I haven’t been sleeping too well, and while I can’t exactly change that factor at the moment, I have been able to reflect on the fact that I feel far more emotional and prone to frustration when I don’t sleep my typical 7-8 hours.
Dr. Santos also presented significant research that found those with deeper connections (romantic, platonic, and familial) are generally happier. On a personal level, this validated my own theory about my father–the happiest, most grateful human I know. He quite frankly has more friends than I can count and makes new friends everywhere he goes. This contributes to happiness significantly. Some days in quarantine I am simply exhausted and want nothing more than to sit in bed and browse Netflix or TikTok. But I try to remind myself that connecting simply feels good and I have yet to feel regret over taking a phone call that I don’t quite initially feel like answering. Of course, that’s not to say you should prioritize connections over self-care, but rather that you should make connecting part of your self-care routine.
Ultimately, by putting too much weight on big things (I’ll be happy when I get my next, nicer apartment), we forget about the daily actions that can transform our way of thinking (I’m grateful I was able to catch up with my friend today).
Of course, all of the above is based on my experiences with the class, but consciously thinking about cultivating happiness in myself has transformed my vision for my future. It’s helpful to think intentionally about happiness, as just becoming aware of when you are happy and when you are not can lead to positive change. You can take Dr. Santos’ class here or listen to her podcast, The Happiness Lab, here.
Simplicity Bryan is deeply entrenched in the worlds of self-help, gratitude, personal finance, and organization. She’s happiest paddleboarding with her pup and storytelling with a purpose. You can follow her here.
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