Dr. Laurie Santos Is Teaching Us How to Become Happier

Laurie Santos

Photo: Mike Marsland and Yale University

Dr. Laurie Santos was selected in this year’s Verywell Mind 25 awards as one of the top mental health champions whose work is helping move mental health forward. A professor of psychology and head of Silliman College at Yale University, Dr. Santos is an expert on cognitive science who has spent decades researching the human mind, uncovering cognitive biases, and figuring out what actually makes people happy.

Her course, “The Science of Well Being,” is available for free on Coursera and breaks down the science of human happiness while offering concrete tools learners can use to improve their overall mental wellness. Since it first launched in 2018, well over four million learners have enrolled in the course, making it one of the most popular classes on the free learning platform.

The impact of Dr. Santos’s work has been nothing short of astonishing. Countless reviewers on Coursera say that the class changed their lives for the better. Meanwhile, an intervention study led by Dr. Santos in 2021 found that learners averaged a one-point improvement in happiness from their baseline on a 10-point scale after completing the lessons.

This goes to show that the evidence-based strategies taught in the course and her podcast, “The Happiness Lab,” are making a meaningful and noticeable difference in our collective mental well-being.

Dr. Santos Proves That Happiness Can Be Taught

Dr. Santos’s work comes at a time when our collective mental well-being has been on a sharp decline. According to a 2022 Gallup poll, happiness in the United States was already low before the pandemic, with just 48% of Americans saying they felt satisfied with their lives in early 2020. By 2022, that number had dipped even further to 38%.

“We’re really facing a crisis of mental health these days,” Dr. Santos said. “So many people are feeling more depressed and more anxious than ever.”

That crisis of mental health was the main motivation behind the work. After being appointed head of Silliman College in 2016, Dr. Santos started witnessing first-hand just how much her students at Yale were struggling with their mental health. “So many of my students were reporting being depressed, anxious, and, in some cases, suicidal,” the psychology professor said.

“The initial class that I taught on Yale’s campus, which was called ‘Psychology and the Good Life’, started as a reaction to try to fix that.”

While she created the class as a way to give those struggling students the skills they needed to feel better, she never imagined that it would take off the way that it did. It immediately became the most popular course in Yale history the first semester she taught it.

That overwhelming interest in the on-campus class motivated Yale to make it available to a wider audience online in March 2018. “The hope of that class was just to bring everything I was teaching my Yale students to all of the other people out there who needed it,” Dr. Santos said.

As the course’s popularity grows, so does its impact. “I’ve heard from learners who say that they were experiencing suicidality and now they’re feeling much happier,” said Dr. Santos, who often receives emails and letters from students and podcast listeners who’ve experienced first-hand just how much of a difference her lessons can make. “It’s all incredibly humbling and amazing.”

The Science of Well-Being Unravels Our Misconceptions

One of the biggest reasons that Dr. Santos’s work has had such a profound impact on so many people is that she starts by exposing a lot of the misconceptions many of us have about what we need to be happy.

“Our society makes things harder by focusing on stuff that we know scientifically doesn’t matter as much for happiness,” Dr. Santos said.

As kids, many of us are raised to prioritize schoolwork and academic achievements. When we grow up, that translates to prioritizing our jobs and constantly pursuing a raise, a promotion, or another career-related goal. The assumption is that we’ll be happier in that imagined future where we have more money or a more prestigious job title. But, in most cases, that turns out not to be true.

We know that income matters for happiness if you’re living below the poverty line. But once you get to a reasonable middle-class income, getting more money, getting more accolades is not going to matter.

That’s partly because our jobs are often a source of stress. According to OSHA, a whopping 83% of U.S. workers suffer from some degree of work-related stress with about 65% saying their job is a significant source of stress in their lives.

So, achieving financial security matters, but any extra income beyond that is unlikely to outweigh the extra stress you’re adding by prioritizing your job—especially if it’s at the expense of your physical or mental health.

Even when people do try to take better care of their mental health over work, though, Dr. Santos says they often go about it the wrong way.

“They’re buying something or they’re focusing on things like self-care and bubble baths,” the professor explained. “Sometimes they’re trying to get to that newest accolade at work. My college students are constantly trying to achieve perfect academics and great grades. There’s just a lot of evidence that that’s not the path to happiness.”

This might be one of the most jarring yet relieving lessons you learn in the course. For those who’ve been following all the rules and hitting all the milestones they’re supposed to hit, not being happy with the life they’ve built can feel like a failure.

Learning that these things aren’t actually the key to happiness can alleviate that sense of failure. Above all, it teaches you what you need to let go of or deprioritize so that you can redirect your effort toward things that will actually make you happier.

Implementing an Evidence-Based Approach to Happiness

So if more money, more accolades, or more bubble baths won’t do it, what really does matter for our mental well-being? According to Dr. Santos’s course, it’s social connections, mindfulness, exercise, rest, and free time.

A lot of those feel pretty intuitive when you hear them. That’s probably because you’ve already experienced the improved well-being that comes with them. You know the joy of spending time with people you love or the calm of having a full day with absolutely no obligations to worry about. You’ve felt the difference a good night of sleep can make or the rush you get after a good workout.

But even knowing that you feel better with those things, it can still be hard to actually restructure your priorities or change your habits so that you have more of what actually makes you happy.

Dr. Santos knows first-hand that unlearning the bad and misguided habits you’ve had for years isn’t easy. “If I’m having a bad day, when I get home, my instinct is to plop down and watch TV or eat something,” she said. “It’s not to engage in a hard workout or try to connect with a friend or to take a little bit of time to do a few breath-based meditations.”

But learning the science behind just how much of a difference those things can make helped motivate her to change those instincts. “I think it makes it easier to commit to those healthy habits,” Dr. Santos explained.

To give you an idea of just how motivating the science can be, here are some of the research results she cites in the course:

  • In a 2016 study, over two-thirds of subjects said they would prefer to have more money over more time. But the subjects who said they valued time over money were, on average, almost a full point happier on a five-point scale.
  • A 2011 study on meditation found that meditating at least five days per week resulted in steadily increasing positive emotions over the eight weeks of the study, compared to almost no change for the control group that did not meditate.
  • A 2000 study compared depression recovery rates among three groups who were treated with either antidepressants, exercise, or a combination of both. After four months, 90% of the exercise-only group had made a full recovery compared to about half of the medication-only group. This was with just three 30-minute workouts per week.

“I made a ton of changes based on this work,” Dr. Santos said. Some of the biggest changes she’s made include prioritizing social connections and time over work, even when it means saying no to opportunities she would normally want to say yes to. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it.

“Overall, I’m a lot happier since I started teaching the Yale class and the podcast than I have ever been,” she noted. “So I am living proof that if you make the changes, it can really work.”

Teaching Happier Habits to the Next Generation

Now, Dr. Santos is adapting those same lessons for a younger audience with the launch of The Science of Well-Being for Teens earlier this year. After the success of the first course and the podcast, “I really wanted to make sure that we were getting this content to the generation of individuals that needed it, and our young people today are really suffering,” she explained.

A study by the CDC found that 42% of teens reported feeling persistently hopeless or sad, with 22% saying that they’ve seriously considered suicide. So there is an urgent need to help younger people learn the skills that can make the most difference in their well-being.

“I hope we start to realize that these are the things we need to teach our children and young people,” she said. “We need to prioritize that as much as we prioritize their academic achievements.”

In a mental health crisis like the one we’re facing today, Dr. Santos’s frank and evidence-based approach to happiness is helping millions of people unlearn the bad habits and misconceptions that got us here and start focusing on the things that actually matter for our well-being.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.