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How to Prime Your Brain to Be Happy

Illustration by Martín Elfman

Dr. Laurie Santos, the professor behind Yale's insanely popular "Psychology and the Good Life" course, talks about why we're so bad at figuring out what we actually want.

If college is supposed to be a carefree, jolly, hedonistic four-year romp, someone forgot to tell the students at Yale. (Which isn't really surprising, since they got into Yale in the first place.) When Dr. Laurie Santos opened her course "Psychology and the Good Life" for registration this semester, more than 1,200 undergrads (they have about 5,500 total) signed up, hoping to unlock the secrets to happiness.

Good for them, for seeking it out at a young age, especially at a time when Millennials are wracked with depression and anxiety. Of course, the bad news is: the keys to contentment remain elusive throughout your twenties. And thirties. And forties. In fact, pretty much your entire life. So chances are you could use some help right now, too! Since we Olds can't go back to college, we called up Dr. Santos directly, to see if she could save us from our dissatisfaction.

GQ: Happiness is a word we throw around a lot—do you have a working definition for it?
Dr. Laurie Santos: I sort of think of happiness as two-fold. There's in the moment "Are you feeling positive?" Lots of smiling, laughter, and positive mood—not negativity and depression. But also: how are you feeling like your life is going overall? And if you're filled with lots of positive mood and you feel like your life is going pretty well, then I'd say overall you're pretty happy.

Much of the course involves understanding misconceptions about what makes us happy. What are some of the underlying biases that are maybe preventing us from being as happy or satisfied as we might be?
One of them is that our minds often deliver motivation to want certain things, assuming those things will make us happy. This is a phenomenon we call "mis-wanting.” Often our minds are telling us that if we could just get this thing, or just be richer and prettier and have lots of cool stuff, we'd be happy. But those are lies that our mind is feeding us. They just won't make us as happy as we think.

At the same time, our mind doesn't cause us to seek out the kinds of things that really would make us happy—things like social connection or taking time to experience gratitude. Even something as simple as what's called time affluence, which is just simply feeling like you have time to do stuff. We often think of wealth affluence and think that will make us happy. And sometimes we sacrifice our time to become wealthier but the data suggests [you should] stop. You're better off keeping time and foregoing financial wealth.

I had a friend that passed along a “billionaires of time” theory—the idea that when you're in your twenties, you think money will make you happier and you're so eager to make tons of it, that you don't realize that time is a commodity as well. And that, in relation to the rest of society, it's the twenty-somethings who are the billionaires of time.
I think it's important for college students to hear that. They're rich with time, they have lots of time, but the data suggests that they're not necessarily spending it well. There's this recent set of statistics that came out of the National College Health Assessment survey in 2009—so it's even a little bit dated, I think things might actually be worse—where 84% of students report that they're overwhelmed by everything they have to do. It's usually worrying about grades, which don't matter as much as we think for happiness, or for salary—which also doesn't matter for happiness! So we're in these kind of vicious cycles of mis-wanting.

What are the evolutionary reasons why we want the wrong things?
Part of it is that our minds are just built to pay attention to certain kinds of things, right? We're built to pay attention to people who are better than us. We're constantly making theses social comparisons with people that are doing better than us. One of the studies looked at Olympic winners and found that if you watch people's emotional reactions on the stand, silver medal winners are actually a lot more unhappy than they should be—they're way more unhappy than bronze medal winners. By a tenth of a second, they could have had gold. The salient thing is not "Oh, my gosh, I just won a silver medal in the Olympics." The relevant thing is "I could've gotten this other thing."

But that's because we're programmed to be loss averse, right? So is there any way not to feel that loss?
Loss aversion comes from what, in class, we call reference points. We have to compare against something. And the reference points that we find really salient are people who are rich and super beautiful and get great grades. It seems like, at least right now, there is no way to shut this off, right? That's just the way our mind works and you can't make it work differently. But you can feed it different reference points. I tell students to hack their feed. If you're not watching all these televisions shows about the rich and famous, if you're not surrounding yourself with reference points that are unattainable, then I think you won't feel so bad.

You include Dan Gilbert’s TED talk on Natural vs. Synthetic Happiness on your syllabus. Natural happiness is sort of getting what you want. Synthetic happiness is making due with what you have when you didn't get what you want. Is that a fair characterization?
Yeah. His point is also that we were gonna do that anyway. Our minds are really good at synthesizing, changing what we wanted after the fact to kind of make it work.

Exactly. But, especially for college kids, and Yale students in particular, who are extremely high-achieving, how do you balance ambition with being okay not getting what you originally wanted? It could be very easy to get complacent.
What we talk about a lot in the class is that it's fine to be ambitious if you're ambitious about the right things. It's one thing to kill yourself for something that is gonna make you happy. It's a completely different thing to kill yourself for something that's not.

This is the thing that I worry about with our really high-achieving Yale students: there's always this light at the end of the tunnel that they're shooting for and the data would suggest that often what they're shooting for—a really high-paying investment banking job, or the perfect grade or internship—it's not gonna make them as happy as they think.

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Summary | 7 Annotations
the professor behind Yale's insanely popular "Psychology and the Good Life" course
2018/03/29 02:44
When Dr. Laurie Santos opened her course "Psychology and the Good Life" for registration this semester, more than 1,200 undergrads (they have about 5,500 total) signed up
2018/03/29 02:44
What are some of the underlying biases that are maybe preventing us from being as happy
2018/03/29 02:45
our minds often deliver motivation to want certain things
2018/03/29 02:45
This is a phenomenon we call "mis-wanting
2018/03/29 02:45
. But those are lies that our mind is feeding us. They just won't make us as happy as we think.
2018/03/29 02:46
I think it's important for college students to hear that. They're rich with time, they have lots of time, but the data suggests that they're not necessarily spending it well.
2018/03/29 02:46