- Giuseppe Lombardo/EyeEm/Getty
- Justin Maiman writes a weekly newsletter called Ginger that’s devoted to moments of inspiration. You can read Ginger and subscribe for free here. He’s a journalist with more than 20 years of experience in digital media and television. He’s currently the president and managing director of Cochrane Media, a boutique media shop in New York.
- Earlier in the year, he took an online version of Yale’s most popular class ever: “The Science of Well-Being,” which studies happiness.
- Now, the professor behind the class, Laurie Santos, has created a podcast called “The Happiness Lab.”
- Maiman writes that the podcast not only offers insights from big names – like Michelle Kwan and David Byrne – but that listeners get to learn alongside Santos as she further pursues the meaning and roots of happiness.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Last spring, I had some time on my hands. Even though I was launching my consulting business, I didn’t have any clients yet. So, always eager to learn, I looked around for a new challenge.
That challenge turned out to be “The Science of Well-Being” – Yale’s most popular class ever. It’s often called the happiness class, and it’s a big deal on campus. The brain behind the class, Professor Laurie Santos, collected all of the psychological science out there to come up with a step-by-step process for boosting your own happiness.
- Courtesy of Justin Maiman
After I wrote about taking the online version of the class for Business Insider, the reaction from friends, colleagues, and strangers over and over was the same: “You’re so lucky to have the time for a weekly three-hour class. I wish I had that kind of time.”
Well, now you have no excuse. Santos has expanded upon those ideas and translated them into 10 forty-minute episodes in a new podcast called “The Happiness Lab.” The series aims to help you “make wiser choices and live a life that’s happier and more fulfilling.”
Some big names show up to chat with Santos, like psychologist Dan Gilbert (of TED Talk fame), singer David Byrne, Michael Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman, and even the inventor who was behind one of the first ATMs.
The podcast already has close to four million downloads, so clearly this topic is resonating. Santos isn’t surprised – she told me the format suits her and the material.
“The podcast is my way to give busy people a chance to learn about the research on well-being,” Santos said. “But the podcast format allows us to take more of a deep dive into some of the ways our minds lie to us about what makes us happy. And, unlike a long lecture, each short podcast episode can focus on a single theme – like how we can increase social connection in the face of technology or how we can reduce the sorts of choices that exhaust us.”
Listening in on ‘The Happiness Lab’
I’ve learned a lot listening to the first season. Some of the tips and tricks have been helpful reminders of things I learned in class, and others are new takeaways based on deeper dives.
From the beginning, in an episode called “You Can Change,” Santos lays out the hypothesis of her work and the whole series: that you can indeed make changes to your life that – based on the latest science – will build your own satisfaction and lead to more happiness.
Episode 2 focuses on how the big events (both good and bad) that seem like they’d define your life don’t actually have that much effect on your future happiness. That’s a reassuring idea that can help you put things into perspective.
Other episodes throughout the season lay the groundwork for learning how to be happier in our daily lives, including the importance of social connections; how to confront and overcome disruptive thoughts and bad memories; why our society (wrongly) prioritizes choice over happiness; and how and why the emotions of people around us have such a tremendous influence on our own feelings of happiness and sadness.
In a particularly surprising episode, Santos uses a famous Olympic experience that champion swimmer Michael Phelps had to endure as an example of why positive thinking can actually hold us back, and how negative thinking, or at least imagining the worst possible scenarios for an event, can help us achieve success. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Phelps won his 10th gold medal in the 200 meter butterfly even though his goggles had filled with water early on. He later revealed that he had prepared for everything that could possibly go wrong. So when it did, he was able to overcome the setback.
The importance of having healthy reference points
In one of my favorite episodes, “Episode 3: A Silver Lining,” figure skating champion Michelle Kwan shows up in a fantastic interview about the importance of having healthy reference points.
Reference points are people, data, and situations we compare ourselves to in our mind. They are the alternative reality that you’re paying attention to – even if you might know better.
A classic example is someone who won the lottery. They should be over the moon. Now they’re a millionaire! But, in this situation, research shows the mind of the new millionaire does something tricky. They stop comparing themselves to the less rich and instead compare themselves to the super rich. Using that reference point, they just won’t ever measure up or be happy.
Studies show that comparing yourself to others is really harmful. Not surprisingly, we do it all the time, and then make big decisions based on those faulty reference points. Kwan is an example of one of these unique individuals who picked the right reference points, and that helped her on her Olympics journey. So how did Kwan do it? For one, she used a tactic psychologists call negative visualization – she spent a lot of time wondering what her life would have been like if the good things and successes in her life had never happened. Imagining a worse life for yourself makes you more thankful for the life you have and can free you to focus on the tasks at hand.
Even the professor has more to learn
Another highlight of the series is that you get to learn right along with Santos as she meets people who are putting all of these principles of happiness into practice. That’s exciting on its own, but she takes it to another level because she’s not shy about admitting to her own missteps. She makes it clear that she’s not immune to losing her way along the path to well-being.
“Teaching this podcast has caused me to realize that I don’t always practice what I preach – in fact, some of my guests have explicitly called me on that,” Santos told me. “So I’ve come to recognize even more that these findings aren’t just facts you learn – if you want to see the benefits, you need to work at putting these principles into practice.”
It turns out, happiness can be learned. It takes work, but this podcast opens you up to scientifically solid tips and tricks to enhance your daily life in concrete ways. You’ll learn to develop new positive habits, and actual benefits will follow.