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How to be happier: 7 top tips from the professor behind Yale’s popular happiness course

What does it take to be happy? From spending less to sleeping more, one psychology expert from Yale compiled the best evidence-based strategies, creating a world-famous happiness course. Here are seven insights that could improve your life.

In 2018, Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University, introduced a new course – the “Psychology and the Good Life” – that she had designed especially for her students. Santos came up with the idea after noticing that her students seemed unhappy, stressed and overworked. Then she realised this sense of dissatisfaction wasn’t just limited to the Yale campus. 

“There is a mental health crisis among college students across the country,” says Santos.

According to a 2018 survey from the World Health Organization, more than one third of first-year college students in the United States suffer from some form of mental illness. 

Major depressive disorder is most common, with 21.2 per cent of students at American colleges exhibiting symptoms, such as angry outbursts, irritability and extreme feelings of sadness. General anxiety disorder, which affects around 18.6 per cent of students, is the second-most frequent diagnosis. With anxiety disorder, symptoms include feeling restlessness, on-edge and having difficulty controlling feelings of worry. 

The mental health crisis affecting students goes well beyond the US, too. A 2018 study by the University of Hong Kong found that 68.5 per cent enrolled students across eight local universities reported depressive symptoms, while 54.4 per cent reported anxiety symptoms. 

The numbers become more alarming when considering the rising number of reported suicides among Hong Kong students, aged 15 to 24. A 2016 study from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention found that 39 per cent of people who took their lives were full-time students.

Students around the world appear to be struggling with their mental wellbeing, and Santos believed she could help, at least among those who were sitting in her classroom. So she developed a course that combined positive psychology — a branch of psychology focused on behavioural science, evidence-based approaches and real-life applications to enable individuals to lead a meaningful life. 

Santos assumed that a handful of people would enrol in her course, but just weeks after it launched, “Psychology and the Good Life” became the most popular class taught at Yale University in its 319-year history. According to Santos, today one in four students enroll in the class. Most lectures at Yale rarely exceed 600 students, but 1,182 undergraduates enrolled for the 2018 course. 

“This was really exciting, because it showed me that students didn’t like this culture of feeling stressed and anxious,” says Santos. “And they really wanted to do something to feel better.”

The course’s popularity prompted Santos to create a free online version, “The Science of Well-Being,” on Coursera for people of all ages. Much like its predecessor, the online course was a hit: More than 3 million people have taken the course online, and more than 92 per cent of its reviews are five-star.

Speaking at the Mind HK Mental Health Conference in November 2020, Santos shared seven insights from her wildly popular courses via Zoom, in the hopes of positively influencing people around the world to prioritise their mental health and wellbeing.

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Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University. Photo courtesy of Laurie Santos.

1. Adjust your attitude

Most people assume that when good things happen to us, like getting good grades, the perfect job or falling in love, we become happier over time.

Research suggests, however, that it’s actually the other way around. Happiness starts well before many major life events take place. 

A 2001 study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that women who smiled and appeared happy in their college yearbooks were more likely to view themselves more positively in adulthood. Of the 100 women studied, those who registered “positive emotional expressions” in their pictures said they felt organised, mentally focused and achievement-oriented, and less susceptible to repeated and prolonged negative experiences later on in life.

In addition, a 2016 study in the Journal of Behavior Research and Therapy found that visualising positive outcomes can help those with anxiety disorders find greater happiness, feel more rested and decrease anxiety. On the flip side, continuous negative thinking has been found to lead to illness, depression and anxiety. 

Taken together, Santos says this suggests that a happy life starts with a happy attitude. “If you can focus on happiness, other things will come to you,” she says. 

2. Money can’t buy happiness

Research has shown that many people think money makes us happy. But according to science, the opposite is true. A 2010 study by the US National Academy of Sciences found that people who are unhappy tend to feel unsatisfied, regardless of their salary.

“There’s a correlation between materialism and happiness, but it’s a negative correlation,” says Santos. “In other words, the more materialistic you are, the less happy you are likely to be.”

Interestingly, the same effect can be observed when it comes to grades. In a study cited by Santos, American high school students with the best grade point average have the lowest levels of happiness, self-esteem, and optimism. 

3. Make time for socialising

One constant factor in nearly every study on happiness? Happy people are more social, making time for friends and family, says Santos. Her top tip for leading a happier life is to prioritise social connections – but how we make those connections matters.

The biggest mistake people can make is relying on communication via text messages and social media platforms, like Instagram and Facebook. Instead, Santos believes that in order to reap the benefits of socialising, it’s important to engage in a way that allows us to see each other’s facial expressions and hear each other’s voices. 

She added that video calling friends — especially during the global pandemic — is a good way for us to engage with our friends and make time. “You need to carve time out of your schedule, and prioritise social connection as much as you do the other important things in your life,” says Santos.

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Social connections can lead to a happier life. Photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

4. Help others, help yourself 

 “Happy people are very ‘other’ oriented,” says Santos. “They give more money to charity and volunteer more.” 

Santos says that it is critical that we pay attention to other people, rather than self-focus on grades and career goals. She adds that we should partake in random acts of kindness with people, and build social connections with them along the way.

According to a 2008 study in Social Science & Medicine, there is a direct correlation with our overall wellbeing and helping others. A person who volunteers more than once a month monthly is 12 per cent more likely to report being happy, and a person who volunteers weekly is 16 per cent more likely to report being very happy. 

5. Practice gratitude regularly 

While it may be easy to complain about life, especially after a year living under Covid-19, according to Santos, that will only take us further away from our happiness goals.

“Research shows that complaining doesn’t make us happy. In fact, we’d be much better served by focusing our time and our energy on experiencing gratitude.” 

According to Psychology Today, the more we vent and surround ourselves with those who complain, the more unhappy we become. It can be harmful too, potentially leading to conditions like anxiety and depression.  

One technique Santos suggests is paying attention to what we’re grateful for on a regular basis. Write down three to five things that you’re grateful for every night, and in a surprisingly short span of time, you’ll start to feel more uplifted.

“This can significantly boost our wellbeing in as little as two weeks,” says Santos, who also recommends telling loved ones that you’re grateful and thankful for them. 

6. Establish healthy habits  

Healthy habits like exercising regularly and getting enough sleep are effective tools to boosting our mood and energy, leading to greater happiness over time. 

According to Santos, just 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day is as effective as anti-depression medication for reducing symptoms of depression.

“We know [exercise] is good for our physical health, but we forget how good it is for our mental health,” says Santos.

Getting the right amount of sleep is also vital for our long-term wellbeing. How much do we need? According to Santos, around 70 hours a week. One in three adults who don’t get enough sleep according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and at risk of mental health problems.

“I think we can really solve a lot of the mental health crisis, if we could just get [people] to sleep,” says Santos.

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Regular exercise benefits both our physical and mental health. Photo credit: Jonathan Borba / Unsplash

7. Use your time wisely

Research has shown that feeling deprived of free time can impact our overall wellbeing.

Santos suggests that in order to feel happier, it’s advisable to take one or two things off our plate. Try to make better use of your time by changing what you do in your “random pockets of time” during the day; for example, in between classes or on the way to work.

Rather than checking social media, Santos suggests calling a friend and reinforcing social connections, writing a gratitude list or doing a few jumping jacks.

While people are worried about their mental health during these uncertain times, says Santos, they are “also looking for evidence-based strategies” that they can use to feel better. This, she stressed, is key to live a balanced and fulfilled life.