If you’re letting your brain decide what makes you happy, you might be doing it wrong.
I’m writing, once again, to share some of the well-being wisdom taught by New Bedford native and psychology professor, Dr. Laurie Santos.
Dr. Santos is the Yale professor who turned her observations of students’ mental health struggles into a global phenomenon with a class on the psychology of the good life. She is on a crusade to help us all be happier by sharing evidence-based strategies you can use to feel better.
In the past, I’ve shared some of the practices for being happy that Dr. Santos has researched and supports for increasing happiness, including sleeping for 7-8 hours a night, writing down three to five things we’re grateful for every day, and practicing random acts of kindness. You can also learn more in the Coursera class she created on being happy.
What I’ve found most interesting about her messages recently, beyond the practices themselves, is the way she shows that happiness is not really an intuitive process for human beings. Weirdly, our brains often point us in the wrong direction, suggesting we reach for goals that research shows don’t make us happy.
“We’re all trying to be happier…the problem is that we go about it in the wrong way,” Dr. Santos told Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, in a video that aired earlier this month. “We think we need the next accolade, or we need the next paycheck, or we need to change our circumstances, and the data just suggests that that is not the path to higher well-being.”
“Higher well-being comes from our practices,” she continued. “A big thing is just social connection, carving out time to spend with family members and people you care about and love. Well-being comes from being other-oriented rather than selfish. I think there’s this whole idea for students nowadays that you’ve got to focus on you and your grades and your accolades and your test scores, but the data suggests that happiness comes from focusing on other people.”
That seems simple. So then why aren’t more of us practicing the things that will make us happy?
According to Dr. Santos, we not only need to change the assumptions we’re making about what makes us happy, we also need to flip the process of what comes first. If we put well-being first, she suggests, the rest becomes easier.
“I think one of the things that’s surprising is that the research suggests that if you focus on happiness first, other good stuff will come,” Dr. Santos said on the Khan Academy video. “We think we have to get the good stuff first and then we can be happy… We need perfect grades and to get into the perfect college and then I’ll be happy. The data is funny, it suggests the causal arrow goes the opposite way.”
“It’s a matter of overcoming these misconceptions we have,” she said. “We think we need to be on full throttle 100% of the time and that’s the way to get things done. But counterintuitively, focusing on your well-being first might actually be a way to make those grades, the accolades, all that stuff easier and then you get both for free.”
So many of us have been taught to work hard and only then do we get to feel good. It’s a 180-degree shift in thinking to take care of ourselves first. But like the oxygen mask saying - put it on first and then help others - it turns out that caring for our own mental well-being also allows us to help others more.
“By the act of doing something to support yourself and your self-care, you’re actually helping your community, you're helping the people around you,” Dr. Santos said. “We talk a lot about the evidence for emotional contagion, like my well-being is going to affect the well-being of people around me. So by doing the right sorts of things for yourself, that’s actually a way that you can help your friends. That’s a way you can help your family members.”