A Happiness Primer: 9 Lessons from Yale University’s Most Popular Course

What psychological science says about the good life and how effortful and intentional activities can have a powerful effect on how happy we are.

Yale Happiness CoursePhoto Credit: Shutterstock

What do gratitude, acts of kindness, meditation, exercise and good sleep have in common? Psychological science says they’ll make you happier, and they’re the homework assignments in Yale University’s most popular course, Psych 157 or “Psychology and the Good Life.”

I just wrapped up a 10-week online version of the course, offered through Coursera, an online education platform. It’s taught by Yale’s Dr. Laurie Santos, who offers weekly lectures on positive psychology, as well as “rewirement” exercises (yes, homework), which help develop happiness practices in daily life. The final assignment, what Dr. Santos calls the “Hack Yo Self Project,” is a personal self-improvement challenge. There were so many takeaways – I even busted out a notebook, old-school style! Here are the top lessons, plus some happiness homework for you, too.

  1. The things we think will make us happy – such as true love, amazing stuff, a good job, lots of money and beauty – don’t. In fact, thinking about stuff (that is, material possessions) actually makes you less happy; and, after a couple years of marriage, people’s happiness ratings usually return to a baseline (scientific proof of the honeymoon phase!).
  2. Our brains play funny tricks to ensure these things don’t satisfy us. Hedonic adaptation, one such mental block, is when the mind gets used to having these great things and then wants bigger and better. Think of the last time you got a raise or even a new pair of shoes. How long before these things got old? According to Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness, we not only adapt to making more money, but when we do get raises, they only make us desire more. For every extra one dollar earned, your required income goes up by $1.40.
  3. Social comparisons and media, especially social media, aren’t helping us out. Dr. Santos points out another annoying feature of the brain: it thinks in terms of reference points. In other words, we compare ourselves to others, which messes with our moods. A 2011 study by Peter Kuhn found that those living next door to someone who won a new car were twice as likely to buy a new car for themselves. And beyond next-door neighbours and traditional media like television and magazines, our generation faces a more pervasive set of reference points: social media. Not surprisingly, a 2014 study led by Erin Vogel in Psychology of Popular Media Culture found a correlation between increased Facebook time and lowered self-esteem. That’s right, social media is ruining your chance at happinessHOMEWORK: Take a break from social media (like these celebrities) or set screen-time limits on your devices.
  4. Outsmart your brain and stop buying stuff. Invest in experiences instead. Since we don’t adapt to experiences, experiences can make us happier than stuff. Experiences are temporary, so you don’t have time to get used to them (think of a memorable vacation or an amazing meal) and you’re just left with good memories. The anticipation and planning of the experience, as well, boosts happiness, and, with experiences, you’re less susceptible to social comparison.
  5. Thwart hedonic adaptation by savouring and practicing gratitude. Savouring is the act of stepping outside of an experience to notice and appreciate it. Savouring hinders mind-wandering and increases gratitude and mindfulness. It comes in many forms, including sharing a memorable experience, taking photos, recalling happy moments and being completely absorbed in the present. Gratitude, as well, will make you happier and healthier, according to a great deal of research. The practice activates parts of your brain related to the release of dopamine and can help lessen depression, improve sleep and energy and even help thwart cardiovascular disease. HOMEWORK: Incorporate a gratitude practice into your bedtime routine by writing down five things you were grateful for that day. Get started with our daily journal template. 
  6. Discover your character strengths and use them. Researchers Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman defined 24 strengths or characters a person owns, celebrates and frequently exercises. They state that using your top strengths in your everyday life and especially at work can increase your well-being and decrease depressive symptoms over time. HOMEWORK: Discover your best qualities by taking a simple survey on viacharacter.org. Aim to use your top character strengths in a new way every day over the next week.
  7. Want better things. Happy people, in general, are motivated to do kind things for others and have strong social ties. Performing random acts of kindness is an intentional way you can make yourself happier (while doing something great for others). Our social connections matter, too. Research shows happy people spend more time with others and have richer sets of social connections than unhappy people. Studies even show that the simple act of talking to a stranger on the street can boost our moods more than we expect. Strong social ties also make you less vulnerable to stressful events and premature death. HOMEWORK: For every day next week, perform one random act of kindness (help a friend run an errand; buy your co-worker coffee; volunteer). On another week, try to focus on making one new social connection each day. It can be a five-minute act like sparking a conversation with someone on public transportation, asking a co-worker about their day or even chatting to the barista at a coffee shop. But you should also seek out more meaningful social connections, too.
  8. Prioritize time. Although most folks prioritize money over time, time affluence – the act of prioritizing time over money – comes with greater mood-boosting benefits, according to a 2016 paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science. It makes sense – when you have time affluence, you have sufficient time to pursue activities that are personally meaningful, relaxing and enjoyable.
  9. Make lifestyle adjustments for happiness. Mind-wandering makes us feel bad, but our minds wander 46.9% of the time. In fact, our brains our wired to wander; mind-wandering is associated with activity in the brain’s default network, which is the cortical region active when the brain is at rest. The best way to hinder mind-wandering is through mindfulness meditation. Modern science has confirmed the potential benefits of meditation, including increased gray matter; improved energy levels and mood; reduced blood pressure; and better sleep, among myriad other wins. In addition to meditation, Dr. Santos recommends exercise – which offers benefits equal to Zoloft for depression recovery when done three times a week – and sleep. Good sleep (seven to nine hours) improves cognitive performance and helps us learn motor skills, but not enough (approximately five hours) can lead to mood disturbances.

Unfortunately, having all these science-backed happiness-boosting techniques in our tool kits isn’t enough – “knowledge is half the battle,” says Dr. Santos. In order to see real benefits, you’ll have to make an intentional effort to put these practices into play by setting specific goals and having a plan to stick to your goals in certain situations. For my final assignment, I resolved to implement a nightly gratitude practice by going to bed earlier. To do so, I’ll have to stop falling asleep on the sofa while watching Netflix. I’m still working on it!

Next, learn what the world’s healthiest people have in common.