22 Sep 2019

What science can teach us about happiness

From Sunday Morning, 10:05 am on 22 September 2019

Many of us feel like we're working on being happier – but somehow to no avail. 

Science is the best place to turn for some simple tips that really work, says Yale psychology and cognitive science professor Laurie Santos.

woman holding smiley face

Photo: Public doman

Santos's very popular course The Science of Wellbeing is now available for free online (via Coursera) as is a related podcast called The Happiness Lab.

All information in Santos's online course and podcast has strong scientific backing, she tells Jim Mora.

"Every claim that I make in the online class and my podcast, there's a link to a study right there."

Sometimes younger students are angered by Santos's message, she says, because they feel they've been misled about what will bring happiness.

"[These students'] feel like they've been sold that [idea that it's important to chase career, money and status] at an opportunity cost of making friends ... and finding their purpose in the world.

"They feel that they've been off-track, that our culture is moving people off-track, and when you hear the science it really suggests a different direction you could be going."

"Naturally melancholic" is how Santos describes herself, and as a teacher of wellbeing, she has to actively work on practising what she preaches.

"I'm a nerd so I take standard measures of my own happiness and track it over time. Since teaching these classes I've been a point or two happier. It's not magic – I'm putting the work in and seeing the results."

People tend to think they need to change something about their lives to become happier, but science suggests that finding a way to change your behaviour and / or mindset is more likely to help.

While we seem to get "strong intuitions" about the things that will make us happy, Santos says, research shows that getting what we wish for doesn't usually deliver the projected amount of happiness.

This is partly due to a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation – effectively our brain's inherent ability to 'get used to stuff'.

"The things that we seek out in life aren't going to make us as happy as we think because we kind of get used to them in a way we don't expect."

The upside of hedonic adaptation, Santos says, is that it also shows us that we're more resilient than we think we are. This can be helpful when it comes time to approach something we fear – such as being in a car accident, losing a job or getting a diagnosis.

"When things [we've dreaded] finally happen to us, they're not as bad as we think and the pain doesn't last as long as we think."

It can be liberating to know our own actions can be more effective at bringing happiness than any change of circumstance – whether welcome or unwelcome, she adds.

Professor Laurie Santos

Professor Laurie Santos Photo: Yale Owns Rights (Mike Marsland)

So what really helps to make us happier?

More likely to make us happier than a hoped-for 'life change' will be a sufficient amount of time with people we care about, sufficient time off work and sufficient exercise and sleep.


  • Altruism

Research shows spending on others makes you happier than spending on yourself.

  • Experiences (like holidays) rather than objects

Unlike material goods, experiences aren't subject to hedonic adaptation. They boost our wellbeing more, and simply work better, Santos says.

One reason may be that they're not subject to social comparison.

"Comparison being the thief of joy, we don't get our joy stolen as much with experiences as we do with the material goods."

  • Gratitude

While daily gratitude practises can seem 'hokey', Santos says, statistics show they can improve your wellbeing within 2 weeks.

  • And real social connection  in real-time

Happy people tend to spend more time with others and with people they care about, Santos says.

"It's probably true that happiness causes you to seek out social connection but the reverse is true – actively being more social can make us more happy."

Social connection can be hanging out with a loved one or chatting to a stranger in the line for coffee – brief interactions with strangers can really boost our mood, she says.

Quick digital communication such as texting or 'liking' and commenting on social is the "NutraSweet" of personal connection, Santos says.

"It can feel a little bit like we're connecting, but in practice, it leaves us a little depleted."