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Dr. Laurie Santos: What Makes Us Happy?

Headshot of Dr. Vivek Murthy in front of abstract colorful shapes
Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General
Headshot of Dr. Laurie Santos in front of abstract colorful shapes
Dr. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University and Host of the podcast, “The Happiness Lab”
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Do we understand what makes us happy? And if we do, can we make ourselves happier? These are the questions Yale Professor Laurie Santos has been studying for years. As students navigate back to school, Dr. Santos and the U.S. Surgeon General explore how we can help our kids, and ourselves, find greater happiness through changing our behavior and shifting our mindset. In a world in which our happiness might feel driven by externalities, creating our own happiness is within our reach, says Dr. Santos. Tune in and see if you can figure out where your happiness lies. The answer might surprise you.

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Transcript

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Hello and welcome to House Calls. I'm Vivek Murthy, and I have the honor of serving as U.S. Surgeon General. I'd like to introduce you to Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale University and the creator of the revolutionary class Psychology and the Good Life, better known as "The Happiness Class." We believe conversations can be healing and today we'll be talking about happiness in the context of the mental health crisis among youth. This back to school episode includes lessons on stress, burnout and the practice of happiness. Hi everyone. Thanks for tuning in to House Calls. As students are back to school, I'm thinking about how we can help them cope with stress, make good choices, and find more happiness in their lives, especially after a very difficult few years in the pandemic. That's why I wanted to talk with Dr. Laurie Santos. As a Yale professor, she created her class, Psychology and the Good Life, specifically to address these questions. After witnessing the staggering levels of depression and anxiety among her college students, even before the pandemic, she knew she had to do something to try to help. Her answer was to design a class that teaches science based strategies for well-being and instructs students on how to live happier and more fulfilling lives. It quickly became the most popular class in the college's 300-year history, with one quarter of Yale students enrolled. With a larger public demand, she made the course available online for free. And to date, nearly 3.4 million people have taken it. Dr. Santos is also director of Yale's Comparative Cognition Laboratory, director of Yale's Canine Cognition Lab and head of Yale's Silliman College. She's been a featured TED speaker and has been listed in Popular Science as one of their brilliant ten young scientists in 2007, as well as in Time magazine as a leading campus celebrity in 2013. She also has a hit podcast called “The Happiness Lab,” which has over 35 million downloads since it launched in September 2019. What I love about this conversation is how Laurie synthesizes decades of science to help us understand what influences our happiness, and it's not always what we think. What I hope you'll all take away from this conversation is that there are concrete steps that we can all take to increase happiness in our lives. Happiness is within our grasp, even if we're holding on to it requires commitment and hard work.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Hi, Laurie, welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Laurie Santos

Hey, thanks so much for having me on the show.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

I'm so glad that we're talking today. Well, for two reasons. One, I always love talking to you, and you and I have had a chance to talk a number of times before. And I always leave feeling smarter and like I had more insight than I did before the conversation. But the other reason I'm excited to talk to you today is that it is back to school season right now. And there are a lot of parents, myself included, who have gotten their kids back to school but are also wondering about how their kids are going to do in school and are worried about certain things. So I have so much I want to talk to you about today and but I first just want to ask just about your personal story, which is I find so fascinating that you went from working on nonhuman primates to becoming an expert on unhappiness. And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how that happened.

Dr. Laurie Santos

Yeah, it's a kind of strange path. And so, you know, I've been academic psychologist for a very, very embarrassingly long time. Most of the time I was really interested in this question of what makes humans unique, what makes us special? What are some of the ways that we make sense of the world that no other creature does? And I studied that question using using monkeys, using non-human primates. But it was around this time, like, you know, about ten years ago, that I started getting more and more involved in undergraduate student life, and I took on this new role on campus. I became the head of college on Yale's campus, which is this position where faculty get to live with students in one of these undergraduate houses. And it was just an amazing opportunity. I got to see student life up close and personal. But what was surprising was that I didn't like what I was seeing. You know, I assumed college student life was like what college life was like back, you know, when I went to school in the nineties and it was just completely different. You know, so many students were reporting, feeling depressed and anxious and lonely as as you know, so well from your work. And it just kind of wasn't what I was expecting. And so I kind of wanted to do something about it, right? I'm like living in this community with my students. I'm like this benevolent faculty aunt who's supposed to take care of them. And I realized, like, we weren't addressing this crisis of student mental health. So I kind of did the sort of retraining and in positive psychology and sort of science of well-being, all these evidence-based strategies you can use to feel better. And so I kind of packaged it all together to develop a new class for students. I thought, you know, 40 or so students would take it. But the first time I taught it back in 2018, a quarter of the entire Yale student body decided to take the class. Over over a thousand students showed up. And that was sort of, you know, a logistical nightmare. But it was also kind of humbling and cool. And and it showed me that students were voting with their feet. They don't like this culture of feeling lonely and stressed and anxious. And I think they really wanted some evidence-based ways that they could address some of these problems. They were looking for solutions, and they wanted those solutions to come from science and public health.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Well, Laurie, you know, you and I both, I know are deeply concerned about what's happening with young people and their mental health these days in the country. And I'm curious, I think for people out there who may have seen the headlines, but for whom it's not quite tangible. They're not sure, like what does this actually look like for kids to be in crisis? Can you paint a picture of what you've been seeing on the the campus and what you're observing the lives of students in terms of how this mental health crisis is manifesting in their lives?

Dr. Laurie Santos

Yeah, I mean, I'll start with some of the statistics, because I think the statistics are pretty dire, right, according to these National College Health surveys. So these aren't just students at Ivy League schools like Yale. These are students around the country in all kinds of different schools. Right now, or at least in 2019, which is the last kind of pre-COVID data we had, over 40% of college students report being too depressed to function most days. Over 60% say that they're overwhelmingly anxious. More than 50% say that they're very lonely most of the time. And more than one in ten has seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months. You know, so this is this is what is happening nationally. And the way I would just see it on the ground, is just students are just overwhelmed. You know, they're overwhelmed by academics. They're overwhelmed by social stuff. I see a student in the dining hall and be like, "Hey, how's it going?" They'd be like " Oh, if only I could get to the end of the week." Or "If only I could get to midterms." You know, they're kind of fast forwarding this this rare and precious time they have as young people. And those are the students who aren't in crisis, right? You know, crisis really looks like students who are unable to get out of bed because we have panic attacks or who are acutely suicidal or who have everything going, you know, especially in a school like Yale, there are students who are academically achieving, but in terms of their mental health, they're falling apart. And so I think, you know, we really need to, as you know well and as you've discussed yourself, I mean, I think we really need to think seriously about addressing this crisis, not just because our young people's mental health matters, but as educators, we're not really doing our job when these are the statistics on the ground. Like as a college educator, if I'm trying to teach a psychology class or a pre-med class like my students aren't learning if 40% of them are too depressed to function most days and 60% experiencing are experiencing overwhelming anxiety. Right. They're just not learning in the way. I think we had assumed for a very long time that they were.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah, I mean, those stats and stories are so powerful and so disturbing, Laurie. I mean, that tells I think anyone out there who's listening and has wondered, is this more the exception or, you know, I mean, only something that affects a small group of people. The answer is no. I mean, this is sadly becoming the norm. You know, if anything, and affecting in some cases, a majority of young people out there. So this is a this is a profound crisis. And and it's affecting our kids. You know, as you think about this journey, obviously, we're in a bad place now, but how did we get here? What's your sense of the road that led to the current moment?

Dr. Laurie Santos

Yeah, I mean, I think there's no it'd be nice if there was like a, you know, a red herring of one thing we could point to and be like, "Oh, this is the factor. Let's get rid of it." I think it's a variety of things, but I think, you know, we have a very different relationship with technology than we did when you and I were in college. Right. This is a generation of students who really can't shut off. You know, I told this this funny story to students. One of my students was in their dorm room and they're like, you know, my title is HOC Santos, Head of College Santos. They'd be like "HOC Santos, there's weird number on my wall, like, what is that?" And I was like, "Oh, that, that's the phone number. You know, people used to call your phone in your room." And the student said, "Well, how could they call me when I wasn't in the room?" And I was like, "Well, they couldn't, like, you could just leave. You could walk away from your social expectations." And I think when you think about that difference, that students feel like they're on all the time, on to their friend group, on to the people they're performing with, on social media, on to just being connected to all the scary stuff in the news all the time, right? That alone is a recipe for anxiety. It's a recipe for kind of not feeling like you can ever shut off, right. And so I think I think we really need to take a solid look at our relationship with technology. And it is partly social media, but I think it's broader than that. You know, even a student who's not really on TikTok or on Instagram or so on, they're connected to their parents who could text them at a moment's notice. They're connected to WhatsApp when they're kind of connecting with their your friend group and things like that. So so I think that's a that's a big change. And if you plot just the number of smartphones that students tended to have alongside these, you know, awful mental health statistics, you see a really robust correlation. We know correlation isn't causation, but my sense is that there's something there we need to analyze. I think there's also been some interesting and important structural changes to the way childhood and education works. You know, I think childhood has become much more of an achievement culture. You know, in the years since you and I were in college where, you know, even from grade school, students are starting to worry about grades. You know, we have words like college readiness and things like that. And those things are important. You know, we want students to learn. But I think we've moved much more away from internal rewards like learning and the benefits you get from education to things like getting into a perfect school and the scores you get on exams and so on. And I think that focus on external rewards has set students up for you competing in really individualistic ways that that lead demonstrate from the things that really matter for their mental health, things like social connection, things like helping others, things like having a sense of meaning and purpose that's beyond yourself. And so I think those structural changes in the way we think about education and what students are trying to achieve, those things actually matter a lot, and we need to look at those really carefully if we're going to think about addressing this mental health crisis.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

So so let's dig into that for a second because I like what you're talking about regarding internal versus external rewards or more so, I should say, priorities, you know, that we that we ask young people to train their minds on and then to chase for years and years and years, some cases the rest of their life. And I think this is why I think it's so interesting that, you know, people talk about you as the "happiness professor." And I know that happiness has been your focus, but a lot of these priorities are part of a narrative that tells us that if you achieve those external markers right, whether it is, you know, winning certain competitions, getting certain grades, getting to certain school, getting fancy jobs, making a certain amount of money, becoming famous, whatever the external markers are, the story goes that if you achieve those, you will be happy. But what do what does the data actually tell us about whether that's true or not?

Dr. Laurie Santos

Yeah, I mean, the data are really clear on this one, which is that our circumstances don't necessarily make us happy. I think the one caveat to that is that if you're in really dire circumstances, right. If you don't have enough money to put food on the table, if your health is terrible, you know, those are circumstances that if you change those, of course, they'll positively affect your well-being. But if you're not living in poverty, the results seem to suggest that getting more money isn't necessarily going to help you. Or it's definitely not going to help as much as we predict it will. The same is true for grades and accolades. One of the statistics I share with my students is that there is a correlation between high school grade point average and well-being, but it's a negative correlation. What does that mean? That means as high school GPA goes up, your overall well-being goes down. You also see a negative correlation between high school GPA and self esteem and high school gpa and optimism. It’s not what we predict, but, you know, just student achievement is not leading to the kind of well-being effects we expect. And you might say, well, you know, that might be true in school, but maybe, you know, once they graduate from college, once they get into the good school, you know, in the future, they'll be much better off. But the data don't seem to bear that out either. In cases where we have good data, again, people's great circumstances don't tend to lead to these well-being effects. The things that matter for well-being are the things that our students are often not prioritizing. They're the kind of things that get lost in the sort of opportunity cost struggle that we're sort of setting students up for. They’re things like social connection, things like just getting enough sleep and healthy habits like exercise. They're things like doing things for others and having a sense of purpose, not just kind of individually competing for yourself, but really having some bigger goal that you're doing something for your community. Again, these, I think, are things that we've lost out on in the norms that we set students up for today. They're things that have kind of gone by the wayside in the structures we set up in our kind of early educational system. But those are the things that the research suggests really matter for happiness.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah, and that's incredibly powerful to hear because I do think that young people, when I talk to them across the country, a lot of them have actually really impressive and profound insight into the structure in which they're operating, a structure and a culture that are asking them to chase certain benchmarks, if you will, of achievement with the promise, even if it's an illusory promise of happiness that comes thereafter. But they're not happy necessarily doing that. And so, you know, I think about this, often, from two respects. One is if they're not happy, they don't want it, where is it coming from? Is it coming from parents? Is it coming from media? Is it coming from, you know, some other, you know, sort of messaging element in society that's telling people this is what you have to do? But what's your sense of what is driving that culture of achievement, even if it's at the expense of happiness?

Dr. Laurie Santos

I mean, I think there are there are a couple of factors. It's interesting to look at this historically. There's a former Stanford dean, Julie Lythcott-Haimes, who's looked at this in a lot of detail. And what she talks about is like a lot of changes that happened to education in the in the kind of eighties and nineties that might have led to this. One of the big ones was the changes to the this sort of U.S. News and World Report kind of scoring of different colleges right before was kind of like, you know, go to college. That's great. Now there's like rankings. You can kind of win or lose the college game. And I think parents pick up on that. Students pick up on that. Right. You know, there's this idea that there are the kind of haves and the have nots when it comes to education now. And that feels really different. I think there's also been changes in terms of who can go to college in incredibly positive ways, right. You know, any amazing student can go to Yale right now. Yale will provide a massive financial aid package. It's just fantastic. But the meritocracy means that like the spoils of the war become large. You know, this is where I kind of tie back to my roots studying animals. You know, you see in animals these impressive games that when the spoils go up, the competition rises. You see this kind of arms race in terms of how they invest and how much they compete. And I think we've we've kind of stuck our students into this arms race of competing for these things. And the competition begins really early. And what they're sacrificing is all the stuff that we know matters for happiness. Again, sleep, social connection, being present, you know, being mindful, taking breaks, what we what social scientists call "time affluence," just the sense that you have some free time. You think of our poor over-scheduled kids and just all this stuff we pack in for them. And I think, you know, again, I think parents did this, parents kind of focused on these things out of love for their children, right. They want their children to succeed. They want their children ultimately to be happy. But we have these misconceptions about the kinds of things that really matter for happiness. And we set up our structures using those misconceptions. And I think now that we understand the science of this stuff better, I think we can start questioning some of those structures and trying to think about whether there are some changes we need to make.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned parents also, because I want to focus in on parents for a moment and I'm going to be selfish here a little bit because I'm a parent too, and constantly wondering whether I'm doing the right thing for my kids, for my six year old and my four and a half year old. Much of the late part of the summer, I found myself worried about them going back to school, thinking, are they going to be anxious about hanging out with other kids again? Because they certainly didn't see a lot of other kids during the pandemic and during the summer we had them spend a lot of time with their grandparents. I also wondered what was it going to be like for them on the learning side as well? What are they going to feel? Are they are they going to learn well or they can feel engaged in the learning? Are they going to connect with their teachers? There are there are so many normal things that I was worried about, but also with the overlay of the the pandemic and the challenges that all of our kids have faced during the pandemic, I found that added an extra layer of worry. So, you know, if you think about parents out there and I'm sure that I'm not alone, I know there are a lot of parents who, as their children went back to school worried about the whole gamut, but in particular about the the mental health impact, you know, on their kids in the last couple of years. What advice do you have for parents about what to look out for in terms of making sure that their kids are okay, any warning signs that they should have in mind to know that their child might not be doing as well as they need to be?

Dr. Laurie Santos

Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things that that parents should remember is that, you know, for better or for worse, parents have an enormous effect on their kid's set of emotions and their kids level of anxiety. And one of the things we know from the psychological literature is that there's there's a massive amount of emotional contagion between parents and kids. So what do I mean by emotional contagion? These days we're all talking about COVID contagion and virus contagion, but emotional contagion works works in a similar way. You're literally just catching the emotions of people around you. Right. And you know this naturally, you know, if you go into work and there's a team meeting and everybody's really upbeat, you know, you're going to start to feel upbeat no matter how you walked in there. And of course, there's the reverse of everybody's anxious and kind of upset and frustrated. You know, you're going to pick up on that, too. I think one of the pieces of advice I like to give parents is that, you know, if you're looking at the new school year, feeling incredibly anxious, feeling worried about what's going to happen to them, and so on, kids, they're going to pick that up, right? You know, they're younger than us, right? They don't know what the new school year is going to hold. They have far less experience with new school years than we do. But if we're looking at the start of classes thinking like, oh gosh, how are you going to do? Oh my goodness, you didn't get your math class. You only did zoom classes. What are you going to do? Like they're going to learn from that anxiety and pick it up. And so I think one thing for parents is to think about ways of regulating your own anxiety. This is something I saw just kind of anecdotally in my college students all the time. You know, I met students who were just incredibly anxious and really high strung about this semester, you know, to like, you know, what's what's going on? How can I help them? And then often those are the same students from whom I'd get a call from their parents, who were also anxious about their classes in the semester. And I realize, like, you know, if parents can do a little bit of work to regulate their anxiety, then that can be really helpful. And that and it's worth saying that's hard, right? There are legitimate reasons to be anxious about the upcoming semester and how children are going to do. But, you know, we we know that we can regulate our emotions and try to take a different mindset on things, right. We know that you can think about a stressful semester as a semester where your kids could have a lot of growth. Right. You know, a semester that's going to be really challenging is one where they're going to, you know, get their feet wet and dive in and use stress in a positive way. So I think one of the biggest pieces of advice I can give to parents is if you can start reframing it, you know, you as adults with your fully formed frontal lobes and all your emotion-regulation skills and data that you have, if you can work on that, that's going to be a huge help to your kids because they're going to be looking to you, whether you want them to or not, to kind of figure out like, how should I feel about this? to kind of figure out like, how should I feel about this?

Dr. Vivek Murthy

That's good advice, Laurie, then you're right that so much of the time we influence our kids, even in unintended ways. And I think we have to be mindful of our emotions. I, I do recognize that for so many parents out there, this has been a really tough year, few years, to be a parent. And I think it wasn't like parenting was a walk in the park before the pandemic. But I think the incredible stress that this pandemic placed on parents who have to navigate so much uncertainty, manage our kids learning, their work, relatives who may not have been well, and their own well-being, I think has really pushed so many parents to the breaking point. One of the things that I find helpful sometimes also to remember is I, I find that sometimes as parents, we may overvalue like the external things we can do for our children, taking them to, you know, tutoring them in math, taking them to like, you know, special classes, making sure that they're, you know, going to soccer, you know, three times a week, etc., and undervalue the intrinsic things we can do for our kids, like making sure that they know that we support them and that we love them and actually spending time with them, whether it's reading them stories, if they're small or playing with them ourselves, or just asking them how their day is going. But I know that having those secure attachments as children is so important to their happiness and well-being. And you know, sometimes, like, I realize I may even forget at times I and assuming, yeah, of course I tell my kids I love them all the time. They know that. But I think during difficult times of uncertainty and stress, kids need to feel that sometimes even more than ever. And the good thing is that that doesn't that's not something that costs money. It costs time to a certain extent. But that's an important investment, I think, that we make in our kids.

Dr. Laurie Santos

I love I love that suggestion. And I think with that, I think parents can can give themselves some grace about not being perfect parents. I mean, one of the strategies I think would be great for parents to embody more for kids is a little bit of self-compassion, right? Giving yourself a break to take some time off. And I think this is one of the things I think parents forget a lot. You mentioned that parents, you know, try to give their kids more of these external things. You know, I think the data suggests that, you know, we could scale back on some of those external things to give our kids and ourselves as parents a little bit more time. You know, there's a lot of work in social science right now on this concept of time affluence, the subjective sense that you have some free time, that you're not running from soccer game to violin practice to, you know, like homework and things like that. And there's lots of evidence accruing now that that time affluence for kids might matter a lot more than it does for adults. Just as adults, you can feel it. You know, you get the meeting canceled at work and you've a free half hour, and that can feel like, you know, like the world has opened up and like it's so much relaxation. I think it's even more profound to think about ways to give kids time affluence. One recent study I read is that kids who feel like they're time pressured all the time are running from activity to activity that negatively affects their mental health, but it also negatively affects their body. There is evidence of like even like early signs of hypertension in kids who self-reported having the least time. And so I think one nice thing you can do for yourself and your kids this semester is maybe take one thing off their plate, you know, like give them like, you know, full self-compassion. Is there something that we could stop doing this semester that would kind of give us a little breathing room? And with that breathing room, you could use it to, you know, have family time, you know, by the TV or eat a longer dinner or just kind of be present with no plans. I think, you know, again, in our rush to kind of give our kids everything we possibly can, we forget that one thing we need to give each other is a little bit more time.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Gosh, I love that suggestion. I mean, when it comes to scheduling for our kids, it is so clear that often less is more, right. And I, I remember as a child when, you know, I think I had a much less scheduled life than kids do now in terms of extracurricular activities, etc. But I remember even then with like the amount of whatever homework we had and other after school activities, I remember somebody, one of my parents friends looking at our life and saying, gosh, kids these days are being robbed of their childhood. I always remember him him saying that they're being robbed of their childhood. And I think about kids today who are far more scheduled than perhaps you and I and folks of our generation were. And I really do worry that they are being robbed of their childhood. Like there's, I think, value to having open time where you don't have anything planned. There's value actually to being bored at times, allowing your mind to wander and to just see what kind of creative crevices your attention wanders down. But I think so many children don't have that reserve or that in their schedule, much less the energy reserve to engage in in such sort of creative pursuits or just in dreaming and thinking. And so that feels like a tremendous loss. I, I do worry that it's because we live in this society that is so geared toward productivity and thinks about productivity in a very specific way as generating concrete outputs, whether that's grades, whether it's extracurriculars that you put on your resume, whether it's specific skills that you're building that optimize your chances for a job down the line. All of those are valuable. Don't get me wrong, but I worry that the pendulum has swung so far to one end of emphasizing that kind of productivity over all else that we have, in fact, robbed our children of their childhood in many ways.

Dr. Laurie Santos

And I think, you know, the you know, the blame for that falls at least squarely on people like me. You know, I work at an Ivy League institution whose admissions standards are completely over the top, who get some credibility out of accepting fewer and fewer students like, you know, setting the bar higher and higher every year. And I think we've really lost something in that sense. I think we've really lost, like the value of like free time, of making sure that you're loving your extracurriculars for their sake, not just to get another line on your resume. What what's so sad and shocking to me is if you talk to a lot of college students about the kinds of extracurriculars and the pursuits that they've put tons and tons of time in, you know, years and years of energy, often they'll self-report, disliking them a lot. You know, they'll say, oh, I wish you know, I wish I could, you know, yeah, I run track all the time, but, you know, I wish I could just be a photographer. Or, yeah, you know, I like, lettered in debate, but, you know, I kind of hate it secretly, you know? And I think part of it is that it becomes this extrinsic reward. You know, we know a lot about the science of motivation. If somebody tells you you have to do something, if you feel trapped in the context of doing something, then yeah, it's going to stop feeling enjoyable. It's going to start feeling like a chore. And I think we have inadvertently turned education and pastimes and hobbies into chores. Again, not just for each other as adults, which for sure we have, but for our children too.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

You know, I do think that this is an opportunity for us to do a reset. You know, as we start the new school year, as we just begin a new phase, you know, in our pandemic response, I think, look, how do we take the learnings of the last few years and really build the kind of life that's focused on happiness for us and for our for our children? And, you know, in your course, unhappiness if feel like your it seems like there are two elements to the course, right? You're teaching people about the science of happiness. What leads you and influences our happiness. But you're also teaching them about the science and art of behavior change, right? Like once we understand that, how would we actually change our behaviors, which is, gosh, one of the toughest things to do right? But so important and I'm curious, like for folks out there who are listening, who recognize that there may be a happiness gap in their life, a gap that they want to close, how should they think about what kind of activities may in fact, help them increase happiness? And then how can they change their lives to actually make those activities part of their life? Because from everything you've written before and spoken before that I've listened to, you're very realistic about telling people that this isn't a simple, you know, flip of the switch. This isn't just an app that you sign up for. It's not a one-time activity. But this is it's hard work, you know, to build a life that truly contributes to and supports happiness.

Dr. Laurie Santos

Yeah. I mean, I think, I think the first important insight is to recognize that it's possible. I mean, there's there's just tons of data that if you can change your behavior as if you can change your mindsets, you will see significant increases in happiness, right. And again, I think it's worth kind of qualifying that. That doesn't mean you go from like zero on a happiness scale to ten. But if you really take seriously these kinds of strategies and you engage with it, you know, you can go from a six to a seven, you know, on on average students who take my course, for example, go up about a point on a standard ten point well-being scale. And that's significant, right? Like that matters a lot. That can get you out of a dark place, if you're feeling in a dark place. So so I think that's thing number one is to recognize that it works. The second is to try to figure out the kinds of strategies that really do positively affect your happiness. And again, it's not what we think. We think we have to change our job or, you know, make some incredible change in our finances or things like that. And for many people, it's not that. For many people, it's, for example, getting in more social connection. You know something I know you've talked about a lot. You know, I really wish that, you know, your office and in addition to kind of having the, you know, recommendations for how much exercise people should get in a day and, you know, how many, you know, whole grains or whatever, like how many minutes of meaningful conversation we should have, you know, every single day, right? You know how many people we should reach out to, right? Just kind of like standard ways that we can in in really simple forms, just get a little bit more connection in our lives. But that's I think, honestly, if you really want to increase your happiness, that's like one of the fastest ways to do it is just to reach out to other people and connect. Another behavior that we know matters for happiness, you know, dovetails with our physical health, which is just getting a little bit more sleep, right, getting a little bit more sleep and a little bit of exercise. I mean, one of my favorite studies that I share with students shows that you get a half hour of cardio exercise a day that's as effective at treating depression as some as some anti-depression medications, you know, just a half hour every day of cardio, right, if you're not doing that normally. And so I think we need to just kind of remember that these behaviors are powerful. And one of the behaviors that can be powerful for happiness is also not doing anything. You know, this idea of time, affluence, right. Like not scheduling. Actually getting rest in. It can be a powerful way in a kind of free hour schedule and give ourselves a little bit of a break. So those are behaviors we can engage in, but happiness also can come from our our mindsets, right? Like literally shifting our mindset. You know, we talked about this a little bit about know, maybe parents shifting their forms of anxiety. I think you can also shift your mindset in terms of paying attention to the positives out there. Lots of evidence that paying attention to the things you're thankful for or getting a kind of mindset of gratitude can matter. Hard to do in this day and age where we have, you know, 24/7 news cycles and algorithms that point us to the most outrageous, most negative thing. You know, it's harder to train your brain towards things that are positive, but the evidence suggests that gratitude can make us not just improve our overall happiness levels, but it can also improve our physical health. You know, there's evidence that grateful people sleep better, for example. Right. And so mindsets of gratitude are powerful, but then also a mindset of, I think, compassion. Right. I think we we believe that the right way to live a life is to push ourselves and constantly going through these external rewards and and going after these kinds of things. But there's lots of evidence that giving yourself some grace, giving yourself a break, not only feels better in terms of happiness, but it might be the path towards getting you towards those other goals that you have otherwise, because it means you're not beating yourself up as much. And so, yeah, I think I think finding ways to get in these behaviors and these mindsets are important. The evidence suggests it really will improve your happiness. But like all behavioral changes, it's going to take, you know, some work. And I think recognizing that it's a work, recognizing that it's the kind of thing you need to do every day, you know, just like exercise, just like eating healthy. I think that's the framing of happiness that we we need to sort of take on. I think too often we fall for the maybe maybe it's Disney messed us up. This notion of like happily ever after that we you get this one thing and then we'll be happily ever after. But but that's that's not how it works. My my Harvard colleague Dan Gilbert is fond of saying "Happily ever after only works if you have three more minutes to live." You know, it just this is not how happiness works.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Well, it is a constant effort, but as you mentioned, it can be a fruitful effort and one that can really return dividends. And what struck me about some of the measures you were speaking to was the relative simplicity of these measures. You didn't say go out and buy an expensive service. You didn't say go out and buy an expensive product. You talked about things that are within our grasp about sleep and about the power of gratitude, about even short amount of physical activity on a given day, making an impact on our mood and how we feel. Talked about social connection, about picking up the phone to call a friend or picking up the phone when someone calls, even if it's for 2 minutes. But just to hear their voice. These are incredibly powerful. And when you mention them, it strikes me that these are kind of the original building blocks of what allowed humans to thrive, right. And in some ways, what your speaking to, I think, so eloquently and what you've been modeling, I think, in your own life, in your coursework, is that this is not an effort to somehow transform us into something that's just totally unfamiliar and and foreign to us. This is a return to who we've been for thousands of years. And we've perhaps in recent history forgotten that as we've allowed other influences to shift what we pursue and how we live. But this is our chance and I think our, you know, our opportunity to really get back to living a life that truly nourishes us and helps us thrive. There's one thing you mentioned also that I that struck me, too. You know, it made me think about my conversations I've had with patients over the years about behavior change, often around like diet and physical activity, which are, you know, challenging. You know, I think if you are like me, you probably started gym routines many times in your in your life or diets various times. And have like fallen off the wagon, somehow. And one thing I always found powerful with patients was to recommend to them that they have somebody else in their life that they can either pair up with and make a commitment to do something together, whether it's trying a new diet or a new exercise pattern, or at least somebody who they can, again, hold them accountable in a kind, you know, but firm way, you know, a good friend who might they may check in with, you know, every couple of days to say, hey, here's how I'm doing on my diet. And that external partnership accountability, it's felt I have just noticed with patients, with myself that it helps, you know, make behavior change stick. It increases the longevity. But I'm curious what you've seen in your research as well.

Dr. Laurie Santos

Yeah, I mean, definitely. I think one of the reasons that students do so well in my class that we do see these actual wellbeing gains when we measure before and after, is that students are doing it in the context of this big group, right. You know, there's a quarter of the entire Yale student body who is, you know, engaging with these things at the same time. For my online class that we put online for free on Coursera, you know, there's millions of learners who are doing the same thing at the same time that you can connect with on message and things like that. And, you know, that's, you know, a big extreme version. But I think, you know, just partner up with a friend and and try to do these kinds of practices together. I think this is a spot where parents can really get something out of kids. You know, all the practices we just talked about are ones that you can explain to your six year old, you know, in 5 minutes and they get it and they'll you know, if you commit to doing this stuff together with your kids, they'll hold you accountable. You know, if you're supposed to be getting time affluence and you're not, your kid will be like "Dad!" like, you know, like "You said, we actually get time, affluence, you know, like you said, you should work out today and you didn't work out today." Like they love calling you out on that stuff. And and so I think that that that this idea of connecting with other people allows you to have the social connection, but it also allows you to have some social support, right. You feel worse if you're not engaging in these things because you're letting somebody else down. So it's a it's a powerful way to do these things. But getting back to your other point, I mean, I agree. It's, you know, in some ways, when I give the list of all these, you know, evidence-based things that, you know, like people are getting social sciences are getting money to study, and it's like, look, the list is like social connection and exercise more and sleep. You know, people will say, you know, that's that's what my grandmother told me, you know, like this is, you know, like this is common wisdom. And I think ironically, it's long been common wisdom, but at least in the modern day, it's not common practice. It's the kind of thing we need to build into our lives to to live a healthy life. And so I think coming up with structures of whether it's social support or you're putting it in your calendar, anything you can do to build these things, it is important. The final caveat I'll say with that, though, is that, you know, I think whenever we hear this stuff, you know, we as humans, you know, being these like reward driven, you know, especially my kind of type-A Yale students, like there can be this move where you're like, all right, and now I will begin beating myself up for not being this, like, perfectly happy creature or not achieving all these behaviors and mindsets. And I think it's important to remember the power of baby steps, right? You know, if you're if you're feeling really lonely and you're not getting in any social connection, you know, just texting a friend once is going to do some work, you know, if if you're a really kind of person, that type of person that focuses on the negative, then you're thinking of one thing that you might be grateful for every night could be a powerful shift in your attention. And so I think if you're hearing these things, you're feeling like, oh, gosh, I got got to do all of them. You know, that's a moment to maybe take a step back. You know, give yourself some grace. Pick one thing to focus on and start small. We know behavior change works best if people are picking small things to start with and giving themselves grace when things don't work out perfectly.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Laurie, that makes great sense. And if anything, if we could pursue some of these pathways for action that you're talking about, especially when we're feeling, you know, rundown or burned out, I think they may help a lot. But I want to ask you about two technology related pathways that many of us, myself included, sometimes feel ourselves walking down when we're feeling tired or exhausted or burned out. One is social media, you know, which, you know, sometimes we can feel like, gosh, if I feel lonely or if I'm just not feeling connected to people, let me just, you know, log on to my social media app and then I'll see what other folks are doing and I feel connected to them. But then there's the other tech piece I want to talk to you about, which is streaming TV shows and movies. Right. Which is, you know, once you know, I remember growing up, we had to like wait a week, you know, for the next, you know, show to come on. And it was, like, maddening, like I want to know what happens in the next episode. Now, of course, we can you can binge watch, you know, an entire series, you know, in a night or weekend if you want. And I've certainly found myself at moments, you know, over the years, you know, when I felt, you know, just exhausted or, you know, let me just sit down and watch a few episodes of my favorite show. But tell me, how do you think about these types of technology platforms? How can they be helpful to us? When are they actually not helping us?

Dr. Laurie Santos

I think the problem with some of these technology platforms, I mean, there might be lots of challenges with them. But I think one particular challenge comes from yet another way that our mind lies to us, which is that our mind really lies to us when it comes to leisure. Right. You know, I've been super busy week at work. You know, I finally get some downtime. My instinct is that the best thing to do would be to plop down and watch Netflix or scroll through Reddit or do something that feels like vegging out. That's my instinct of what I'm motivated to do. But in practice, if you look at the emotions that happen when I do that, I kind of feel apathy. I'm kind of bored, like I'm kind of not challenged, right? Whereas if I did something that was a little bit more challenging right, like I had a little bit of a startup costs like call a friend or engage with something, you know, learn a new hobby or something like that, right? Like that ultimately would be a better boost to happiness, even something like, you know, doing like a quick yoga, you know, like, you know, class or like a little pilates or just like a couple of jumping jacks. I'd feel better, but my instinct is that I wouldn't. And this is something that I think I see with leisure a lot. Like, you know, companies aren't, you know, making things, these things to hurt us. They're giving us what we want. You know, we want these quick dopamine hits that feel kind of relaxing, but once we get them, it means it becomes easier and easier to avoid the thing that has a little bit of startup costs, but ultimately for our happiness would feel better. And so for me, what helps with that is just recognizing that that's true, right? Like knowing the science of that, because even though I'm like, you know, like I teach this class at Yale and I've become an expert on some of these things, I still fall prey to all these intuitions. Right. You know, tonight we'll have this conversation. I'll have a very busy day with all these Zoom calls. And I will immediately be like, oh, I'm going to pick up my phone and scroll Reddit. I won't be like, Oh, let me call a friend who I haven't talked to. Let me pull out my yoga mat, do a hard Pilates like I know that I'm supposed to do that, but my instinct is like anything but, right. But I think sometimes knowing this stuff can can allow you to to recognize it. It can help you mindfully realize that engaging in those activities isn't going to give you the fun that you expect. One of my favorite tools for kind of mindfully recognizing what's going to work and what's not going to work comes from the journalist Catherine Price. She has this lovely book called “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” where she argues you don't have to break up with your phone, but you need to take it to like couples counseling and like renegotiate some of the rules with your phone. And she has this acronym she calls W WW, which stands for What For, Why Now, and What Else? So let's say again, you pick up your phone to scroll Reddit or the end of the day you plop down to watch Netflix, anything where you're kind of interacting with a screen, pause and ask yourself those questions, right? Like What For? You know, was I there was this show and it was coming on and I really want to check out the new Netflix show or is like I was just bored. I nothing else to do. I was avoiding something. I was anxious like I was running away from something. Why Now? Like what are the emotional triggers that cause you to do this? Are you're bored? Are you anxious? You know, are you really curious? Maybe there's something to do. And perhaps more importantly, maybe most important is the last one, which is What Else? Like what's the opportunity cost of engaging in this behavior? Maybe you're not taking a walk. Maybe you're not having a conversation with your spouse. Maybe you're not hanging out with your kids. Maybe you're not just sitting there and being bored, you know, and letting your mind wander. Right? Like, what's the cost of this? And she's argued that using like just, you know, a quick WWW where you always kind of remember to think of it. It can cause you to mindfully engage with these behaviors because again, sometimes they're useful, you know, sometimes, you know. I had a student who was telling me about, you know, you always think that, you know, being on your technology and social media is bad. I'm like, no, it's sometimes, you know, it's really important. You know, I remember if I'm anxious about something, you know what? There was a recent time where I was, like, waiting for, like, medical results to come in. And I was they were fine, but I was really anxious and it was like, that's a time when it's really good to have some escapism and just play on your phone. But, you know, when my husband's there and we haven't connected all day and we could chat instead of me watching Netflix, you know, maybe I should do that instead. And so for me, the W WW practice has been powerful just to say, you know, is this a good idea right now? What am I missing out on? What's the trigger that caused me to do this? And what am I getting out of this?

Dr. Vivek Murthy

I like that a lot. The WWW makes a lot of sense and I mean, I was actually just thinking the other day, I was I found myself like mindlessly scrolling through, you know, just through videos online. And and I realized in that moment and it was coming at the cost of sleep. So to your answer of What Else? There was no good answer to Why Now? Except I did realize that I was worried about something and but I didn't necessarily want to engage in it. And so I was just mindlessly distracting from the worry with these videos. But, understanding that like, you know, it just helped me. It was helpful to me, you know, because it made me realize at least what I was doing. And just to underscore a point you made before about beating ourselves up like we live in such a different environment now where we have devices that are designed to lure us in, and pull us in. We have lives that are full of expectations, you know, and a culture that's driving us to achieve and hustle, you know, apparently and supposedly to maximize our happiness. But it's not exactly doing that for us. And so there are powerful forces around us that are pulling us different directions. And we're we're trying to navigate this hurricane that's all around us. And if at times we stumble and fall down, that's okay, you know? And that's just it's part of being human. But we can also we're more likely to stand up for holding on to each other, you know, and I think that's part of the reason to to reach out and to lean on other people during this time, especially as we try to make these kind of changes in our behavior. I've actually found just almost without exception, that when you reach out to somebody else and say, hey, I'm trying to make this change in my life, can you can you stand with me, hold me accountable. Do you together or something like that. Very often I find the other person is struggling also, you know, with some aspect of their life. Maybe it's around food, maybe it's their diet, maybe it's on dealing with tech, maybe it's on making time for their kids. Whatever it is, like everybody's struggling in some way, even if they don't always wear it on their sleeve. Which just leads me to this, the question that I want to ask is our time starts to wind down Laurie, which is we talked a lot, you and I, about the culture piece here, about how part of what we need to do is, is shift our culture from the kind of hustle culture that's leading young people to pursue and chase the kind of achievement that doesn't always lead to happiness too, to refocusing on the things that truly do bring us happiness, and joy: our relationships, our physical health, our sleep, too, focusing on what we're grateful for. How does that culture shift? What do you see as necessary to happen that's going to ensure that our kids and future generations are guided by a set of incentives that actually truly maximize their happiness.

Dr. Laurie Santos

I mean, I think there are a couple of spots to shift. I mean, one is changing the kinds of structures that are making that difficult. You know, whether that looks like tech companies realizing that, you know, they don't want to be cigarettes, then they should fix themselves before regulators decide to regulate them. That's one possibility. I think universities need to do the same thing. I mean, I think, you know, in some ways I worry that admissions offices at big universities like mine are like cigarette pushers that are setting up structures that they need to worry, that they're dismantling the very generation that they want to be educating and want to be bringing up. And I think, you know, careful decisions and maybe kind of coordinated decisions across universities about what counts as admissions kind of stuff will matter a lot. I'm not sure universities will get there, who knows? But I think that that helps a lot. But I actually think and one of the reasons I'm so excited to teach young people and to try to get this content out to even younger learners is I actually think a lot of the change is going to come from our young people. You know, I look at the kinds of things that students and young people are doing well with social media. You know, look at the kind of outreach that happened after an awful incident like Parkland, right? Like look at the kind of social justice movements the students are engaging in online. They are able to use these tools for powerful collective action. And what we'll need to do to fight this kind of arms race of hustle culture that's emerged among our young people is to de-escalate. And that takes a kind of coordinated action that these tools might, ironically, like, allow our young people to do. I think as young people learn more that, you know, we promised you a bill of goods that's just kind of not going to deliver. You know, they may take collective action to shift these things around. And, you know, as I teach more and more young people in middle school and high school, as they hear some of these results, and they're like, wait a minute, hang on. That's not what I was promised from all this hustle. I kind of watch them scaling back and I'm hopeful that they really will use the tools that they have, that their generation is uniquely good at to do that well.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

I was going to ask you, what makes you hopeful about the future? And you just told me in your prescient way. But I think that in my mind makes courses like yours, Laurie, all the more important because I do agree with you, our greatest chance of shifting culture is going to come from the rising generation of young people who decide that they want to live a different life. But we need to encourage them. We need to support them as they do it, because it's not always going to be easy to do. And I think you're giving people the permission, the vocabulary, the structure through which to think about that through your course, which I think is so valuable. I want to ask you about one last topic before we close, which is about about something that is affecting all of us in some way. And that is just the the polarization that we're experiencing in our country. I know this is something that you've talked about before that you care about a lot. What do you think we need to do to address polarization in our country? And how is this connected potentially to the happiness gap and that we've been talking about?

Dr. Laurie Santos

I mean, I think a lot of the reason we've become so polarized is that we've we've stopped talking to each other in the way that people used to talk to each other. We stopped seeing each other as common humanity, in part because we don't, like, interact with each other except in, you know, short soundbites that are mediated by algorithms that make us want to get angry and upset with each other. And so I think finding ways to reduce the loneliness crisis, finding ways to connect not online but in real life will inevitably cause us to recognize our differences as is not as much as our similarities. And so I'm hopeful that as we find ways to address the social connection crisis and the loneliness crisis that we face in our lives, that we might be able to get around some of the the political disjunction that we feel to.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Gosh, I certainly hope so, too, because this does feel like something that that's corroding society right now and robbing many people of their happiness and I do agree with you that rebuilding our capacity for talking to each other is is critical. And I've just over the years, a relationship really is a foundation for dialog. And I've just over the years, a relationship really is a foundation for dialog. And to the extent we can build those connections with one another, we can more easily talk to one another, or understand one another, and build the kind of dialog and unity that we truly need in society. I want to end just with a couple of fun questions for you. You recently staged a “Funtervention,” which I love the term, but an intervention to bring fun into your life at a time where you realized you needed to be having more fun. But I'm curious, what did you do in your “Funtervention” and do you recommend that other people stage “Funterventions?”

Dr. Laurie Santos

Oh yeah, ten out of ten recommend the “Funtervention.” I mean, the “Funtervention” was just an attempt to get a little bit more socially connected play into my life. And it started step one was a kind of attitude shift. I went around trying to find delights in the world, sort of trained my brain to notice things that were delightful and then shared them with friends of mine. But then it was trying to do something that was social and fun that I had no external reward for that I knew I'd just be bad at. And so I tried surfing, which you've met me. I'm like a 40 something very uncoordinated person with no athletic skill. And so surfing was going to be I'm never going to be a surfer. And so I had to embrace it in a fun way, just like as something goofy and kind of stupid. And I wasn't really trying to get some external reward out of it, and it was fantastic. It was, as predicted, super fun.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

I love that. Okay, well, I'm taking away Dr. Santos's prescription for everyone is a “Funtervention” at some point in their life. I'm certainly going to do that. And then finally, you spent years studying monkeys. Is there something that you've learned from monkeys that we can learn from as humans?

Dr. Laurie Santos

Yeah, I think, you know, one of the ironies is that if you talk to people who are really interested in developing a mindset of mindfulness, right, a mindset of presence, they often curse what's called the monkey mind. This idea that our mind jumps from things to thing and so on. But having spent a lot of time with monkeys, I think this is an unnecessary and unfair insult to monkeys. Like if you look in the monkey mind, they're just present all the time. When they're eating something, they're just eating something. When they're grooming another monkey, they're just grooming. And, you know, I often, ironically wish I could get back to my monkey mind. I think that's the big happiness insight that I've gotten from monkeys.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

That presence is so important. And I think we easily get robbed of that by the distractions in our life, whether it's our phone or, our email inbox or other things that are constantly binging and generating alerts in our life. You've shared so much wisdom today. I have been taking notes as we were talking, but just so many beautiful things I think about, one, you've helped, I think me and our listeners just understand that happiness is in fact within our grasp, but it's not something we can take for granted. We actually have to work to build the activities that generate happiness into our life, whether that's gratitude, social connections, sleep, exercise or time affluence, as you said. And that second point I want to underscore as well is that free time, unstructured, unscheduled time is a very, very good thing. It is not a bad thing. And it's not evidence that you are lazy or unproductive or that you're somehow leaving something on the field. That is actually what we all need to thrive. And we've squeezed ourselves too much in that regard. And of the many other lessons you shared, I think the the importance of being kind to ourselves and each other really stands out too, you know, that we're not beating ourselves up, recognizing that we're in a challenging time right now, not just because of the pandemic, but because of the broader culture that that we're growing up in and living in and the demands it's placing on us. But it is all made a bit better whenever we're able to be just a bit more kind to one another as well. And in a world where so many things seem to be pushing us to be more angry at one another or to demonize one another, being kind can be an act of, you know, of of radical opposition, if you will, to those types of cultural elements that are and technology pieces that are constantly trying to make us angry at one another or turn against one another.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

So thank you just for joining, Laurie. Thank you for this wonderful conversation for inspiring me, as you always do, and teaching me. But most importantly, thank you for the work you do in the world to help create a happier, more fulfilled society. That's what we need. And we certainly need you out there doing the incredible work that you're doing. So I really appreciate you, Laurie.

Dr. Laurie Santos

Ditto and thanks for helping me share the message.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

This concludes our conversation with Laurie Santos. Join me for the next episode of House Calls with Dr. Vivek Murthy. Wishing you all health and happiness.