For the past few years the most popular course at Yale has been "Psychology and the Good Life" taught by Laurie Santos, an expert on happiness research. David Marchese interviewed her for the NY Times. A couple of excerpts:
A lot of stuff that we know can have a positive effect on happiness — developing a sense of meaning, connection with other people, meditation and reflection — are commonplace religious practices. How helpful are they outside religion?
There’s evidence that cultural structures, religious structures, even smaller groups like your CrossFit team can cause true behavior change. The question is what’s driving that? Take the religious case. You could mean two things by saying you need a cultural apparatus around the behavior change: One is you need a rich sense of beliefs; you need to buy into theological principles to get the benefits. Another is that it’s your commitment to these groups that does it, and it doesn’t have to come with a set of spiritual beliefs. There’s a lot of evidence that religious people, for example, are happier in a sense of life satisfaction and positive emotion in the moment. But is it the Christian who really believes in Jesus and reads the Bible? Or is it the Christian who goes to church, goes to the spaghetti suppers, donates to charity, participates in the volunteer stuff? Turns out, to the extent that you can disentangle those two, it seems to not be our beliefs but our actions that are driving the fact that religious people are happier. That’s critical because what it tells us is, if you can get yourself to do it — to meditate, to volunteer, to engage with social connection — you will be happier. It’s just much easier if you have a cultural apparatus around you.
Is there anything surprising to you that people are just not getting about happiness?
For my students, it’s often money. My fast read of the evidence is that money only makes you happier if you live below the poverty line and you can’t put food on your table. Whether getting superrich actually affects different aspects of your well-being? There’s a lot of evidence it doesn’t affect your positive emotion too much. There was a recent paper by Matt Killingsworth where he was trying to make the claim that happiness continues as you get to higher incomes. And yeah, he’s right, but if you plot it, it’s like if you change your income from $100,000 to $600,000 your happiness goes up from, like, a 64 out of 100 to a 65. For the amount of work you have to put in to sextuple your income, you could instead just write in a gratitude journal, you could sleep an extra hour. Yeah, the money thing is one that students fight me on. It hits at a lot of the worldview they’ve grown up with.
And here is Santos on one of my favorite topics, whether the political and psychological approaches to life are in opposition:
Is it possible that practices that lead to happiness like accepting anxiety, avoiding comparison with others and being satisfied with what we already have can also lead to complacency? Don’t you need some of the emotionally detrimental stuff in order to achieve?
People have looked at this in the context of things that we worry about when it comes to complacency: huge problems from anti-Black violence to the climate falling apart. We need people to recognize these issues, get angry and take action. There’s a worry that maybe if you follow these practices, you’ll be so complacent that you’ll let California burn and let horrible social-justice violations continue. There’s been some lovely work on this by Kostadin Kushlev, who’s a positive psychologist who has been interested in, Do these practices make you complacent when it comes to the big issues? What he finds is that the people who self-report the highest positive emotions, they’re the ones who are taking action.
Which is also my impression. Getting angry or depressed about the world does not help anything. The people who make changes are usually the ones who believe in a better future.