Remember Ken Dodd’s song “Happiness, Happiness, the finest thing that I possess”? What may be some of the elements that can contribute to it? Read on and think on! Does Shedding have a part to play?
Here is the take of a Yale University professor. As you can read, she set up a course on Happiness and students flocked to it. They had made it to Yale and that was a great big sign of success and privilege. But they were not all happy. They had it all, but not the real feeling of contentment. Here is an account of Laurie Santos and at the bottom there is a link to some of the talks that she pioneered for Yale students and staff and for wider availability.
In January 2018, a Yale University professor named Laurie Santos launched a course, Psychology and the Good Life, which quickly became the most popular class in the institution’s 319-year-history. After 13 years at Yale, in 2016, the 44-year-old had taken charge of one of the university’s residential colleges and had become alarmed by widespread mental illness and stress. She wanted to explain the paradox of why so many students were still suffering, having achieved their dreams of being admitted to Yale and having met society’s definition of success. Santos created the lecture series in a bid to teach her students what really mattered – to help them carve out lives of meaning and contentment.
Within a few days of the course’s launch, roughly a quarter of Yale’s entire undergraduate population had signed up. Administrators struggled to find space to accommodate everyone; having filled the university’s church, they set up an overflow room for students to watch Santos by screen, before moving her to a large concert hall. Standing behind a lectern on the auditorium’s stage, she questioned much of what the students had been taught to crave: good grades, prestigious jobs, high salaries.
With her message that we should step back from ceaseless competition, question our priorities and savour our days, she had clearly tapped into a deep hunger for another way of viewing life.
A few months later, in March 2018, Santos launched a 10-week online version of the original happiness course that anyone could access. In the class, called The Science of Well-Being, Santos teaches us why we chase things that make us miserable and, through homework tasks, suggests how we can change our behaviours. She begins with this message: “This is the kind of thing that we really hope can actually change your life.” The course became a major hit; half a million online learners enrolled in the two years up to March. But after Covid-19 struck, it became even more popular: more than 2.6m students have now enrolled, from more than 200 countries. At the beginning of the course, Santos issues a warning: “You are about to learn that everything you thought was important for being happy isn’t.”
There has been much recent discussion about how the pandemic might fuel political and social changes, about whether or not reduced travel and clearer skies will have increased our desire to protect the environment, or if new government welfare schemes will have popularised universal basic income and a world with less work.
But we are also asking questions about the way we live individually. For all the mental suffering and loss this pandemic has brought, there’s a chance that we could emerge from it with a clearer sense of how we want to spend our days, how we might live happier and more meaningful lives. For many, the question now is: will we be able to make enduring behaviour changes when it ends?
Santos has spent this spring inside the Yale college where she lives and works. When we spoke last month, she told me it had been eerily quiet. Graduation had been cancelled and only the few students who couldn’t return to their home countries remained, along with the foxes and squirrels that had descended on to the empty campus. She had recently run a live question and answer session as part of her online course, where people asked her advice on issues ranging from how to deal with annoying spouses to facing job losses. She’d also led webinars for corporates and was making new episodes for her podcast series on happiness.
Then there’s the barrage of daily emails her newfound fandom has brought, many of them outlining intense pain and seeking advice. She’d been trying to stay sane through Zoom spa evenings and yoga with her friends, as well as catch-ups with college roommates. “Tragically, I think the pandemic is good for business,” she said.
Santos never planned to become a global happiness phenomenon. In fact, she comes across as slightly reserved, not the kind of person who would chase fame. At Yale, her main psychology research involves studying animals to better understand how humans copy each other, draw moral conclusions and make decisions. But as she got to know her students better, her focus began to shift. Some media commentators were dismissing campus mental health problems as the whining of a privileged “snowflake generation”, but Santos was unconvinced by this view. She saw the suffering as symbolic of deeper societal problems.
I studied – and taught undergraduates – at Yale before Santos’s course began and saw first-hand how the culture there fuels and embodies many of the modern world’s harmful extremes, such as burnout, overwork and chasing extrinsic recognition. It’s a place where people are high achieving, but also time-starved and stressed-out. Their success, too often, comes at a cost. Underpinning it is an ambition that can be obsessive, unhealthy and, in some cases, lethal – a warped belief that people are valuable only because of their professional potential.
Shocking statistics show similar problems playing out across the world. According to a large-scale 2018 survey of US colleges by the American College Health Association, more than 12% of students say they’ve “seriously considered suicide”, 87% are “overwhelmed” and 42% are so depressed they find it “difficult to function”. In the UK, one-third of students have experienced serious psychological problems and half have had thoughts of self-harming, according to a national survey of 38,000 students last year, at more than 100 universities, by the Insight Network, a psychiatric group.
I think there are blessings in the middle of this crisis
The problems Santos hopes to treat aren’t limited to university life. Globally, one person dies from suicide every 40 seconds, according to the World Health Organisation, a rate increase of 60% in the past 45 years. Santos likes to reference her fellow wellbeing psychologist David Myers, whose research shows how, as countries have become wealthier, often this hasn’t increased citizens’ happiness. As Myers puts it in his book The American Paradox: “Our becoming much better off over the last four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective wellbeing.” Myers told me that similar conclusions apply to several other countries.
What, then, is Santos’s answer to a better life? First, she suggests we’ve been misled in chasing many of the things we do: possessions, beauty, even perhaps marriage. She points to a string of studies to explain her view, including work by Princeton researchers showing that, after a certain point (around $75,000 in the US), money doesn’t increase happiness and emotional wellbeing. She also references papers suggesting that weight loss and cosmetic surgery may not lead to increases in happiness, as well as research showing how salary goals keep rising as we earn more money, which means we may never feel we are making enough. We compare ourselves to others, and therefore will likely continue endlessly wanting more.
Becoming aware of all this may not be enough, though. Santos’s own research has pointed out that knowledge plays only a small role in how we make decisions; habits and an ability to regulate our emotions have much more influence on happiness. She also says our brains often deceive us, including when we feel strong urges. We may feel we want something – more money, a new coat, cupcakes – though it might not actually bring us much pleasure. And we often don’t crave the simple things we might enjoy more, like relaxing in nature or hanging out with friends. Becoming happier, therefore, routinely requires us to ignore our impulses.
“We have these intuitions about happiness that are wrong,” Santos tells me. Our brains aren’t necessarily built to improve our mood. They’re still wired like they were centuries ago, to prioritise escaping predators and immediate threats.
As part of her course, Santos prescribes weekly “rewirement challenges”, where she asks students to take a (scientific) leap of faith and commit to new behaviours. These include starting conversations with strangers, getting enough sleep and writing gratitude letters to friends. Another of her challenges is called negative visualisation in which people imagine bad things happening, like family members dying or losing their homes. It seeks to make us more grateful and combat what psychologists call hedonic adaptation, which is the tendency to get used to changes in our lives so that our wants and expectations keep rising. Some of these techniques might sound like wellness caricatures, but Santos insists there’s scientific research to suggest they all work.
Is it really possible to increase happiness? Suffering is an inescapable fact of living and no lecture series could hope to solve all human struggles. But Santos does believe we can successfully fight against our negative, destructive tendencies. That’s what we’ve been trying to do for centuries – from Aristotle’s idea that happiness depends on carving out virtuous habits, to the Buddhist notion that controlling craving can reduce suffering. Santos is searching for empirical proof, often from other researchers, that these techniques work and is putting a modern, scientific, spin on them. She’s currently compiling data from students who’ve taken the course. Generally, she says, they do report increases on wellbeing measures at the end.
There’s also a debate to be had about the extent to which our happiness is limited by the society we live in. In the last few decades, data suggests attitudes on what we find important have flipped; where most American first-year students prioritised developing meaningful life philosophies in the 1960s and were less interested in money, for example, more recently they cited becoming rich as a more important life goal. Santos feels such cultural values are problematic for our wellbeing. Economic disparities, racism and polarisation, she argues, aren’t only responsible for inequalities and persecution, they also fuel mental health problems and go against the happiness research, which suggests that connecting with other people – including those different from ourselves –and helping them is important.
Santos remains cautiously hopeful. “There are lots of forces pushing us in the wrong direction,” she says. “There is something broken in our society and I think a lot of people are realising that.”
Her next mission is to create a happiness course for high-school students (for which she recently got funding), with modules for parents, to curb child mental health problems and push more structural changes. “I think this might be another thing like climate change, young people fighting for change. Ultimately, it’s going to be their world down the line. If we can teach them the right way to do stuff, maybe they will make societies that are a little bit better.”
In the meantime, Santos believes the pandemic can catalyse some of the individual changes she’s proposing. “It’s an awful crisis and that’s not to belittle it,” she says. “But I think there are blessings in the middle of this.” She bolsters her conviction with research. For instance work by Professor Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania on how momentous times in our lives can create a fresh-start effect, motivating us to instil new habits, see time differently and take a broader view of our lives.
Other research which should give us hope is on post-traumatic growth, the idea that crises can fuel transformations. Following them people often become more resilient, with deeper social connections, greater spirituality and clarity on how to live. In certain senses, they’re often glad for the experiences.
In her own life Santos is seeing shifts too. Her mother suffers from a chronic lung condition; now that she can’t visit her, she has been questioning why she didn’t do so more before and wants to make this a priority in future. For all the recent doom, many of us will have had similar thoughts about what we find meaningful. “The hope is,” Santos says, “once we get back [to our post-pandemic lives], we’ll really be able to value what matters and really enjoy what we took for granted before.”
Mrs. S saw these plans downloaded from woodworkingwithdavid and said she’s like a convertible (bench not car).Convertable Table
Paula has been busy with scrubs but is now onto face coverings for our Sheds.
We’ve commissioned 20 for now, recognising that a lot of Shedders might have acquired face coverings already.
We wish Paula well because she has taken the step to sell her house in Redcar and will ultimately occupy a renovated campervan to be “on the move”. Newer Shedders won’t know Paula who came to Littlebeck Shed at a crucial time for her (we came to realise). Her story is like many of ours.
BBC are launching today across the radio channels and ONLINE too a whole series of ongoing talks by prominent people on thoughts for the almost certainly coronavirus changed future.
On Radio 4 the Pope is talking at 8.10am on Today programme.
It was mentioned that there will also be another thread related to Engineers and Engineering something IMHO that we need in UK and to be inspirational for our local children and young people.
I (Graham) wa a baby boomer of ’45 and I benefited from being encouraged by people and by my local Dagenham & Barking local authority to take advantage of university (new to my family of ordinary folks). That training helped me to be inquisitive and then take advantage of what was called computing. That became Information Technology and of course the Internet came into civilian being.
We need an ingenious nation and that must start with young people we see around us. They need the same ENCOURAGEMENT as I had in my younger days. I have mentioned before that people believed more in me than I did myself. I’m very, very grateful for that.