Yale professor teaches the secret of happiness to the masses

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Dr. Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, adapted her popular college course into a podcast series titled “The Happiness Lab” that has since been downloaded over 64 million times to teach a scientific way to live a happier life, according to New York Times. 

“Why are there so many happiness books and other happiness stuff and people are still not happy?” asks the 46-six-year-old Santos. 

“Because it takes work! Because it’s hard!” 

Image of college student stressed from school.

The paper noted a recent Gallup poll that found only 38% of Americans were “satisfied” with their life, but Santos blames the “‘capitalism culture’ … that’s telling us to buy things and a hustle-achievement culture that destroys my students in terms of anxiety.” 


She explains that our minds trick us about the things that make us happy, but many of these intuitions are “… not exactly right – or are deeply misguided. That’s why we get it wrong. I know this stuff, but my instincts are totally wrong.” 

Pedestrians walk down a path on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.

Pedestrians walk down a path on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
(Craig Warga/Bloomberg)

Commonplace religious practices, like meditating, reflecting and connecting with other people can have a positive effect on happiness, but Santos notes, “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. 

She added, “It’s just much easier if you have a cultural apparatus around you,” noting even your local CrossFit team can help turn your frown upside down. 


Santos teaches her students the acronym W.W.W., using the example of when we pick up our phone, what was the specific purpose? Why did we do it at that specific time? And at what cost does it sacrifice other more meaningful activities like studying or talking to your roommate?  

“Based on seeing students in the trenches, the biggest hit of social media on their well-being is that they spend a lot of time on it thinking that they’re being social rather than talking to other people. I do that too,” Santos added. 

She notes her students are surprised that money doesn’t make most people happier, noting that recent research shows it only helps those who live below the poverty line and can’t put food on the table.  

Group of students walking in college campus after classes, back view

Group of students walking in college campus after classes, back view

A recent paper by Matt Killingsworth, a senior fellow at the Warton School at the University of Pennsylvania who studies happiness in humans, showed if you increase from income from $100,000 to $600,000, your happiness goes up from a score from 64 to 65, according to the news outlet. 

“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,” Santos said. 

She added although her class may change behavior in the short term, achieving long-term happiness is more elusive and may require more radical changes to our life. 

Dan Buettner, a bestselling author, discovered “blue zones” where people live the longest, healthiest lives, like the Netherlands, so “if you plop people down in a new culture, they change. You move to the Netherlands, you’ll be happier,” Santos said. 

He argues Santos’ teaching is not going to work unless people have strong structural support societally, but she hopes people don’t have to move to blue zones to attain these, but instead create “robust structures societally” themselves to achieve happiness.  


When asked what’s the answer to the purpose of life, she said, “It’s smelling your coffee in the morning. Loving your kids. Having sex and daisies and springtime. It’s all the good things in life. That’s what it is.”  

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