The Yale Happiness Class, Distilled

The psychology professor Laurie Santos delivers the “shortest possible crash-course version” of the university’s most popular course ever.

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The most popular class in the history of Yale University was inspired by a paradox: Even when people, conventionally speaking, succeed—get into a top college, make lots of money, or accumulate prestige and accolades—they are often left feeling unsatisfied.

It’s a problem that may be particularly acute at a place like Yale, but the lessons of the class, called “Psychology and the Good Life,” are widely applicable—they address fundamental features of the human mind that make it difficult to appreciate things that seem like they’d be great. “Our minds are filled with a ton of little glitches that make it hard to enjoy the great things that we have,” as Laurie Santos, the psychology professor who teaches the course, puts it.

On Monday morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Santos presented the “shortest possible crash-course version of the class,” covering two primary “glitches” (and how to counteract them) in less than an hour. “You can’t just shut off the kinds of biases that I’m talking about,” she said. “But we can understand them.”

The first glitch has to do with how the brain acclimates to things it’s repeatedly exposed to. This happens in terms of sensory perception—a recurring noise can fade into the background after an extended period of time—as well as with perceptions of more abstract things. One category of this latter phenomenon is what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation.” “When we first get something that’s awesome, it feels really awesome. But then we get used to it pretty quickly,” Santos explained. She said this can apply to buying an enchanting new house or a fancy new car, as well as getting into Yale (which feels a lot better on the day admissions decisions come out than it does, say, by the time midterm exams roll around).

What to do with this information about how the brain works? Santos had a couple of prescriptions. One was to spend time and money on things that don’t last as long—that is, things that are harder to adapt to. What this ends up translating to is the by now well-known consumerist commandment to “buy experiences, not things.” A vacation to a novel destination might last only a week, but the benefits—and the memories—can be longer-lasting, whereas the second year of owning a fancy car is a lot less exciting than the first.

Another of her prescriptions has also risen to the level of a meme in recent years: Set aside time to be grateful for what you already have. This may come in the form of a gratitude journal or a period of brief reflection, and could be as basic as acknowledging the luxury of taking a hot shower or having a choice about what to eat for dinner. Whatever the ritual is, Santos said, there are benefits to “this simple act of pausing to pay attention.”

“The second way our minds suck,” she went on, is that they dwell on relative comparisons instead of absolutes—in other words, how what we have compares with what others have, not whether what we have is plenty for us. She pointed to research that looked at Olympic medalists: Those who won gold were of course visibly thrilled after their event, but bronze medalists appeared happier on the medal stand than silver medalists. That’s because of, the psychological theory goes, each medalist’s reference points. The silver medalists were probably fixated on the gold medal they didn’t get, but the bronze medalists were probably thinking about how their alternative reality was receiving no medal at all.

“Our mind just happens to [pick] whatever reference point seems to be salient at the time, whatever reference point we happen to notice, and it tends to particularly [pick] reference points [involving people] who are doing better than us, which kind of sucks,” Santos observed.

But again, there are some ways to interrupt this process. One is to periodically force oneself to try living without the amazing thing one has become accustomed to. For instance, a summer night or two without air conditioning might make the rest of the season much more enjoyable.

Short of actually depriving oneself of something nice, engaging in short thought experiments can help, asking “What if I didn’t have this thing?” For instance, people might ask themselves: What if I didn’t have this house? Which friend or family member would I have to ask for help? This “negative visualization” might help them appreciate their home, even for its faults.

Santos’s recommendations are derived primarily from research from the past couple of decades, but her talk was peppered with references to several philosophers from long-ago eras, such as John Stuart Mill, Montesquieu, and Seneca. These thinkers and others identified many of the same tendencies of the human mind that modern-day researchers are interested in. The outside markers of status and success may change, but people’s response to them has remained highly predictable.