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).