With an acceptance rate under 7% and ACT scores of admitted students hovering around 32-35, the likelihood of most people having access to an Ivy League education in Yale’s hallowed halls are slim. But we can all benefit from the fascinating and completely practical information that is shared in one of that revered educational institution’s most popular courses, “Psychology and the Good Life.”
Psychology Professor Laurie Santos specializes in evolution and animal cognition, but after living among undergrads when she became head of Yale’s Silliman College (think the Houses of Hogwarts), she realized just how stressed out and depressed they were. Reviewing mental health surveys from the National College Health Assessment she learned that the issues Yale students were having were similar to those of college students across the country. Students report already high and increasing rates of anxiety, depression and hopelessness.
Santos set out to design a course to convey not just the science behind positive psychology research but how putting those concepts into practice could have a profound impact on students’ happiness and quality of life. Santos did not anticipate the the overwhelming interest in her course from students (1 in 4 students at Yale have taken her class), nor did she predict that it would become a sensation with articles in the New York Times, O Magazine, national television appearances and international media coverage.
These same principles can help employees be happier too!
Lucky for us all, Santos shared the main takeaways from her course in a Aspen Ideas Festival lecture last June and that lecture is available as a iTunes podcast from the Aspen Institute as well transcribed text as a pdf).
We highly recommend setting aside time to take in her 60 minute lecture. It is time well spent. In fact, you might want to listen (or watch) with colleagues, friends or family members. Don’t be intimidated by Santos’ prestigious academic pedigree. She presents the science in an accessible way, lays out her points in a manner that is easy to digest and offers practical strategies that you can then translate into your workplace efforts. Santos suggests that we all combat stress, depression and anxiety and be more proactive in our pursuit of happiness:
“…I think we need to think seriously the idea that something is something is wrong, and we need to something about it. The cool thing is that we have a way out. We have hope. The science teaches us what we need to do. We just have to do it.”
A few of the happiness building basics
Getting enough sleep – most college and high school students report only getting 4 – 5 hours of sleep. Regardless of your age your brain and body need more sleep than that and sleep has a big impact on mood.
Your genes don’t predict your capacity for happiness – while it may be true that you inherit some of your “glass is half full or half empty” attitude from your family, you have a capacity of about 40% to take control of your own behavior.
Get 30 minutes of cardio a day – even just a half hour of mild cardio every day can have the impact of a Zoloft prescription if you’re depressed.
Savor the moment – really experience things and be present in the moment.
Connecting with others will make you happier – even if you think you prefer solitude. A study showed that Chicago commuters felt happier after talking to strangers and finding common ground, even when they thought they would rather be alone and quiet.
How the course syllabus can translate into the workplace
Give the gift of time off (even for just an hour) – granting her students the unexpected luxury of an hour of time with instructions to do something fun, creative, interesting that wasn’t work had a profound impact, some students said that hour of time will be one of their strongest memories of their Yale experience.
Distribute gift cards or small amounts of cash to employees with the instruction that they must give it to another person. A research study showed that the good feelings for the giver of this type of generosity were long lasting and that the dollar amount didn’t matter.
Find ways to encourage employees to learn how-to and to practice meditation – consider bringing in a teacher to educate staff on the basics of mindfulness and/or provide guided meditation classes as part of your fitness program.
Writing can help
Santos shares these things you can do at both home and work that can increase happiness:
Write a gratitude list
Keep a gratitude journal
Write thank you notes
Do the work
Santos likens the practices she outlines in the course to exercise. Simply learning about the effects of squats on your muscles doesn’t mean you will see increased strength in your legs and core – you need to get into the gym and do some squats. She sums it up this way:
“You can hear all these studies and you can get an A in this class, but unless you put this stuff into practice, it’s not gonna help. You have to do the work.”
Learn like a Yalie, for free
If you want a more immersive experience than the podcast or video, you can also take a free online version of the class through Coursera. The Science of Well Being from Dr. Santos is one of Coursera’s most popular courses with more than 135,000 students from 168 countries across the globe participating in this scaled-down version of her Yale course.
Can’t commit to the class but could benefit from an overview? A writer at The Cut took the course and shared this cheat sheet to happiness.
Happiness…a growing field of academic study
Yale isn’t the only academic institution that is taking a serious look at happiness. UC Berkeley was the first to offer a massive open online course (MOOC) on positive psychology. The Science of Happiness course teaches science-based principles and practices for a happy, meaningful life. Stanford is home to The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Their must-read list on compassion and happiness is a wonderful resource on this topic.
We can help you put the science into tangible workplace initiatives
gThankYou has incorporated positive psychology research into content like Transform Your Workplace with Gratitude, our guide to gratitude at work, and blog posts. We’ve taken the time to translate the science into practical best practices that can directly help employees be happier.
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About the Blog: The gThankYou! Team believes happiness and engagement are key ingredients to a successful workplace. That's why we give workplace leaders advice and insights to build a culture of gratitude. We invite you to explore our blog and discover ways to celebrate and build successful workplaces.