strategy and business

The Thought Leader Interview: Laurie Santos

Two years ago, Yale University psychologist Laurie Santos began to wonder why students seemed so detached from their classmates. Like a good academic, she connected her observations to data — and found it troubling. The National College Health Assessment showed that 42 percent of college students reported being too depressed to function well in the previous year.

A range of other surveys and indicators have suggested that older people are also having difficulty finding happiness and connection in our 24/7, hyperconnected world.

A specialist in decision making, Santos started a class in the spring 2018 term called Psychology 157: Psychology and the Good Life. She wanted to understand what social science could teach people about the pursuit, attainment, and maintenance of happiness. Building on the work of behavioral economics, the course delved into the unconscious biases and misconceptions that conspire to keep us less than happy — at home, at school, and at work.

To say that Psych 157 was popular would be an understatement. Nearly 1,200 students, about one-fourth of Yale’s overachieving student body, signed up. Invitations for Santos to speak — from media, the World Economic Forum in Davos, and companies — followed. In the fall of 2019, she launched a podcast series, The Happiness Lab, with guests including figure skating champion Michelle Kwan and musician David Byrne. The work and insights Santos discusses — among them, that more pay may not make you happier, that good grades in school correlate with low life satisfaction, and that happiness trickles down from chief executive officers — hold lessons for people who lead organizations, manage people, or simply want to find ways to maintain their equilibrium and peace of mind.

S+B: We’ve never spent more time and money on health, and yet obesity rates continue to rise. Is there a similar dynamic with happiness? It seems as though more is being written and spent than ever on how to lead a fully satisfying life, yet the data shows we’re becoming progressively less happy.

Unlike diet and exercise, happiness is something we as a species have been obsessed with for a really long time. Aristotle wrote about more than 2,000 years ago. The pursuit of happiness is in the Declaration of Independence. That said, I think more and more people are [now] really focused on what they can do to become happier. And the research certainly shows that we might be going about it the wrong way. Even this notion of self-care.… You can’t go on any women’s website and. But all the studies suggest happiness isn’t about self-care. It’s about being open to others and being other-oriented in your experiences.

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