Illustration by Martín Elfman

Dr. Laurie Santos, the professor behind Yale’s insanely popular “Psychology and the Good Life” course, talks about why we’re so bad at figuring out what we actually want.

If college is supposed to be a carefree, jolly, hedonistic four-year romp, someone forgot to tell the students at Yale. (Which isn’t really surprising, since they got into Yale in the first place.) When Dr. Laurie Santos opened her course “Psychology and the Good Life” for registration this semester, more than 1,200 undergrads (they have about 5,500 total) signed up, hoping to unlock the secrets to happiness.

Good for them, for seeking it out at a young age, especially at a time when Millennials are wracked with depression and anxiety. Of course, the bad news is: the keys to contentment remain elusive throughout your twenties. And thirties. And forties. In fact, pretty much your entire life. So chances are you could use some help right now, too! Since we Olds can’t go back to college, we called up Dr. Santos directly, to see if she could save us from our dissatisfaction.

GQ: Happiness is a word we throw around a lot—do you have a working definition for it?
Dr. Laurie Santos: I sort of think of happiness as two-fold. There’s in the moment “Are you feeling positive?” Lots of smiling, laughter, and positive mood—not negativity and depression. But also: how are you feeling like your life is going overall? And if you’re filled with lots of positive mood and you feel like your life is going pretty well, then I’d say overall you’re pretty happy.

Much of the course involves understanding misconceptions about what makes us happy. What are some of the underlying biases that are maybe preventing us from being as happy or satisfied as we might be?
One of them is that our minds often deliver motivation to want certain things, assuming those things will make us happy. This is a phenomenon we call “mis-wanting.” Often our minds are telling us that if we could just get this thing, or just be richer and prettier and have lots of cool stuff, we’d be happy. But those are lies that our mind is feeding us. They just won’t make us as happy as we think.

At the same time, our mind doesn’t cause us to seek out the kinds of things that really would make us happy—things like social connection or taking time to experience gratitude. Even something as simple as what’s called time affluence, which is just simply feeling like you have time to do stuff. We often think of wealth affluence and think that will make us happy. And sometimes we sacrifice our time to become wealthier but the data suggests [you should] stop. You’re better off keeping time and foregoing financial wealth.

I had a friend that passed along a “billionaires of time” theory—the idea that when you’re in your twenties, you think money will make you happier and you’re so eager to make tons of it, that you don’t realize that time is a commodity as well. And that, in relation to the rest of society, it’s the twenty-somethings who are the billionaires of time.
I think it’s important for college students to hear that. They’re rich with time, they have lots of time, but the data suggests that they’re not necessarily spending it well. There’s this recent set of statistics that came out of the National College Health Assessment survey in 2009—so it’s even a little bit dated, I think things might actually be worse—where 84% of students report that they’re overwhelmed by everything they have to do. It’s usually worrying about grades, which don’t matter as much as we think for happiness, or for salary—which also doesn’t matter for happiness! So we’re in these kind of vicious cycles of mis-wanting.

What are the evolutionary reasons why we want the wrong things?
Part of it is that our minds are just built to pay attention to certain kinds of things, right? We’re built to pay attention to people who are better than us. We’re constantly making theses social comparisons with people that are doing better than us. One of the studies looked at Olympic winners and found that if you watch people’s emotional reactions on the stand, silver medal winners are actually a lot more unhappy than they should be—they’re way more unhappy than bronze medal winners. By a tenth of a second, they could have had gold. The salient thing is not “Oh, my gosh, I just won a silver medal in the Olympics.” The relevant thing is “I could’ve gotten this other thing.”

But that’s because we’re programmed to be loss averse, right? So is there any way not to feel that loss?
Loss aversion comes from what, in class, we call reference points. We have to compare against something. And the reference points that we find really salient are people who are rich and super beautiful and get great grades. It seems like, at least right now, there is no way to shut this off, right? That’s just the way our mind works and you can’t make it work differently. But you can feed it different reference points. I tell students to hack their feed. If you’re not watching all these televisions shows about the rich and famous, if you’re not surrounding yourself with reference points that are unattainable, then I think you won’t feel so bad.

You include Dan Gilbert’s TED talk on Natural vs. Synthetic Happiness on your syllabus. Natural happiness is sort of getting what you want. Synthetic happiness is making due with what you have when you didn’t get what you want. Is that a fair characterization?
Yeah. His point is also that we were gonna do that anyway. Our minds are really good at synthesizing, changing what we wanted after the fact to kind of make it work.

Exactly. But, especially for college kids, and Yale students in particular, who are extremely high-achieving, how do you balance ambition with being okay not getting what you originally wanted? It could be very easy to get complacent.
What we talk about a lot in the class is that it’s fine to be ambitious if you’re ambitious about the right things. It’s one thing to kill yourself for something that is gonna make you happy. It’s a completely different thing to kill yourself for something that’s not.

This is the thing that I worry about with our really high-achieving Yale students: there’s always this light at the end of the tunnel that they’re shooting for and the data would suggest that often what they’re shooting for—a really high-paying investment banking job, or the perfect grade or internship—it’s not gonna make them as happy as they think.

And it’s not just that you’re killing yourself over something that won’t make you happy. It’s also that there’s an opportunity cost, right? You’re missing out on the things that really will make you happy. And that’s where it kind of becomes particularly problematic.

What are some of the strategies for reigning in these built-in biases and figuring out a way to live a life that might be more fulfilling?
I think the first step is understanding them, knowing that they’re there. But you can’t just stop there. I joke with the students. “You can get perfect grades on every test in this class and leave and not become happier. Happiness actually takes work.” I could read all these books about how to be a competitive ice skater and learn all the techniques in terms of just reading about them, but that wouldn’t be enough to actually ice skate. I have to get out there and do it. Happiness works a lot the same way. I can tell you that for happiness you need time affluence and you need to experience gratitude and make time for social connections. But unless you do that, you’re not gonna reap any of the rewards.

So let’s take something like time affluence. What is a way of thinking you’re time affluent, if you don’t feel like you have enough time? That just seems like a visceral thing.
Part of it is just realizing that you have control over the time you have. Sometimes for students, it’s really like okay, what are the important things for you to be spending your time on? There’s also some research suggesting that if you give time away, you feel like you have more time. So people who spend time volunteering, even if it’s taking up a lot of their time, feel like they’re sort of flushed more with time. So if you spend an hour a day on Instagram, that’s an hour a day that you could spend volunteering, or meditating, or hanging out with friends—all of which make you feel more time affluent. These things work in these interesting cycles.

How alarmed are you about the current social media world?
The CEOs at Facebook, they want you to spend more time on Facebook. And that’s just the direction it’s going to go with the next awesome social media app that comes along—[it’ll] be more addictive than Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram. The other thing is that the data are just incredibly clear about it. These things are really contributing to mental health issues. In terms of depression, in terms of anxiety, the increased social comparison, they’re just generally really not good.

When I had a bad day in the 1980s I might hang out with a friend and complain, take a bath, or do some exercise. Nowadays you have this other easy way to feel better or quote, unquote “feel better” or at least not be bored, it’s just it’s not as good as other things we used to use. It’s not as good as social connection. It’s not as good as taking a break, sleeping and so on. In fact, I’ve kind of told my previous students, if you could come up with a social media platform that had the good stuff without the bad stuff you would make so much money. You’d be the new Zuckerberg. Figure out how to do it without the social comparison, without the empty stuff. You’ll do really well.

“The data really suggests that happy people do certain things: they have really tight social ties, they make time for those social ties, they take time to experience gratitude, they’re mindful in the moment. They sleep, they exercise, and they try to make time for themselves. It’s not this deep mystery of human nature.”

Is that true though? It seems like, for some reason, we’re wired for the bad stuff.
We want to look at that stuff but sometimes we have to stop ourselves, at least in the modern day. This is the story of modernization, right? I might have a brain that’s evolved to seek out all the sugar and fat in the universe but if I just eat Hostess cupcakes and that’s it, I’m not gonna be very healthy. Our brains are wired for us to seek stuff out that might have been useful in the evolutionary day but isn’t anymore. We don’t live in the jungle, we’re here in a world of social media, in a world where there’s a possibility, where wealth is much more unequal than it probably used to be back in a primate’s day. We’re built to seek certain things out. I think some aspects of the unhappiness we see follows in that.

How do you maintain your optimism?
I think science has lots of reasons for hope in the sense that, we know the stuff that we can do to be happier. The data really suggests that happy people do certain things: they have really tight social ties, they make time for those social ties, they take time to experience gratitude, they’re mindful in the moment. They sleep, they exercise, and they try to make time for themselves. It’s not this deep mystery of human nature. It’s really just a matter of putting those suggestions into practice—and it’s really a matter of putting those suggestions into practice when the culture is not that.

I’m totally with you—it just seems people are so loath to make those changes.
Behavioral change is hard, and that’s really I think where this course differs. We take seriously this idea that it’s not just about having the right goals, which is what positive psychology teaches you. It’s finding ways to put those into practice. That’s where this stuff about harnessing the situation, understanding how habits work, comes in because it’s one thing to know, “I should write down five things I’m grateful for every night.” It’s another thing to do it.

And then one thing we know about behavior changes is that if you have to use willpower to get it, you have to muster the willpower all the time, and sometimes you’re gonna be tired or hungry, or you’re not gonna feel like it. If you can make these things automatic, if you can turn them into habits, then they just go on their own. You probably didn’t have to think this morning, “Should I brush my teeth? How should I do it?” The best case scenario for the class would be if students found ways to turn all these happier practices into habits so that they didn’t have to think about prioritizing social connection over their problem sets—that was just automatically what they would think to do.

Is there a succinct reason why we’ve evolved to not be happy? Like, wouldn’t it behoove us to be happy, because then we’d be more likely to survive?
In some ways it’s surprising we’re not more miserable than we are. In a sense, what evolution wants us to do is to get as many resources as we can. It doesn’t want us to rest on our laurels. It wants us to be vigilant and try to get more resources. Evolution doesn’t have to have mechanisms to really pat ourselves on our back when we’re doing okay. It has mechanisms to worry if we’re not doing as good as we could be doing. There could be a cheetah around the corner waiting to get us.

It’s just we’ve shut off a lot of our evolutionary drives for good reason. We’re not just mindlessly popping out babies or murdering our neighbors. We can step back and be like, wait, some of this stuff that we’re built to do is not ethical, it’s not smart, it’s not the way to kind of be a good species. I think the pursuit of happiness is in some ways like this, we can step away from what natural selection wanted us to do and decide for ourselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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