I Took Yale's Happiness Course and Here's Everything I Learned

Ivy League-approved rules for a more blissful existence

Earlier this year, Yale University introduced a course called "Psychology and the Good Life," a lecture series taught by professor Laurie Santos about all of the things that make people happy in an effort to help students lead a more joyful life. The "Happiness Course," as it's become affectionately known around campus and in the media, instantly became the most popular class in the university's 316-year history.

Given the news that the overall happiness levels of Americans are at an all-time low, I was thrilled to see that Yale decided that these science-based lessons should be available to more people than just Yalies. In May, Santos launched a free, multipart seminar-style series of the course online. "The Science of Well-Being" consists of ten video lectures that cover most of the recent research on what does and doesn't make us happy—and what we can do to boost our levels of happiness.

The course is 15 hours, and you can complete it yourself via the education platform Coursera. But if you don't have 15 hours to burn and you're curious what the Yale Happiness Course entails, read on—because I completed the entire thing to give you the biggest 18 takeaways. So read on, and consider applying these lessons to your own life. And for more great life advice from the Ivy League, know that Harvard Says Doing These Five Things Will Extend Your Life.

No, for the Umpteenth Time, Money Won't Make You Happy

money won't make you happy

A lot of the things that we believe will make us happy—money, a big house, an awesome car—actually won't. And studies have long shown that while there's a difference in happiness between people living on the poverty line and those who make comfortable salaries, after a certain amount, the happiness levels taper off entirely.

Santos points to the fact that even though people's incomes were much lower in the 1940s—and they had far fewer comforts (only two-thirds of houses back then had indoor plumbing)—their reported happiness levels were higher than ours.

It speaks to a paradox written about widely by author David Myers, who explains that even though today's youth grew up with much more affluence, contemporary young adults face much more depression, loneliness, and social disorders than Baby Boomers. And longitudinal studies have shown that people with materialistic attitudes report lower levels of life satisfaction, regardless of how much stuff they acquire.

In one study, lottery winners reported 4 out of 6 on the happiness scale, which sounds impressive until you realize that those who didn't win the lottery reported 3.82. Even Warren Buffett, in some controversial remarks that he recently made about happiness, said "You will not be happier if you double your net worth."

"True Love" Won't Make You Happy, Either

getting married won't make you happy

In spite of what Disney movies might have promised, finding "the one" won't make you permanently happy.

Santos points to one study in which a large group of people were surveyed for many years. Couples who got married did report being happier than the unmarried people during their honeymoon periods, but they came back to baseline after the first 18 months of marriage. The fact remains that even if you do find a romance worthy of a Nicholas Sparks novel, that alone won't make you happy. Eventually, you'll complain about being married the same way you once did about being single. And if you're in the market for some great relationship advice, check out these 17 Things Men Wish Women Knew.

And Neither Will Having the Perfect Body

fitness influencer Beck Jackson posts before-after-photos of weight gain.

If you look at some fitness influences and think, "If only I looked like that, I'd be happy," you're wrong.

Santos cites a study in which 2,000 obese individuals were observed for the first four years of their diet program. Surprisingly, the ones who actually lost weight reported feeling even more depressed than when they started. Santos pointed to another study of teens who got plastic surgery and were followed up with 13 years after their procedure. You guessed it. None of them were happier than they were before the surgery either.

Genes Play a Big Role in Happiness

Happy family smiling

In your own life, you've probably noticed some people seem happier than others. Then there are those that have everything and it's still never enough.

In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky looked at the happiness measures of sets of identical twins, and found that while life circumstances only affect 10 percent of our happiness levels, a whopping 50% of what determines how happy we are is genetic.

The realization that your levels of happiness are determined by your genetics in such a major way is definitely a bit of a bummer. But look at the bright side! Only a measly ten percent of our happiness levels depend on external circumstances that we can't control (i.e. meeting the love of your life, winning the lottery, etc.). Which means that 40% of our happiness levels derive from things we can control (i.e. how we see the world, how we behave, etc.). Doesn't that make you happy?

No Matter How Much You Have, It Will Never Be Enough

Life Changes in Your 30s

The brain is hardwired to adapt as a survival tactic that helps us to get through the worst of times, but it's also a big impediment to our ability to stay consistently happy.

Say you get a great new job, or a new boyfriend, or win the lottery, and you're elated and think you'll never be unhappy again. Very quickly, you get used to your new life, and you feel the same way about it as your old life.

This is called the Hedonic Treadmill, or Hedonic Adaptation, and the best way to work around it is to recognize it exists. Understand that you will not be happier if you get all of the things that you think will make you happy. That sounds depressing, but it isn't, because what it actually means is that what happens in your life doesn't matter, only the way you view it counts, which is extremely liberating. And if you're feeling a little stressed these days, check out The Single Best Way to Reduce Stress.

Free Yourself From Expectations

the science of wellbeing

No, this isn't Buddha or Yoda talking. It's science.

While it's true that having lots of money/a great job/true love won't make us happy, it's also true that wanting all of those things—and being bitter about not having them—will make us unhappy.

Santos introduces a great term invented by Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia and Dan Gilbert at Harvard called "miswanting," the process by which our brain tells us that if we could just just have X we'd be happy. So how do we free ourselves from expectations?

Simple. Just realize, and keep reminding yourself, that the things that you so badly want aren't actually going to make you happy, and that you already have everything you need to be happy right now. Later in this list, you'll see a few rewiring exercises that will help you achieve this state of constant gratitude and satisfaction.

Recognize That Your Perception Is Flawed

yale happiness course on flawed perception

Our minds don't work in absolutes, which means we think in relative terms. To prove her point, Santos uses the Ebbinghaus illusion, which displays two orange circles, surrounded by blue circles of varying size. Because the blue circles on the left are so large, your brain registers the orange circle on the left as smaller than the one on the right, even though they are both the same. The same goes for our flawed perception of what will make us happy.

Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

yale happiness course on social comparison

"We care a lot about where we stand relative to other people, even more than our own absolute level. This is what psychologists refer to as social comparison," Santos says.

She pointed to a UK study that found that how happy people are at their jobs doesn't depend on how much money they actually make as much as how much they make in relation to their coworkers. She pointed to another study that found that people who are unemployed are not unhappy about it so long as they are in a job in which many others are unemployed, or know a lot of other people who are unemployed.

Our natural inclination to compare ourselves to others has become especially extreme in the digital age, and it's the main reason social media addicts report higher levels of stress, depression, and isolation, and lower levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction. So don't do it! Remind yourself that you never really know what's going on in a person's life anyway, and just because someone's life seems perfect doesn't mean it is.

Knowing What Makes You Happy Isn't Enough

GI Joe fallacy

Santos and her colleagues invented the "G.I. Joe fallacy" to describe the mistake of thinking that just because you know something means you can put it into practice. The name comes from the popular children's cartoon, in which the superhero would end every episode by saying that "knowing is half the battle," when it really isn't.

Santos uses optical illusions as an example of the fact that just because you know an image is false doesn't mean that you can force the eyes to see it differently. Similarly, just because you know what makes people happy doesn't mean you can make yourself be happy. You need to actually change habits in order to do that. How do you change these habits? Read on for the exercises that Santos suggests.

Invest In Experiences

Travel, sunset

By now, you know that buying stuff just plays into the hedonic treadmill, since you get excited about your new car at first, only to then stop caring a week later. To combat this, Santos suggests investing instead in experiences, such as vacations, concerts, or even just a great glass of wine. These are things that you enjoy but can't get used to, and the memory of your enjoyment stays with you, especially when you look over pictures later on. Need some examples? Check out The 7 Best Luxury Fitness Vacations you can take this year.

Savor the Moment

woman vacationing by pool

According to Santos, savoring is the "simple act of stepping out of your experience to review it and really appreciate it while it's happening." It boosts our mood by thwarting hedonic adaptation by reminding us of the good in life, preventing our minds from wandering, and making us more grateful for the experiences we're having. To help practice the act of savoring, Santos suggests choosing one activity you enjoy (like taking a walk or eating a great meal) every day and really savoring it. To enhance the act of savoring, you can share your experience with a friend, take a photo of the activity, make a note of it at the end of the night.

Count Your Blessings

Travel, sleeping on the plane

Research has shown that taking time out to recognize and experience what you have in life can boost your mood, lower your stress levels, strengthen your immune system, feel a stronger social connection, and lower your blood pressure.

As such, Santos suggests putting five to ten minutes away each night to make write down five things you're grateful for. It can be a person (I'm grateful for my mother), a thing (I'm grateful for my job), or even something smaller (I'm grateful for the beautiful sunset I saw today). The key is to actually be mindful of what you're writing about (for example, actually imagining the person you are writing about) as you log in your entries.

A good way of doing this is to actually re-calibrate you reference points by going back to a time when you didn't have some of the things you have now. Remembering how you felt before can help you appreciate what you have now, and thereby thwart hedonic adaptation. Also, there's an added bonus: Writing things down in the evening will actually help you sleep better at night. 


woman meditate standing

One of the biggest things that makes people unhappy is that we're always upset about the past or worrying about the future. That's why mindfulness meditation, with its focus on being truly present in the moment, is so trendy right now.

In addition to making you more grateful for what you have, recent studies have found that it helps you boost your brain health. Just don't let yourself become a self-centered jerk about it.

Do Something Kind Every Day

mom comforting grown daughter

Research has shown that performing act of kindness provides a major boost to happiness levels. As such, the course suggests performing at least one act of kindness every day. It doesn't have to be extreme. It could be as simple as giving your colleague some advice, donating a few dollars to a worthwhile cause, or taking a few minutes to help a lost stranger.

Value Time Over Money

40 compliments

We've all heard the phrase "time is money." But Santos points to several studies that suggest that "time affluence" is more crucial to happiness than monetary affluence. And the reason for that, quite simply, is that we've already seen that making more money doesn't make you happier, whereas having more time to spend with friends or family, travel, meditate, help an old lady cross the street, and so forth really does.

Sleep and Exercise

Girl Sleeping Next to Phone Social Media

"We should be seeking out not good grades and not a big salary but we should be seeking out healthier practices," Santos said. The two crucial ones that she highlights are sleep and exercise, and indeed, an increasing body of research indicates that those are the two lifestyle habits that lead to a happy and healthy existence.

"Just exercising three times a week, for 30 minutes a day can give you as much happiness bang for your buck as taking an SSRI or taking something like Zoloft," Santos said. In addition, "sleeping more and sleeping about seven or eight hours a night can make you happier." For a regimen that combines much of the research outlined here, why not give clean sleeping a try?

Make Social Connections

adult son and father talking

A disturbing recent survey found that almost half of Americans report feeling lonely almost all of the time. It's a serious issue, given that loneliness increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, causes anxiety and depression, increases your risk of suicide, and doubles the risk of premature death in both men and women.

Research has found that people who have strong family bonds live the longest and happiest lives. But social connection isn't just about having a network of people that you can turn to for help (though that is important). Even something as simple as chatting to the man who sells you your coffee in the morning can boost your mood more than you'd expect. As such, you should endeavor to make a meaningful connection (i.e. having a deep conversation with your mom or best friend) at least once a week, and a smaller social connection (i.e. joking around with your colleague for a few minutes) at least once a day.

One of the exercises proposed consists of writing a letter to someone who's had a major effect on your life that you haven't properly thanked, and then delivering it to them in person, with no expectation of how they will react. "A gratitude letter is one of the most powerful tool for increasing happiness because it can forge social bonds and really change someone's life," Santos says.

Set Specific Goals

older people practice tai chi

Instead of having goals that are abstract and depend somewhat on luck or other people (i.e. "My goal is to fall in love this month"), set goals that are specific and doable (i.e. "My goal is to meditate for an hour at 8 p.m."). The thing is that achieving these goals what makes you feel happier, regardless of whether it's something big or something small.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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