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Dr. Laurie Santos is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Yale University. Her research provides an interface between evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, and cognitive neuroscience, exploring the evolutionary origins of the human[…]
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John Templeton Foundation

Sometimes, it’s really hard to be happy. And there’s a reason for that: The human brain isn’t hard-wired for happiness. Why? Because happiness isn’t essential for survival. To make matters worse, our minds can deceive us when it comes to happiness, leading us to chase things that won’t make us happy in the long run. 

To solve for this, Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos recommends a set of practices, dubbed “re-wirements.” These practices include prioritizing social connection, being other-oriented, focusing on gratitude and blessings, and incorporating exercise into our daily routine.

By understanding the common pitfalls of our thinking and adopting new behaviors, we can achieve true happiness, and make it last. For Santos, happiness isn’t just a state; it’s an ongoing practice.

LAURIE SANTOS: You might assume that we are creatures that are built to be happy. But the sad thing is that we're really not wired for happiness. Natural selection honestly doesn't care how we feel- it really just wants us to survive and reproduce. And that doesn't necessarily involve being happier.

People are less happy than they ever have been. In the United States, around 40% of college students report being too depressed to function most days. We see the same kind of thing in older individuals. We're doing something wrong.

We have all these misconceptions when it comes to the simple things we could all be doing to feel better. I'm Laurie Santos. I'm a professor of psychology at Yale University, and host of "The Happiness Lab" podcast. I study the science of happiness.

In order to feel happier, we really need to come to terms with the fact that our mind is kind of lying to us. We experience what psychologists like Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson have called 'miswanting.' Miswanting is the act of trying to go for certain things that we assume are gonna make us feel happy, but then they don't make us as happy as we think. Because there are these annoying features of the mind that cause us to get happiness wrong.

And one of the biggest annoying features of the mind is the fact that we all have these intuitions about the kinds of things we should be doing to feel better- but the research shows that many of those intuitions are just incorrect.

Take, for example, money. So many of us think that if we just got more money, we'd feel happier. But if you have enough money to put food on the table and a roof over your head, more money isn't gonna make you happier. The same is true for so many things: getting a promotion, material possessions, getting married. We kind of get the Rolling Stones idea wrong. We think the problem is that we can't always get what we want: but the problem is that if we got what we wanted, we probably still wouldn't be happy because we want the wrong things.

A second annoying feature of the mind is the fact that we tend to not think in objective terms. We tend to compare all our outcomes in life to something else. This is what's known as 'setting a reference point.' We're constantly comparing what we have to other people: compare our salaries, compare our looks, compare how happy our marriage is, even compare how much sex we're getting. And that's a problem because it means we could be doing objectively quite well in life, but as long as there's somebody out there who's doing better than us, we're gonna feel bad.

Another annoying feature of the mind is that our minds tend to get used to stuff. When you first have an experience, it's glorious. But over time you kind of get used to it. This is what researchers call 'hedonic adaptation.' It means that things that initially impact our happiness a lot, they stop having the same impact over time.

There's an additional problem with hedonic adaptation, which is that we don't really know that it's happening, and that leads to an additional bias that's known as the 'impact bias.' We assume that if something good happens, it's gonna impact our happiness a lot, and for a really long period of time- but the evidence suggests it doesn't. We're biased about the particular impact that any event might have on our happiness. That's the impact bias.

When we think about the annoying features of the mind, the bad news is that those mistakes seem to be built in. Everyone's walking around with minds that will inevitably miswant. The real way to thwart our biases is to behave differently. There's a whole set of practices I like to call 'rewirements.' All of us can engage with rewiring our own habits in order to change our behaviors and feel better.

When we think about the behaviors that we need to change as part of our rewirements, there's one big one that comes up initially: social connection. Every available study of happy people suggests that happy people are more social. They physically spend time around other people and they tend to really prioritize time with their friends and family members.

Our lack of social connection really comes from the fact that we have this strong intuition that it kind of doesn't matter. There's lots of work by Nick Epley for a bias that's known as 'undersociality.' We just systematically misestimate how good social connection will feel. Instead of scrolling through social media, use your phone to actually be a phone and call someone that you care about. These simple acts of connecting in real life, ideally, but especially in real-time, can significantly improve well-being.

Another behavior that we know really affects our happiness is doing nice things for other people- trying to become a little bit more other-oriented. This is a spot where we have seriously incorrect intuitions. We often think that self-care is the path to happiness, but the evidence really suggests that happy people are much more other-oriented. They're donating more money to charity. They're spending their time volunteering for others. They give more compliments.

Another way that we can rewire our happiness is to change our thought patterns. Do we have a mindset of paying attention to all the negative things, all the hassles in life? Or do we have a mindset that focuses more on the blessings? Lots of evidence suggests that happy people focus on the blessings. If you tend not to do that naturally, you can change that thought pattern. One fantastic way to do this is simply to just write down three to five things you're grateful for every night. And this practice can improve your well-being in as little as two weeks.

Another thought pattern that we can can engage to feel happier is paying attention to the good stuff in life. One of the reasons our good circumstances don't necessarily lead to happiness is we tend not to notice them. We'll buy a delicious latte that we should be paying attention to and savoring and really enjoying, but we just kind of chug it while we're checking our email. The act of savoring is moving towards paying attention to the good things in life a little bit more.

A final way we can rewire our behavior is to make changes in our body. We often forget that bodies are connected to minds, but they really are. And that means that a really quick way to change how we're feeling emotionally is simply moving our body a little bit more. Exercise is intricately connected to our mental health, and it's important to note that this isn't like running a marathon. This is simply just getting your body to move around a little bit more. Even as much as like 20 minutes a day can really improve your well-being.

These so-called rewirements, they're really useful for moving from not feeling so good at the time to flourishing a little bit more. This is not necessarily the tools that you might use if you're facing a really serious mental disorder. Sometimes people think like, "Oh, I'm suicidally ideating. I should do a gratitude list or something." It's like, "No, no, no!" That's an acute emergency and you should really get a special, more acute kind of care; you should see a psychotherapist. Rewirements are just yet another tool in the toolkit that we can all use to be improving our own well-being.

We're going to have moments of anger. We're gonna have moments of sadness. We're gonna have moments of fear or frustration or overwhelm- that's part of being human. Our negative emotions are signals that are telling us something really important. Our sadness is there to tell us, "Hey, you're missing something in life. You might need to make changes. You might need to reach out to a friend." Negative emotions are normative in certain circumstances, so we shouldn't try to wish them away. We just need to be able to regulate them in positive ways.

The key, though, is that you have to put these strategies into practice; you can't just learn about them. It turns out that knowing, from a cognitive science perspective, it's not half the battle. The real work is putting the things you learn into practice. When we understand the right things to do and put those things into practice, we really can significantly change our levels of happiness.