What We Get Wrong About Happiness, According To A Real Happiness Professor

There's a Yale class that teaches students how to be happy. We asked the instructor to share some of her lessons.
Mengwen Cao via Getty Images

It’s commonly said that happiness can’t be bought. But it can, apparently, be learned through an online course.

Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale, began by teaching college students everything they needed to know about the pursuit of joy. The original class, titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” was launched during the 2018 spring semester to help students deal with stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness.

The class quickly became the most popular offering in Yale’s history, attracting thousands of students eager to enroll. After overwhelmingly positive feedback, it was restructured as a free online course to reach a much wider audience.

The online course, titled “The Science of Well-Being,” is also led by Santos. During the 10-week program, participants are taught about happiness from a psychological perspective, including common misconceptions about being happy.

“The purpose of the course is to not only learn what psychological research says about what makes us happy but also to put those strategies into practice,” one course description reads.

Santos, who also hosts the podcast The Happiness Lab, told HuffPost that people often come into the class without truly understanding the meaning of happiness ― at least the meaning that experts use in research. Social scientists have a particular definition of what they call subjective well-being.

“They typically think of [happiness] as having two parts: a cognitive component — whether you’re satisfied with your life — and an emotional component — whether you have lots of positive and not so many negative emotions, which is sort of whether you are satisfied in your life,” Santos said.

Now that we have a better understanding of what happiness is, here are a few things it isn’t, according to Santos and research.

Happiness isn’t fixed.

Santos said one of the most common misconceptions is that “we can’t change our happiness.” In other words, we think we’re predisposed to a certain level of joy.

Research has found there may be a genetic component to happiness and how some people experience it. But Santos said that only plays a fraction of a role.

“There is a genetic component to happiness, but it’s much smaller than we think. That means we really can take action to improve how we feel,” she said.

Happiness isn’t attached to many of the outside factors we think matter.

“The second misconception is that happiness stems from our circumstances — how much money we make, where we live, what job we have, if we have a partner, etc.,” Santos said. She addresses this head-on in the course with lessons on “Awesome Stuff, True Love, Perfect Body & Good Grades.”

While some external factors can definitely affect our overall level of happiness, they aren’t as influential as we think. (The exceptions, of course, are circumstances like abuse and inequality that can undermine our mental health to the point that it affects our daily lives.)

“For those of us who are living above the poverty line in relatively safe situations, our circumstances don’t matter as much as we think,” Santos said. “This is a hard one to come to terms with, but working to change our salaries, jobs, and romantic relationships won’t affect our well-being as much as we assume.”

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Happiness isn’t achieved solo.

Sure, you are responsible for your own happiness. But that means you have to reach out to others, express thanks for their presence and take time to prioritize those interactions.

“Research suggests that happy people prioritize social relationships. They’re other-oriented, rather than thinking selfishly,” Santos said. “They take time off and time to be grateful. These aren’t the things we often prioritize when we’re trying to get happier, but they matter more than we think.”

Happiness isn’t always being exuberant.

A big part of happiness is letting ourselves feel sad. People experience a spectrum of emotions for a reason. We need to feel our anger, sadness and grief instead of pushing those emotions away.

Research suggests, for example, that crying can be extremely therapeutic. And experts say that while loneliness is a demoralizing feeling, it’s also important to embrace it with the understanding that it won’t last forever. The sooner you allow yourself to experience those emotions, the sooner ― and easier ― it is to move through them. Shaming yourself for negative feelings only impedes your happiness.

So how does this knowledge actually help us be happier?

Santos said it’s vital to acknowledge “that we have these misconceptions” about happiness. No one is perfect, and the pursuit of happiness won’t be either. So keep this research-backed advice in mind when you’re looking for a way to increase your joy.

“I think that’s where the science comes in,” Santos said. “When you see the results showing what doesn’t work for improving well-being versus what really does, it can help you shift your behavior towards the stuff that really will let us improve our well-being: things like prioritizing our social lives, becoming more focused on other people’s well-being, taking time to be mindful, and so on.”

Ready to increase your joy? Join our “Happy New Year” challenge. HuffPost editors will put the most common happiness tips to the test throughout January 2020 to see if they really make a difference. We’ll also publish new stories all month about the pursuit of happiness. Keep checking back on HuffPost Life for updates and share what happiness habits are working for you at wellness@huffpost.com.

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