Recently I heard a fantastic talk by Dr. Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and Professor of Psychology at Yale who teaches their most popular class in history, “Psychology and the Good Life.” A quarter of undergraduates take this class annually! Based on their response, she figured there are a lot of us who could use a few pointers on cultivating happiness. She created a podcast called, “The Happiness Lab” in which she discusses clinical psychology studies that prove different practices we can use to be happier.
Dr. Santos has found that our happiness instincts are pretty rotten. We think playing an online game, another cup of fancy coffee or holing up in front of the tv for hours by ourselves will be “relaxing” and make us feel better. Rather, she offers three main practices that can increase our feelings of well-being, what I think of as “blue sky days.” As I listened to three of her main suggestions, it struck me how much overlap there is between her suggestions and yoga’s teachings. Here are her take-aways from the podcast she did on Crazy Money with Paul Ollinger.
Be More Social and Connect with Others
Dr. Santos found that even introverts are happier overall if they connect with people regularly. For instance, she sites studies that find employees are actually happier when they brush up against collogues at least some of the time. That goes against a lot of our instincts! But we’re social animals and we feel better when we connect.
Traditionally in yoga, there was an emphasis on creating “sangha,” a community who shares a spiritual journey. This community existed to reinforce learning and practices and offer different perspectives and strengths so the whole could be stronger. For those of us who seek to live our yoga on and off the mat, learning to connect with others and recognizing the humanity in everyone is a powerful way to broaden our worldview and grow our compassion for ourselves and others. We all know that coming to yoga class offers more than just the poses. Otherwise, we’d only watch videos. It also gives a chance to share our journey, hear one another’s stories and keeps us coming back.
Dr. Santos recommends stretching yourself. She suggests, when you’re in line (for that pricey coffee!), instead of whipping out your phone, strike up a conversation with someone else in line. Remark on their cool shoes. Resist the urge to be a hermit and put yourself out there. Find regular times to be around others. Go to the grocery store if you can. Join a group for some fellowship. Get to those yoga classes and connect with others even if it takes a little effort.
Focus On Others
In our culture today, advertisers happily sell all kinds of products, touting self-care as pampering ourselves into happiness. What we don’t realize, according to Dr. Santos, is that we are actually happier when we do something nice for others (as long as it’s not continually at our own expense!). Thus, doing for others is PART of our self-care! In our yoga practice, we seek connection to ourselves as a means of refining ourselves and connecting to the greater whole more effectively. We’re instructed through the yamas and niyamas on how to treat others and ourselves. Jason Crandall, one of my teachers, says, “…my practice has slowed me down, softened me, and helped me become more clear and responsible in everything I do.” We learn that contentment comes not just from pleasing ourselves but in interacting from a place of integrity and compassion. That gives us a deeper peace than any facial or coffee could!
Dr. Santos said that once our basic needs are met, happiness doesn’t increase with “more.” She says we’re programmed to keep hoarding away and research finds that even the super-rich aren’t satisfied with what they have for long. It feels good momentarily, but then we wonder, would I be happier with more? So, someone with $50 million dollars will always wonder if they need $60 million to be happy. We get acclimated to our bounty, whether it’s a beautiful yard, money or a good relationship. And, we compare ourselves to those with even more. Tough perspective!
The next time you’re a little blue, she suggests looking outward to do something nice for someone else. She sites research that even giving away $2 is a greater boost than buying ourselves something with the same amount. This is an easy task. Giving to others doesn’t always have to be financial. Really listening to others, texting or calling to check in on someone…the possibilities for service and connection are as endless as others’ needs and our own creativity.
Be Present and Mindful
It won’t surprise experienced yogis, but she also concludes that staying present and mindful also boosts our contentment. “Notice, breath and just be,” she says. Even 5-10 minutes a day can be the reset we need to improve our well-being. It’s good for our nervous system and it boosts our “noticing,” which combats our natural tendency to take things for granted. It’s also an approach to living that is compassionate and makes our life juicier. You can take your mindfulness on a walk, when you’re chopping vegetables or playing a guitar.
Another yogi, Stephen Espinoza said, “(As I learned to be more compassionate with myself, …I realized I was treating others in the same way. I discovered that I wasn’t “reacting” in stressful situations the same way anymore and found myself really listening more which was huge for me.” As we learn to listen and be, we respond to our own needs and the world better. That’s happy-making!
Dr. Santos hosts a regular podcast called “The Happiness Lab” where she interviews researchers on what we know can help us boost our blue sky days whatever the weather outside. It’s a good listen and, along with our yoga practice, can help us feel fuller and more satisfied.
I've taught and lived yoga for more than 20 years. I know it can be intimidating. But it can also be fun--and rewarding--regardless of your starting point or challenges. On this blog I share some of the yoga wisdom that sustains me.