Laurie Santos on Happiness

After her class became a cult hit on Yale’s campus, Dr. Laurie Santos’ views on happiness and how to improve human well-being have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight. At the core of her argument is that Americans, particularly college students, are suffering from well documented unparalleled levels of anxiety, stress and depression. First we’ll give an overview of some of the academic debates surrounding Dr. Santos’ work, and then we’ll get to some of her favorite suggestions for living a happy life.

Social Psychology vs Clinical Psychology: What do we know?

There’s been a long war running between social psychology and clinical psychology, regarding whether we know enough about the descriptive state (social psychology) of human psychology to make prescriptive diagnoses (clinical psychology). Somewhat paradoxically, clinical psychology has historically been the dominant sub-field within Psychology in terms of pure numbers. At the heart of the debate is the applied epistemic question in social psychology: while social psychology experiments (being merely statistical correlations) might tell us what might be true about human psychology, they cannot tell us what we should do.

Dr. Santos (a cognitive psychologist, close to social psychology) was pressed on this by Philosopher Tamler Sommers where she gave a very convincing response to any concerns in the previous paragraph when she said “I think it’s pretty clear that we know some things about human well being and human psychology.” Yes we don’t know everything about human behavior, and perhaps some of our attempts to make students happier will have adverse effects, but on the whole a plurality of students report an improvement in their life by taking the course.

We should note that there’s also tremendous debate about what is meant by well being or happiness, but we’ll let other researchers and writers delve into that particular conceptual issue.

Laurie’s Best/Quickest Tip for Happiness

Though we highly recommend enrolling in the full class on Coursera to get the full benefits of the potentially life improving class (this is not an ad), we’ll give a cliff notes version to a re-occurring theme throughout the course: increase human interaction and gratitude.

The classic example Laurie uses is the coffee shop barista. People, including the author of this article, often keep in headphones in while checking out at a coffee shop when you could have a quick conversation with the barista. It sounds awful and most people actively resist having to have that conversation. However, to the surprise of most of her students and strangers, most people self report being much happier after having that extra conversation throughout the day. I know it sounds dreadful, but just try it once.   

Laurie Santos (Somewhat) Rejects the Snowflake Narrative

On episode of Sam Harris’ podcast Making Sense, Santos was asked to comment on the people that would say that college students are “snowflakes.” While she resisted stepping on other side of the aisle in any overt way, she did agree that students today are dealing with “fragile mental states” which seems to be a much more constructive way to criticize the phenomenon. As she stated, polls find that 30-35% of college undergraduates have seriously considered suicide recently, where “seriously considered” is defined as contemplating the method of the delivery.

While a particularly morbid digression, for any readers interested in this particular aspect of the phenomenon, we highly recommend Episode 142 of Very Bad Wizards where acclaimed Harvard Psychologist Mathew Nock details his research and findings on suicide. Meanwhile remember the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline remains open, 24/7 and can be reached by dialing this number: 1-800-273-8255.


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