Behind The Happiness Lab

Professor of Psychology, Dr. Laurie Santos is head of Silliman College at Yale University and an expert on human cognition. Her course, “Psychology and the Good Life,” is Yale’s most popular course in over 300 years. Now she is hosting a podcast called The Happiness Lab, which converts her course into digestible episodes meant to help make your life happier while teaching you about the science behind her methods. We talked to Laurie about going from the classroom to the recording booth.

Dr. Laurie Santos, host of The Happiness Lab

PC: Can you describe The Happiness Lab and its goal?

Laurie: The Happiness Lab is a podcast that’s all about the science of well-being. The goal of the podcast is to teach listeners a whole set of tips for simple things you can do to be happier every day. The main premise of The Happiness Lab is this idea that our minds seem to lie to us about the kinds of things that make us happy. So we think there are certain things that will make us happy, like our circumstances, how much money we have, or if we get a new relationship, and it turns out the science suggests those things don’t work in the way we expect. So, The Happiness Lab is about thinking about the things that science shows really can make us happier, and the lab part of The Happiness Lab is putting them into effect in your own life. You’re a scientist working on your own happiness in your own life lab.

PC: You have a college course and a free online course. Those lend themselves to putting these tips into action and getting feedback from students. What made you move on to a podcast, and how is it different?

Laurie: I think there were two big reasons to move to the podcast.  One was that I just kept getting feedback from people who wanted to learn this content, but just didn’t have time for a whole Yale class, which is like most of us. Most of us aren’t going to sit down and take an Ivy League class if we want to learn something. There was a real call to find a way to translate this material for folks who are busy but have a half-hour or so to listen to a podcast. So, that’s reason number one. I realized there was a real market for another way to think about the content.

But the second reason that I think is more important is that this science of well-being work really lends itself nicely to a podcast format for two reasons: one is that the tips are episodic. It works well in the format of half-hour episodes focused on a specific thing you can do to improve your well-being. But the second reason is the science of happiness suggested there are things you can do to be happier, and if you look out in the world, all these people are doing it. The great thing about the podcast format is that it can be narrative. We can meet those people, interview them and talk to them about the challenges they face and how they wound up putting the science into action.

I think that’s the most fun part about The Happiness Lab and what makes it kind of more interesting and, in some ways, better than the online class. You get to hear these people’s stories. You get examples of people who are putting these tips into practice. That’s been fun for me because, as you’ll hear in the podcast and the class, I’m the host and I’m the professor who teaches this stuff, but I’m not necessarily great at putting these things into action. I need great examples of people who can mentor me and teach me how to do it better, so it’s been super fun for me to meet these people who are paragons of using the science well.

PC: Has interviewing people about their happiness influenced how you teach or how you think about the science?

Laurie: Oh yeah, definitely. Not just how I think about the science, but how I try to put it into practice myself. The first interview we did for the whole podcast season was with the musician David Byrne who’s famous for being the frontman of the Talking Heads, but it turns out he’s just this incredibly social guy. I think he doesn’t fall prey to the normal downside to fame because he keeps up with his social connections with lay people around him. That was such an inspiration to hear that not only is somebody putting this into practice, but even somebody like David Byrne — who you might not think is going to talk to the guy next to him on the subway — is putting this stuff into action in his own life. So even when I’m feeling a little introverted and don’t really feel like making a connection with a stranger, I think, ‘If David Byrne can do it, what is my problem. I should jump in and try this out.’

PC:  What are some of the challenges in converting from a class to a podcast, and how did you overcome them?

Laurie: This may be my nerdy scientist hat, but I really want the science to come through well. On the one hand, the podcast format is short, so everyone has time for it, but it’s not long enough to convey some of the nuances. The way we got around that was to use the show notes. Online on The Happiness Lab website, we have the show notes with all the actual citations where I can write in some caveat and add things.

So that’s been the compromise. We can’t go through every control condition in a single study or every caveat, but we can use the show notes and other formats. For listeners that want that extra step, or those who say, ‘hang on, I had a question about that.’ Great! Go look at the show notes.

PC: Have you found that people are doing that? Are they looking to the show notes to understand the science behind the podcast?

Laurie: I get lots of questions over email and some questions over Twitter like ‘It doesn’t sound like you thought of this.’ And then I say, ‘Yes we did. Check out the show notes.’ So, I think it will take a season or so to get folks to realize that is the resource they can go to first before asking over Twitter.

I think one of the things people like about The Happiness Lab — at least in the reviews — is it’s not just a bunch of platitudes. It’s not just a bunch of advice. It really is based on the science. So, I think people who want to know that this is an evidence-based approach are excited to check out the papers and see the graphs.

PC: Along those lines, podcasting is more of a passive medium than an online or in-person course. Do you think that you’ll see similar success stories if people are listening in a more passive way?

Laurie: That’s our hope. At least the feedback we’re getting so far from the reviews is that people think they’re getting some tips that they can put into practice, real-world sort of tips. We’re actually going to be launching a mini-season this January where we’re going to give people even more specific tips, and I’m hoping to work with Yale to set up a little survey that people can take before and after the season. We can start doing some empirical testing to ask questions like ‘is it really working?’ We have evidence in the Coursera class — as you might have heard in the first episode — that people do actually get happier, which is striking. We don’t know that yet for the podcast, but the cool thing is, as a scientist, we can ask. We have enough people, and we have enough of a sample size that we could actually do a study like that. We’re hoping to roll that out for our new year’s season.

PC: A lot of people listen to podcasts when they are commuting or doing other things, whereas a class seems like focus, dedicated time. Do you think people listening, even when listening distractedly, are still coming with the intention that they want to be happier and are putting the podcast into practice with the same dedication as the people in a class?

Laurie: Yeah, I think we get listeners from all kinds of backgrounds. Some are nerdy folks like me who just want to learn the cognitive science. Some folks really are struggling and just want some tips. I think the nice thing about the way we’ve been able to set up The Happiness Lab is at the end of each episode we do a little ‘digest everything you just heard’ where we give a few tips. And those tips seem to be the ones that people end up putting into effect.

What I want you to [take away] isn’t control conditions or study two that I mentioned. No. I want you to learn a tip like, ‘Hey, what we learned in this episode is go talk to a stranger’ or ‘What we learned in this episode is you can take photos, but make sure you stay present while you’re doing that.’ I think those are the simple pieces of advice that people can take with them the next time they’re in that situation. I think sometimes we think we need to make these major changes to improve our well-being, but if everyone who heard our social connection episode went out and talked to a stranger a couple more times a week, that’s probably going to have an impact on their positivity throughout the day. I mean, we’ll see when we do the empirical science. As a nerdy scientist, I want to see the results, but the hope is that if people are following the practices they hear about, it should make a difference.

PC: Have you heard from your listeners at all? What has been the response?

Laurie: I knew how many emails you get from an online class. I get lots of emails from my Coursera learners, but you’d be surprised at how much feedback I’m getting from the podcast listeners, both with questions, but also people just telling me these quick anecdotes that they put this into effect.

In our first episode, we talked about how, with bad life circumstances, you predict they are going to mess you up forever, but they’re not as bad as you think. [In the episode,] we heard from one woman who got a diagnosis of an incurable STD. At first she thought this was going to be terrible, but in fact, it wasn’t so bad. I actually heard from a couple of listeners who themselves have gone through that who have said, ‘thank you so much for that episode. I just found out this bad news, and it’s been bumming me out. But now I hear examples of people who have gone through it themselves, and it’s fine. This actually mattered a lot.’ So that felt really good. The podcast is helping people realize that their circumstances aren’t going to affect them, and to give them a little bit of hope.

PC: You mentioned that it’s hard to practice what you preach when you have so much going on from the online course to the podcast. How has The Happiness Lab affected your happiness?

Laurie: Well, I think all these things together have been really good for my happy for two reasons. One is it’s given me a lot more meaning than my day job doing studies. This is a way that I can reach people and help people, and it just feels amazing. That’s bumped up my happiness, but in an even stronger way, now that I’m the host of the podcast and teaching the online class, I have to practice what I preach. People are going to call me out on it, and so it just means that I’m more social. I’m more careful about not setting up these social comparisons.  I’m more mindful in the moment, and that means just as the data would suggest, I’m actually a little bit happier for it. Since teaching the online course, I’ve been a whole point happier. We’ll see if the podcast is going to boost that. I think when you’re paying attention to things, it can remind you to do these better behaviors. When you do the better behaviors, it really can show a positive effect.

PC: Your genuine interest in the science of happiness definitely comes across in the podcast.

Laurie: I mean, It’s also that I sucked at it. I personally really sucked at it before I’ve learned this work. I wasn’t doing almost any of these behaviors from making more social connections to experiencing gratitude. So I can also see what it feels like from somebody who doesn’t have the right intuitions. I believe it because I’ve seen it work for me.

PC: Is that why in the podcast, you nod to the fact that it might sound cliché? Many of the concepts that come out of the podcast you rightfully call out for sounding like a phrase on a motivational poster but then explain that they actually work in practice.

Laurie: Yes, and I needed that too when I first got into the literature. Again because it sounds so hokey, ‘gratitude and connect with your fellow man.’ I’m a Gen X person, and it’s not the advice that I would naturally gravitate toward. But then you hear about the results, you read the papers, and you see the graphs, and you’re like, ‘Okay, this stuff sounds hokey, but it works. Do I want to be happy or not? Let me just embrace it.’  Scientifically we know there’s some there there.

PC: What does season two look like? What’s coming out next?

Laurie: Yeah so, we’re going to do a bit of a mini-season at the new year with this idea of ‘new year, new you.’ We’ll start with an episode on the fresh start effect, which is the scientific effect that there’s a reason that people get more motivated at the new year. It’s that these temporal boundaries can allow us to think of ourselves as a different person. It can give us the hope to start things anew. We want to embrace this with The Happiness Lab because this is a moment where you are going to learn new stuff, so let’s give you the new stuff. That mini-season will be very specific tips from positive psychology, which shows what you can do in the new year to feel better.

Then our full season two, which will launch probably sometime in mid-spring, is going to be a lot more of the same. It’s actually some episodes that I think are going to push people even more to think about what technology is really doing to you in ways that you don’t expect. It’s going to push us a little bit more to be thinking about the way that we structure our day and our time.

I’m hoping that we can get more into some of the systems that are affecting our happiness. So far, we’ve focused a lot on individual behavior, but it’s not just our intuitions that are bad. We set up these social structures and cultural institutions that aren’t great either. What can we do to start dismantling those as well?

PC: Is there anything you wanted to talk about, or think our readers would want to know?

Laurie: No, I think it’s awesome that you can highlight the show notes, because I feel like that’s the thing we haven’t done a great job of getting the word out about. I think people really value them. That’s perfect to highlight here.

PC: And last but not least, what podcasts are you listening to right now or that have you listened to in the past and loved?

Laurie: Well, one of the reasons I was excited to sign with Pushkin was because I really like Revisionist History. I think Malcolm Gladwell is an awesome storyteller. I’ve also checked out The Science of Happiness, which is a podcast that comes out of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley. It’s a very different kind of model than The Happiness Lab. It is folks talking together rather than scripted interviews, but they cover a lot of similar terrain. If you want to dive even deeper into the science of well-being, that’s a great podcast for you.

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