How To Be Happy, According To Science : Life Kit Everyone wants to be happy, and science has some answers. In this episode, Laurie Santos, the host of The Happiness Lab podcast, shares the science of cultivating gratitude and reframing positive thinking.
NPR logo

Want To Be Happier? Evidence-Based Tricks To Get You There

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/867905101/883866280" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Want To Be Happier? Evidence-Based Tricks To Get You There

Want To Be Happier? Evidence-Based Tricks To Get You There

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/867905101/883866280" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SUSAN HOLT: My name is Susan Holt (ph). My tips for coping is to treat everything like my sixth-grade science project. Whether it's risking a trip to the grocery store this week or taking steps toward that move across the state to be closer to my children, I have to decide. The outcome is unpredictable, even with a lot of research and thought beforehand. So I make a choice, I take a breath, and I watch what happens next. That is, I observe with curiosity and careful attention to what happened. Did it feel brave and smart? Or was it not too smart? Treating it like a science experiment took the pressure off to get it right when there was really no way to guarantee that. So large or small, now I can face up to what comes next, and I can get on with my day.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

LIFE KIT wants to hear from you. If you've got a random tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: This is LIFE KIT. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Everyone I know is looking for a way to either be happy or stay happy. My guest today teaches a course at Yale on the science of happiness, and to say that class is popular is an understatement.

LAURIE SANTOS: It's kind of surreal how popular it was. It became the largest class ever in Yale's history. The first time I taught it, we had over a thousand students, which just to get the scale at Yale is just under 1 out of every 4 students...

MERAJI: Wow.

SANTOS: ...At the entire college, so...

MERAJI: That's Dr. Laurie Santos. She also hosts the podcast called "The Happiness Lab." So if you can't take her psychology class at Yale, you're still in luck. And on this episode of LIFE KIT, we're going to get into two big happiness go-tos with Laurie - gratitude and the power of positive thinking - to see what the science says about whether they boost our well-being; first up, gratitude. Laurie starts things off by breaking down a study conducted by Robert Emmons, who's a professor of psychology at UC Davis.

SANTOS: So he did a study where he had folks for a couple weeks had to write down either a few things every day that they were grateful for or a few things every day that he called burdens, which are like, you know, the pain-in-the-butt things in life, you know, not the huge things but just some things that kind of get on your nerves. And what he found is that this act of, like, listing the things that you're grateful for over time actually significantly started improving folks' well-being even just in a couple weeks whereas the act of kind of griping about the things that you don't like in life, it didn't necessarily hurt your well-being, but it didn't help it either, you know. So this idea we have that, you know, complaining about stuff will make us feel better, it turns out scientifically speaking we might be mistaken about that.

MERAJI: The whole keep-a-gratitude-journal thing, I think people might roll their eyes at that, but the science is there. It works. This helps, and the positive outcomes can be huge. Here's what Robert Emmons told you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE HAPPINESS LAB WITH DR. LAURIE SANTOS")

ROBERT EMMONS: We know from the studies that gratitude helps us recover from loss and trauma. It helps us to deal with the slow drip of everyday stress, as well as the massive, you know, personal upheavals in the face of suffering and pain and loss and trials and tribulations. Gratitude is absolutely essential. It's part of our psychological immune system.

MERAJI: So gratitude is super good for us personally. How does having more gratitude affect our interpersonal relationships?

SANTOS: Yeah. Well, that's one of the spots where gratitude can be the most powerful, right? There's evidence suggesting that, you know, if you express gratitude to the people that you really care about, you can end up boosting those relationships much more than we really expect. You know, often, how this is done is researchers have subjects do what's called a gratitude visit, which is - the prompt is usually something like scribble down a few things that you're really grateful for about a person that you haven't thanked. Like, you've really needed to thank this person for a long time, but you haven't. And then meet with them in person and read them the letter that you wrote to them.

MERAJI: You spoke with another researcher, Nicholas Epley of The University of Chicago, and he talked to you about a really surprising part of this gratitude visit situation. I just want to play some of that tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE HAPPINESS LAB WITH DR. LAURIE SANTOS")

NICHOLAS EPLEY: We found that the letter writers consistently underestimate how positive the recipients are going to feel, that the letter writers underestimate how surprised the recipient will be about the content, underestimate how happy the recipient will feel. They predict recipients will be happy. Recipients are even happier than that. They're basically at the ceiling of our measure. And they overestimate how awkward the recipient is going to feel.

MERAJI: Yeah. The awkwardness part of it I think really would stop so many of us from doing this because we're like, oh, we're going to make them feel awkward, we're going to feel awkward. But Nicholas is saying, no, actually, you're - you don't feel as awkward, and the benefits are huge - huge - more than you could ever imagine.

SANTOS: Yeah. And this is part and parcel of a lot of Nick's work. And he's on our podcast a lot because a lot of his work shows that we have absolutely no idea of what the consequences of our social interaction is. But in practice, the people who receive these gratitude visits often report that it's one of the best moments in their life, not just, like, a 10 out of 10 on a happiness scale. Like, this moment is going to change my life forever. But what's more amazing about these gratitude visits is that they not only help the person that receives the gratitude, they also help, say, you the person who's, like, writing about the gratitude or experiencing the gratefulness. There's work by Marty Seligman and colleagues suggesting that the simple act of doing one of these gratitude visits can significantly bump up your well-being for over a month.

And what's kind of shocking is that the research shows that we just have these really dumb ideas about how things are going to feel. We're just incorrect. You know, we think it's going to be more awkward than it is. We think it's going to be - you know, it'll feel good but not that good. And we're just wrong. And so one of the reasons we don't seek out social opportunities that make us feel better is we kind of just get the consequences all wrong.

MERAJI: Obviously, this is easier said than done right now. I mean, if we're sharing space with someone, this can be very doable, but meeting up in person isn't really an option for a lot of people. Do you think that this would work just as well over video chat?

SANTOS: Yeah, totally. I mean, most of what we know about social relationships suggests that as long as those things are happening in real time, like, ideally where you can see the person's facial expressions and so on, you know, that can be just as good. You know, you probably don't get that, like, huge bear hug at the end, you know, if you're doing it over Zoom.

MERAJI: Right.

SANTOS: But in terms of the positive benefits, this is exactly the kind of thing we can do over digital technologies.

MERAJI: Laurie, I have kept a journal for the last - I don't know - 20 years, 20-plus years. And listing things I'm grateful for is something I've done on and off over that time. But I also think it's really important to recognize and give voice to frustrations. Life is really challenging. And for some, it's way more challenging than for others. And the researcher that we heard from at the top of this episode, Robert Emmons, had something to say about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE HAPPINESS LAB WITH DR. LAURIE SANTOS")

EMMONS: When people write about a negative event that happened to them and they express their emotions about it, that's not as beneficial as getting some insight for why the event happened in the first place or now what a person can do about it. So you could say that starts with a complaint, certainly noticing what's going wrong, but the goal is always to move beyond that.

SANTOS: Yeah. I love Robert's quote here because I think this is really important. If you're just kind of complaining for the sake of complaining, even if you're just journaling, writing down all the bad things but you're not moving towards, like, some sort of solution or some sort of resolution, then that's actually not helpful. In fact, in some cases, it can be actively harmful because it means you're just kind of sitting with this negative stuff and sort of focusing on it. It's not so much that the complaining is bad. It's that the complaining is an opportunity cost of other things your mind could be focusing on, you know, and you and your friends could be focusing on.

You know, a lot of the griping that we do, we do socially, right? It's not me by myself, you know, complaining to no one. It's, like, me telling my co-workers, like, let me talk about this other person at work or, you know, me complaining to my family members about, you know, like, what's happening in my life. And it's taking up air time that you could be spending in those social moments with people on something more positive, on something that you're grateful for.

MERAJI: On "The Happiness Lab" podcast, you've also looked into research on positive thinking, which some people may conflate with gratitude, which is what we've been talking about, but they aren't exactly the same thing. And I was hoping that you would explain the difference between the two.

SANTOS: Yeah. Yeah. So gratitude is really an emotion that we feel. You know, the best-case scenario when we're writing that thank-you card isn't just that we're doing it rote like, oh, yeah, thank you, thank you. It's that we're really feeling something. It's this feeling of thankfulness, right? That has all the positive benefits we've been talking about. Positive thinking, on the other hand, at least the way scientists think about it, is a little bit different. That's the kind of sort of Pollyannaish, you know, everything is going to work out sort of fantasy about how things could be in your life. And, you know, there's been a lot of self-help stuff suggesting that positive thinking, you know, is the best way to go, even things like "The Secret" and, you know, old-school self-help advice, you know, think positive, you know, accentuate the positive kind of thing.

MERAJI: Oh, yeah.

SANTOS: Right?

MERAJI: My mom is obsessed with that. The power of positive thinking is, like, her mantra constantly whenever I have a problem.

SANTOS: Yeah. Yeah. So it's not so much that that is awful, but if that's where you stop, it ends up awful. It's the same thing as griping. Like, griping is OK if you take it to the next level. And the same is true with positive thinking. Positive thinking works if you can contrast what you want, your desires in the world, how everything works out perfectly with the actual gritty reality of the situation, right? You know, there's work by Carey Morewedge and colleagues where he has subjects imagine, say, eating a bunch of M&Ms, and what he finds after you imagine that is, like, you don't really want to eat the M&Ms anymore. You did it enough in your brain that you're sort of full almost. And so the idea is when we fantasize about positive things in our lives, we can kind of have that same weird effect where we think like, OK, you know, dust your hands off. I'm already done. I already did that.

MERAJI: Yeah. There's a social scientist in one of your episodes, Gabriele Oettingen, and she basically says exactly what you're saying right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE HAPPINESS LAB WITH DR. LAURIE SANTOS")

GABRIELE OETTINGEN: What we find is the more positive people think about the future, actually, the less well they do in reaching the positive future.

MERAJI: I mean, this is exactly the opposite of what my mom has been telling me my entire life. And we're not going to talk about how old I am.

SANTOS: (Laughter) I think this is - you know, like, again, these self-help books about positive thinking have been around, like, since the 1950s, right? And when you dig into the science as Gabriele and her colleagues have done, what you find is that positive thinking isn't just neutral. It can actively hurt. So she finds that people who positively fantasize about weight loss end up losing the least weight. People who positively fantasize about getting better after, say, like a hip surgery actually do the worst. And so it's not so much that it's, like, futile. It's, like, actively bad for us in ways that we - our minds just don't expect.

MERAJI: Gabriele has this acronym, WOOP, that is a way that we can use our thinking - we can really use our minds to help us reach our goals. But it's different than the power of positive thinking. What is WOOP, and how does it work?

SANTOS: Yeah. So WOOP is this acronym for wish, outcome, obstacles, plan - wish, outcomes, obstacles, plan. And the first two letters, wish and outcome, are the kind of positive thinking part. You think about a wish that you really have. So let's say I want to learn a new language, right? And so you think about that wish, and you think about the outcome if you were to get that wish. So, you know, if I learned Italian, then, you know, eventually I could, like, fly to Italy. You know, I could talk to the guys at the Italian restaurant on the phone. You think through all the positive outcomes that would come from that. That's where positive thinking would normally stop. But WOOP tells us to go a little further. That second O in WOOP is the obstacles, right? And so I need to think, OK, what's the obstacles in my learning Italian? You're really thinking about both the practical obstacles, you know, the physical stuff. Like, I have to buy a language training or I have to buy a book or something like that. But you're also thinking about the personal obstacles. Like, I just don't have time or, like, I'm just not really that motivated to learn a new language.

And then once you think about the obstacles, you're - you get to the final letter in WOOP, which is the P, which is the plan. And the idea is the plan is there to help you think about, OK, if that's really the obstacle, what's your plan to overcome it? You know, so the obstacle is, like, I just don't have time to learn the language. It's like, well, my plan is that, like, you know, the next time I think I was going to go on Facebook, instead I'm going to go to an app where I can learn, you know, a new language. And one of two things will happen. Either you'll come up with a plan to deal with those obstacles or sometimes you might realize that the obstacles are just kind of too huge, you know, which is OK, too, right? You know, maybe I just simply don't have enough time right now to learn a new language. You know, it's busy. I'm just - you know, things are crazy at work. Like, it's just not meant to be. And the beauty of that is that you can drop these positive fantasies that are driving you crazy.

MERAJI: Yeah. How often does Gabriele say we have to do this in order for this mental practice to actually work in real life?

SANTOS: She does a little bit every morning. But, you know, it really is a kind of process that you can do - you know, three to five minutes a day can be really powerful in moving you more towards your goals.

MERAJI: Which sounds simple. The thing that is not as simple, and Gabriele talks about this in your episode, is that you really need to know yourself. You really need to know what your obstacles are, especially if they're really personal obstacles. And just taking your example of learning a language, one of my very personal obstacles to not learning Farsi, for example, is that it's taken me so long and I am so embarrassed that people will judge me based on how terrible I sound, other Iranians. And so it's, like, this really deep, personal obstacle that is keeping me from doing this thing that my whole life I've been wanting to do.

SANTOS: Right. Sometimes confronting the obstacles can be more revealing than the real wishes we start with.

MERAJI: Yeah.

SANTOS: I think that can be a real power of WOOP, too, as we realize, you know, what I really need to work on isn't the language. You know, what I really need to work on is, you know, this deep-seated issue about my stuff that's pretty tough but could really affect my life in a positive way if I got it under control.

MERAJI: Laurie Santos is the host of "The Happiness Lab With Dr. Laurie Santos." She's also a professor of psychology at Yale. Laurie, thank you so much for being here.

SANTOS: Thanks so much for having me on the show.

MERAJI: For more episodes of LIFE KIT, go to npr.org/lifekit. We have episodes on all sorts of topics, from how to manage anxiety to how to start a garden. If you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. Also we want to hear your tips. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by Clare Schneider. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. And Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Thanks for listening.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.