I'm taking Yale's class on happiness — and halfway through, these 4 tricks are already working

Courtesy of Justin MaimanJustin Maiman.
  • Yale’s most popular class ever, “The Science of Well-Being,” was designed by professor Laurie Santos.
  • She collected all the psychological science related to happiness and came up with a step-by-step process for boosting your own.
  • After five weeks in the class, the writer Justin Maiman says that the principles – such as taking time to savour experiences and focusing on your strengths – are already working.

Happiness can be learned.

That’s the central idea behind Yale’s most popular class ever. Professor Laurie Santos has collected all the psychological science out there and come up with a step-by-step process for boosting your own happiness.

I took the 10-week course online through Coursera for free. It’s officially called “The Science of Well-Being” and has already been taken by more than 225,000 students online. About one in four students at Yale have taken it since it was first offered.

Santos told me she designed the course for three reasons: to synthesise what psychologists have learned about making our lives better, to help undergrads overcome stress and unhappiness on campus, and “to live a better life myself.”

Five weeks in, I’m a convert. Here’s why: The seminars are great, but you also get a lot of homework centered around daily exercises geared toward changing your habits – recognising and then dropping bad ones while developing new good habits.

Here are just four exercises I picked out from a slew of new tips and tricks I’ve learned so far. Again, the point here is that these positive habits have been tested and proven to work, based on psychological science.

Focus on your strengths

This first homework was all about identifying your signature strengths and refocusing on them each day. I took the VIA Survey online – anyone can take this test for free, check it out here – which revealed my 24 greatest strengths. My top four: love of learning, appreciation of beauty and excellence, leadership, and fairness.

If you’re pretty self-aware, the results won’t be a big surprise. The key though is to identify them and find situations to use your strengths every day. That will lead you down the path to flourishing. Studies show happiness increases and depression decreases when a person uses his or her signature strengths regularly. In my case, I looked for simple ways to use fairness, humour, and love of learning throughout my day. Pro tip: Additional research shows that if you’re able to “bundle” four of your top strengths while at work, you’ll likely flourish and have more positive experiences, and you are more likely to think of your work as a “calling.”

Invest in experiences

I spend money on experiences such as live music, trips, and meals over new toys. It’s always made me happier. Now I know that research backs this up, regardless of income levels: Going for a walk or travelling to a new place are much better investments in terms of happiness than buying material things.

Turns out your stuff loses “happiness value” almost as soon as you’ve purchased it. Paying for experiences, however, has multiple benefits for happiness. One, the anticipation of the experience leads to more happiness and joy. Two, talking about the experience afterward with friends reignites your own happy memories and, incredibly enough, sharing these tales with friends tends to boost their happiness, too. Finally, we don’t tend to get used to experiences the way we do with new stuff. There’s no time to get used to a trip to Mexico City, but science shows the joy you get from buying some awesome new thing, such as a phone, begins to diminish immediately. It’s just how your brain works.


Read more:
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Learn to savour more

Savouring is the act of stepping outside of an experience to review and really appreciate it – a way of helping you to stay present in the moment. And savouring often forces you to enjoy an experience for longer.

My homework was to pinpoint a moment to savour each day. One of mine stuck out: I was running around the park when a strong gust of wind at my back almost lifted me off the ground. It was a strange and wonderful moment, and I made sure to tell my wife when I got home. Looking for these moments has boosted my sense of awe at the world around me. Research shows reliving these happy memories can make your positive emotions last up to a month.

Express gratitude and spread kindness

This one is fun. If you’re generally thankful and show appreciation for what you have, your happiness levels soar. Sounds too easy, but it works. One exercise we did was make a list of five things we were grateful for each day. Staring at your list simply makes you thankful and reflective. Even doing this once a week has been shown to boost happiness and reduce ill health symptoms.

Meanwhile, doing random acts of kindness is another way to find happiness. One study showed that spending money on others makes you happier than spending it on yourself, even across different cultures and income levels. For example, small changes, such as spending $US5 to buy a friend, colleague, or stranger a coffee, boosted happiness levels. So I’ve been buying a lot of coffees.

Santos adds, “It kind of seems like our brains are wired to see other people’s rewards as our own rewards. And so it’s kind of like getting a little click of cocaine every single time you do a nice thing for another person. It’s kind of an accident of the way our social brain is wired up.”

Read more:10 proven ways to increase your happiness

The road to happiness

Remember to also do the things you probably already know are proven to boost your well-being, like exercising daily and getting as much sleep as possible.

But the key here is to pick up a new habit that will lead you to feeling happier. So find one above that works for you and try it. It’s been well worth it already for me.

Justin Maiman writes a weekly newsletter called Ginger that’s devoted to moments of inspiration. You can read Ginger and subscribe for free here. He’s a journalist with more than 20 years of experience in digital media and television, including working at media titans like Business Insider, Yahoo, Bloomberg, Fox News and PBS affiliates in St. Paul and Boston. He’s currently the president and managing director of Cochrane Media, a boutique media shop in New York.

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