Rethinking Happiness During COVID

So many people think success will make them happy, but that's not the case.

Rethinking Happiness During COVID

So many people think success will make them happy, but that's not the case.

In the spring semester of 2018, something strange happened at Yale University. Nearly a quarter of the school’s overachieving undergraduates, who’d spent the last decade of their lives perfecting their resumes, enrolled in a class that some would consider total fluff—a class on “happiness,” with homework assignments like exercising, meditating, and gratitude journaling. 

But to dismiss the class, “Psychology and the Good Life,” as frivolous would be a serious mistake. Its main lesson—that way more of our happiness lies in our control than we may realize—is especially relevant today as the pandemic upends lives and livelihoods and wreaks havoc on the mental health of millions. 

The class is once again creating a stir. In 2018, Yale posted a version of it on Coursera called “The Science of Well-Being.” By early 2020, half a million people had signed up to take the free course online. But during the last year, enrollment has increased exponentially. Within weeks of the Covid shutdown, another 1.5 million people registered to take the class. Total enrollment today stands at nearly 3.5 million.

Why such an interest in happiness during the pandemic? People, of course, are looking for creative ways to fill their time at home—but there’s another reason, too. People have been deeply unhappy over the past year. Only 17 percent of Americans report being “very happy” today compared to 31 percent two years ago—and half feel lonely. This puts our country at the unhappiest it’s been in fifty years, according to a nationally representative survey conducted in May by the University of Chicago. 

And yet, it’s precisely during moments of crisis and suffering when people rethink what really matters to them and discover new paths to well-being. For hundreds of thousands of people, Santos’s class has served as a guide in that journey.

It was another kind of crisis that inspired Santos to create the class. In 2016, after she became the head of one of Yale’s residential colleges and began spending more time with students, she was “absolutely shocked,” she told me, by the amount of anxiety, stress, and depression they were experiencing. Panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, and feelings of emotional numbness were common as students raced along the achievement treadmill. And it’s not just Yale students. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking have dramatically risen among college students generally over the last decade. 

These students, Santos realized, were prioritizing the wrong things. Growing up in meritocratic, achievement-obsessed success cultures, they were trained to believe that happiness lies in good grades, prestigious jobs, and money. But the pursuit of those goals was making them miserable. 

What, then, would truly enable them to lead good lives? 

Santos wanted to help her students. To create her class, she turned to research in positive psychology, the empirical study of well-being, to learn what specifically people can do to become happier—and she looked to findings from behavioral science to see how we can actually change our habits to lead better lives. 

In her class, Santos dispels the myth that conventional success brings happiness. She presents research showing that people who value materialistic goals are less happy—and that not getting the ideal grade or perfect job doesn’t actually make us as unhappy as we think it will. Nor does earning less than we hope. If you ask someone who earns $100,000 per year how much money he’d need to be really happy, he’d say $250,000 per year. And yet, classic research in psychology shows that after reaching an income threshold of $75,000 per year—which is what the median Yale student achieves by the time he’s 34—money doesn’t make us happier. 

What we really should value and pursue, Santos explains, are kindness, love, gratitude, and a sound body and peaceful mind—as well as more free time to pursue the projects that matter most to us. In other words, a life of depth, not a life of riches, should be the measure of success. 

The hopeful message of Santos’ class—and indeed of positive psychology—is that while achieving conventional success may be matter of chance and luck, leading a meaningful life lies in our control. Over the years, psychologists have found that meaning doesn’t comes from grand or epic gestures that Change the World, but from the small, everyday acts that make up daily life, like being kind to others, studying or working, reflecting on your values, raising children, cheering someone up, doing chores, and meeting suffering with hope. In other words, the lockdown-friendly things many of us are already doing.

“Psychology and the Good Life” was known as the hardest class at Yale. That’s because it calls on students to radically reconsider the meaning of the good life and to change their lives accordingly. But doing so comes at a cost. More time with friends means less time working. A more meaningful life, then, could mean a less successful one. Even Santos struggles with this. The demands of her career often interfere with her desire to pause and appreciate life. But for most people, the trade-offs are worth it. Few people reach the end of their lives regretting spending too much time with friends and family, but two of the top regrets of the dying are working too hard and not staying in touch with friends. A third is, “I wish I had let myself be happier.”

Happiness doesn’t come from leading an epic, Instagram-worthy life. It comes from small, everyday acts that light up our lives with meaning. That’s something we all have the power to achieve during difficult times.