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professor Laurie Santos on the science of happiness

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Your happiness level may seem like it’s out of your direct control. In part, that’s because all of us tend to be wrong about what actually makes us happy. 😳

“We have strong intuitions about the things that will make us happy, and we use those intuitions to go after that stuff, whether it’s more money or changing circumstances or buying the new iPhone,” Yale professor Laurie Santos tells the New York Times.

Santos teaches a course on happiness that millions of people have watched online. She also hosts a podcast on happiness, The Happiness Lab, listened to by tens of millions more.

Her main message: No matter how high (or low) your baseline level of happiness, you can take conscious steps to be happier. πŸ₯³

Here’s Santos on what really matters for being happy.

Prioritize sleep

Many of us are more attuned to healthy habits than we were before Covid. But it turns out the tenets of good health — getting enough sleep, making time for exercise, striving for a healthy diet — offer benefits beyond fighting illness.

Santos believes sleep, in particular, is foundational to happiness and well-being. 😴

“When my students ask me what’s the first step they should take to be happier, my answer is always the same: Get some sleep,” she writes for Newsweek.

To better wind down at the end of the day, consider how to improve “sleep hygiene”. That means turning off digital devices an hour before bedtime πŸ“±, reading a (paper) book πŸ“š, or brewing a warm beverage πŸ«–.

Get moving

Exercise has a multiplier effect on health. It helps manage weight. It supports bodily functions like digestion. It enhances sleep. And it boosts mental well-being.

Just half an hour a day of cardio πŸ«€ has an enduring effect on mental health, Santos says. And that doesn’t have to be running or cycling: Any physical activity that gets you moving, like cleaning the house, can improve your mood.

Even “chunking” this exercise into smaller pieces, like 10- or 15-minute increments, will have a positive impact. To ensure the maximum benefit from exercise, be sure to make it a regular habit. ☝️

Practice healthy eating behaviors

Santos described in a Happiness Lab episode her own journey with disordered eating. The answer, she found, is to work with what your body wants, nutritionally speaking, instead of fighting against it.

“One of my biggest do-overs was deciding that I was going to let go of my obsession to change my body and instead learn how to treat my body respectfully,” she says.

Science backs up the notion that diet πŸ₯— and happiness 😊 are linked. The risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in people who eat “traditional” Mediterranean or Japanese diets, compared to the highly processed, high-sugar diet that is the norm in the US.

Harvard Medical School suggests cutting out processed foods and sugar for two weeks, then seeing how you feel. Couple this with increased exercise and the effect on your mental state can be profound.

Serve others

Taking care of your body supports the health of your brain 🧠. But to really make happiness stick, don’t ignore the power of socializing.

Simply being around other people has a gigantic impact on well-being, Santos says.

“Researchers deem being around other people πŸ‘₯ as a necessary condition for very high happiness,” she notes in Newsweek.

Small efforts to be social have an outsize effect on our mood. “Making simple connections with strangers, like talking to a stranger on the train, can boost your positive emotion,” Santos tells the Life Examined podcast.

To amplify the happiness benefits of socializing, consider how you can act in service to others: something we’ve talked about before on the illumy blog.

Appreciate the small things

Just as small-scale social connections can lay the foundation for a happier life, so too do small efforts at gratitude.

A sunny day 🌞, a video chat with a friend πŸŽ₯, your morning cup of coffee β˜•οΈ: enjoying these things is what life is really about, Santos says. Practicing gratitude is about noticing these and other blessings.

“Research shows that grateful people — those who count their blessings on a regular basis — experience a host of benefits,” Santos writes.

You can start practicing gratitude by setting aside time to jot down πŸ–Œ things you are grateful for. Like exercising, what matters is making this practice a habit. In time, small steps toward gratitude can add up to a big happiness boost.

How is your happiness level these days? Have you tried any of Santos’ tips? Share your thoughts with us on the socials @illumyinc.

Photo by Jill Dimond on Unsplash.

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