Earlier this year, the New York Times posted an article about the most popular course in Yale’s history being offered for free on Coursera. Hesitant, I thought “Why would I want to take a college course just for fun?” remembering the days of Calculus and Organic Chemistry. I was surprised to find out that the course was actually about achieving wellbeing in our everyday lives. This course was the real deal, being taught by Dr. Laurie Santos, Director of Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory.
I enrolled in the free course, started my first lesson, and couldn’t stop watching. Unlike a regular college course, there were no real “homework” assignments, just practical applications of the wellbeing concepts we were learning in class. These were super important, because as Santos discusses in the class, knowing about the factors that contribute to your happiness is only half the battle. The real work comes in practicing and building better habits.
Santos gave many suggestions in the class for ways we can reframe our mind towards happiness. Some I had heard before, and some I had not. Either way, she backed up everything with supporting research which was so interesting to hear and made me really want to try them out.
Of everything I learned, there’s a few strategies I’ve been applying in my every day life and have really stuck with me. I wanted to take the time to share these strategies for you all to try out.
1. Savor the moment
“Living in the moment” is a concept we’ve all heard one time or another, but did you know that it’s actually a technique to help boost our mood and improve our wellbeing?
All we’re talking about here is stepping out of your current situation to appreciate what it is that you’re experiencing.
According to Dr. Santos, this works for 3 reasons:
First, it helps us remember the positive moments in life and how we felt. Laurie discusses the concept of hedonic adaptation, how we tend to adapt back to a set level of happiness despite our highs and lows. Savoring the moment can help thwart this by allowing us to recall the positives.
Second, it can prevent our mind from wandering and keep us in the moment– not thinking about things like what we’re going to make for dinner or our endless to do list.
And last, savoring is a practice of gratitude, which has also been proven to improve our wellbeing over time.
Since taking the course, I’ve been trying to savor at least one moment a day, no matter how small.
At it’s core, to savor the moment, all we need to do is recognize a positive moment and take a second to note why it’s making us feel this way. To apply this more concretely, it’s helpful to take a photo of what you’re doing, write it down, or even share your experience with a friend.
2. Use your Strengths
I found this one super interesting. At the beginning of the course, we were instructed to take a strengths assessment called the Character Strengths test from the Via Institute of Character. I found the results interesting to read through. What I did not know was that that being aware of and using our strengths is actually a powerful tool in improving our feelings of satisfaction in life.
Santos refers to research that showed higher job satisfaction in people who use their strengths more regularly in their job. This got me really thinking about my strengths, and how I use them in my day to day.
Her suggestion here was to find one way to intentionally use your top strengths every day. I have been trying to do this and love the affect it has had on me so far. It’s contributed to living a life that’s meaningful to me personally, and understanding my personal identity.
I’d recommend you have list of your strengths on hand, and pay attention to how you can use them in your day- to-day. This is such a great tool because you really don’t have to set time aside, you just have to incorporate it into your life wherever you can.
3. Make a friend
For me, the idea of talking to a stranger is daunting, If I’m being honest, I often don’t even want to see the people I do know in public to avoid social interaction. Maybe that’s be being an introvert, but I know this isn’t all too uncommon.
What I learned in this course, though, is that even though many of us feel this way, we are simply wrong about how talking to someone will make us feel. Dr. Santos brings in another researcher who shares with us the positive effects people experienced when they were tasked with talking to a stranger on the train instead of keeping to themselves. Despite predicting the opposite, the participants levels of happiness increased.
Dr. Santos challenges us to intentionally seek out social interaction. (Yes, even us introverts) Ask a friend to coffee, have a conversation with someone you usually might not, or talk to someone in line at the coffee shop. As you do this more and more, it becomes a habit that contributes to your happiness.
4. Get in the Zone
You know that feeling when you’re so focused in on something that you lose track of time, and forget to do things like eat or sleep? This phenomenon is called flow state. Laurie Santos describes flow state as “the state where we’re feeling really present and involved and it’s kind of hard, but doable. It’s not so easy that it’s boring. And research suggests that flow states feel really good. And they make time pass in an enjoyable but quick way; you’re really present, and there’s lots of research suggesting that anytime we do things where we’re more present, we enjoy that activity more.”
The key here is being “present and involved” We often have the choice to do something active, like writing, or something passive, like watching Netflix. If you’re like me, you often choose the latter because it is much easier.
However, active, difficult but doable activities get us into this “flow state” and making a habit of this improves our feelings of happiness over time. In fact, it’s something that the happiest people experience pretty frequently.
Next time you’re unsure what to do, remember that making the difficult choice to do a more active activity could really benefit you in the long term.
5. Visualize the Negative
Yes, you read that right. Negative visualization is actually a scientifically backed technique that helps us improve our wellbeing.
So what does that actually mean? Santos uses the example of relationships. When couples visualized what their life would be like if they had never met their significant other and wrote about this, their relationship satisfaction and personal wellbeing improved.
But you could apply this to so many different things. What if you didn’t have the job you have now? What if you never met an important friend of yours?
Think of these things often to increase your appreciation for all of the positives that you do have in life. To take this even further, spend some time actually writing about this and refer back to it sometimes.
6. Practice “Better Wanting”
Our minds have been trained to want things that will not actually lead to our happiness. Ironically, we strive for things like money, status, appearance, etc. when all the research points to the fact that these things do not contribute to our happiness.
So what actually does? Strive to want things like social connection, time affluence, and healthy practices like exercise and sleep. According to researchers, these are the things that actually make a different in the long run.
7. Use the WOOP Method
One of the most daunting things Dr. Santos talks about in her course is the GI Joe fallacy, which is the false belief that knowing something is half the battle. In fact, we know a lot of things and still struggle to change our behavior.
Think about optical illusions. If I told you these two lines are the same length. You can measure them and logically believe me. You can know this is true, but you still cannot change how you see them.
Now, apply this to your behavior. You can know that all these techniques will improve your happiness, but still might not apply them.
The WOOP method is a technique to help you put all of this into action in your life.
WOOP stands for wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan. You can use it to help you achieve your goals for wellbeing, no matter how big or small.
To do the WOOP method, you need to set aside about 5 minutes of your time.
First, you’ll want to think about what your wish is. Wish: go to the gym at least twice a week.
Then, really think about what the outcome of this will be. Outcome: to be a healthier and more active person over time.
You’re likely to experience some obstacles to this though, so think about what those are. Obstacle: I hate getting out of bed in the morning and am likely to hit snooze rather than get up
The last step is to make a plan to overcome these obstacles. Plan: when I want to hit snooze, I will sit up and put my gym shoes on instead.
The WOOP method is a visualization technique, so it’s important to really put yourself in these moments for it to work. If practiced regularly, it can help you meet your wellbeing goals, whatever those may be.
There’s so many more topics Dr. Santos covered. If you haven’t taken the course, I’d highly recommend doing so! I definitely did not cover everything here, just a few mental strategies we covered that resonated with me.
Since I’ve been implementing these practices, I definitely feel like my mood has been lifted and I have an easier time with gratitude and appreciation. Wellbeing is a journey, though, and I’m always working to improve.