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On October 26, 2022, Professor Laurie Santos of Yale University sat down with Chicago Booth’s Professor Nicholas Epley for "What Behavioral Science Can Teach Us about Happiness," part of the Think Better speaker series. This hybrid event was held in-person at the Rubenstein Forum and streamed via Zoom. 

Unexpected Academic Roots

Santos began her career as a cognitive biologist before shifting to psychology. While Santos used to work in labs studying primate brains, she was always interested in the quirks of the human brain. Her research pivoted when she witnessed the mental health crisis happening on college campuses. Working with students as the head of Silliman College at Yale, Santos discovered a concerning number of students were struggling with depression, reflecting a broader cultural trend. How could these students be expected to complete their schoolwork if they were facing such psychological and emotional struggles?

Santos then developed the most popular class in Yale’s history, "Psychology and the Good Life," which sought to determine—through behavioral science—what makes us happy. Because Santos did not want her ideas to be limited to the thirty-some-odd people in the classroom, she started The Happiness Lab podcast and offers an adapted version of the course for free online, which more than 4 million people have taken. 

What is Happiness, Anyway?

Santos outlined her definition of happiness, one informed by the social sciences: what makes one happy in their life and happy with their life. Santos explained how these two parts can conflict with each other: a parent with a newborn baby might be fulfilled and happy with their life, but their restless nights might make them unhappy in their life. Conversely, Santos joked that a businessperson might be happy living in their comfortable life, but they might be at a loss when finding greater meaning. Santos is interested in interventions which boost both aspects of happiness. 

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Posing a question submitted by an audience member, Epley asked about the relationship between money and happiness - is more always better? Santos explained that this depends on one’s level income and what they do with the money. As one might imagine, an influx of cash means a lot more to someone living below the poverty line. But studies show that after a certain threshold, which Santos approximated to be about $90,000 per year, wealth delivers diminishing returns in well-being. 

The Role of Pro-Social Behavior in Happiness

Borrowing from Epley’s research, Santos wanted to demonstrate how crucial social interaction is to happiness. Santos asked the audience to turn to a stranger next to them and discuss what they were most grateful for. After letting everyone chat for a few minutes, Santos explained how overcoming these social barriers can lead to meaningful experiences with people when we least expect it. As Epley’s research shows, experiences like these are often less awkward and more rewarding than people expect. 

Happy Mindsets: Self-Compassion

Regular meditation can also lead to more happiness, and to demonstrate this, Santos conducted a guided “loving kindness” meditation with the audience. She asked people to close their eyes, imagine a loved one, and recite affirmations like “may you be happy, may you be safe.” She then asked people to picture themselves and say those same words. Santos wanted people to take away the importance of self-compassion in day-to-day life. Instead of being self-critical, we should treat ourselves with the grace that we would extend to a good friend. 

Happiness through Hardship

Santos explained how happiness can still be practiced in a world filled with war, famine, and environmental concerns. Those who are happy don’t necessarily turn a blind eye to hardship. Conscious action against conflict is correlated with happiness. 

But Santos doesn’t want people to see happiness as a selfish thing to seek. She believes that seeking happiness gives people the emotional bandwidth to help others. 

Santos also answered a question about how people find happiness after traumatic episodes, such as the loss of a child. Interviews with survivors of trauma indicate that people find things to learn even in the hardest of times. Hardship also reframes the way people think of smaller aggravations like traffic. 

Even Happiness Experts Get the Blues

One may presume “the happiness professor” wouldn’t have the same struggles as the average person, but Santos is on sabbatical this year after recognizing signs of burnout in her own life. Running a lab, class, college and podcast, Santos became increasingly exhausted. She found herself more cynical than usual and enjoyed her job less. Santos reevaluated her responsibilities: she realized she needed a serious change and decided to take a sabbatical.

Santos urged people to take the symptoms of burnout seriously. Instead of brushing negative feelings under the rug, one must do something to recapture their sense of effectiveness. While a sabbatical isn’t the solution (or available) for all people, those facing burnout are encouraged to find interventions to change course rather than continuing down an unsustainable road. 


Thank you to Professors Santos and Epley for their fascinating and honest perspectives on the behavioral science to a happier life. And thank you to all of those who attended in-person or watched along online. 

Please save the date for the next Think Better event: February 1, 2023 with Neela Saldanha at the Gleacher Center. 

Photos by Anne Ryan