Learning Module

Happiness

MEET YOUR LECTURER

LAURIE SANTOS

Laurie R. Santos is an American psychologist and cognitive scientist who is a Professor of Psychology at Yale University. She is also Director of Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory, Director of Yale’s Canine Cognition Lab, and Head of Yale’s Silliman College.

In January 2018, her course, titled “Psychology and the Good Life”, became the most popular course in Yale’s history, with approximately one-fourth of Yale’s undergraduates enrolled.

MEET YOUR LECTURER

Tamar Szabó Gendler

Tamar Szabó Gendler is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yale University, and the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science.

Professor Gendler’s work in the philosophy of psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics has earned her many fellowships from such foundations such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Science Foundation. Her 2008 essay entitled “Alief and Belief” was selected by the Philosopher’s Annual as one of the best articles published in Philosophy that year.

Lessons

1.

Will getting what we want make us happy?

2.

What do scientists mean by “happiness”?

3.

How good are we at predicting our feelings?

4.

Why is it often so hard to feel happy?

5.

How can we find the happiness we seek? 

6.

Is there more to happiness than feeling good?

7.

Is happiness just about getting what you want?

8.

Is overcoming conflict the key to happiness?

Module Introduction

Most of us work hard to improve our material circumstances, assuming that this is the key to happiness. According to research in psychology and economics over the past few decades, however, this assumption is mistaken. 

While better circumstances can increase happiness to some degree — especially for people who have been facing particularly adverse conditions — for most of us, this boost is much less than we expect. It turns out that certain features of our minds work against our effort to reach happiness through material improvement, and that instead of just focusing on “getting more,” our pursuit of happiness would be more effective if we also focused on the kinds of activities that help us get the most out of what we already have. 

In this module, we’ll combine expertise in psychology and philosophy to examine this empirical research on happiness and consider what implications it might have in our lives and communities.

The module will begin with a set of videos by Dr. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University, who will introduce key conclusions from the social science research to provide an empirically grounded understanding of how happiness works and what we can do to live happier lives. Critical questions will be raised as we discuss how scientists define and measure happiness; how psychological mechanisms like hedonic adaptation, shifting reference points, and immune neglect undermine our ability to translate material progress into real happiness; and how practices like mindfulness meditation, kindness, and gratitude can help us counteract these mechanisms and get us closer to the happiness we seek. 

We’ll then turn to a series of philosophers to deepen our discussion. The philosophical lens will allow us to explore some important conceptual and ethical questions that arise as we try to interpret the empirical research and draw on its results for our own lives. We’ll see some different ways philosophers define happiness, using these conceptions to assess how empirical researchers define the phenomenon. We’ll also investigate challenging ethical issues, such as the extent to which a person’s happiness is their own responsibility, the ethics of being happy in a world full of suffering and injustice, and the lessons we should take from empirical happiness research in shaping our laws, policies, and social norms. 

By the end of this module, learners will be familiar with several central conclusions drawn by empirical researchers who study happiness; they’ll see how critical thinking reveals key philosophical complications faced in the interpretation and application of these conclusions; and ultimately, they’ll be better positioned to articulate and pursue a vision of happiness that fits their own lives.

Learning Outcomes

  • Critique the common view that the main reason we’re not as happy as we want to be is that we haven’t yet secured the material conditions needed for our happiness
  • Explain how several features of our minds work behind the scenes to undermine our happiness
  • Describe and assess practices that have been empirically shown to effectively boost happiness
  • Evaluate the results of happiness research, engaging friends in the conversation
  • Reflect on yourself and your experiences to clarify what happiness means to you, assess your current happiness level, and determine which happiness practices to test out in your own life

Self reflection

How important is it to you to be happier than you are now?
How much control do you have over your future happiness?
LESSON ONE

Will getting what we want make us happy?

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Recall what research says about how happiness is affected by our genetics and circumstances 
  • Distinguish items that count as evidence for the lesson’s main claim from items that don’t
  • Identify a critical question to ask when interpreting the results of happiness research 
  • Evaluate the lesson’s argument by reflecting on how happiness is generated in your own life

Self-reflection

Which of the following would you expect to bring the most happiness to your life? (choose two)

Watch

Comprehending the argument

What’s the role of genetics in determining our happiness?

Genes play a partial role.

What we have, and especially what we do, also impacts our happiness.

Can we increase our happiness by improving our circumstances?

Not as much as expected,

unless we’re in a particularly bad situation

What’s one question to ask before using happiness research to guide our pursuit of happiness?
How is “happiness

defined is these studies?

What empirical evidence is given to support the claim that improving our life circumstances won’t make us much happier?

Please select 2 correct answers

Correct! Wrong!

Evaluating the argument

At the start of this lesson, you were asked which of these scenarios would likely bring the most happiness to your life: 

  • Having a job that gives you high social status 
  • Being married to someone you truly love
  • Being someone who can always see the bright side in a situation and grow from it
  • Having success in a job that is centered on being kind and helpful to others
  • Having an income that puts you in the top 5% of earners in your country
Has this lesson convinced you to think any differently about your previous answer?
  • Add your answer
Discuss the ideas in this lesson with a friend! Compare experiences and think together critically about which aspects of the argument are convincing, which aren’t, and why.

Explore more

High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being
Daniel Kahneman & Angus Deaton (2010)
Zeroing on the Dark Side of the American Dream: A Closer Look at the Negative Consequences of the Goal for Financial Success.
Carol Nickerson, et al. (2003)
LESSON TWO

What do scientists mean by “happiness”?

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Explain how scientists use self-report surveys to measure happiness
  • Differentiate two key measures of happiness and the different kinds of happiness they prioritize
  • Analyze a case to identify how it would be scored by the two happiness measures
  • Appraise the relative value of the two measures by reflecting on your own life and priorities

Self reflection

Which of the following matters to you the most when you think about the kind of happiness you seek for yourself?
  • Add your answer

Watch

Comprehending the argument

Comparing the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS)

with the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS)

1. What’s the difference in the kinds of happiness measured by these surveys?

PANAS
PANAS measures how happy you feel emotionally in your daily life.
SWLS
SWLS measures how happy you are with the way your life is going overall

2. What’s the difference in the score calculations for these two surveys?

PANAS
PANAS gives two separate scores (each between 10 and 50): One score measures your level of POSITIVE feelings, the other score measures your level of NEGATIVE feelings
SWLS
SWLS gives a single score (between 5 and 35) that measures your level of life satisfaction

3. What’s the difference in what a higher score on these surveys means for your happiness? 

PANAS
PANAS gives two scores: a higher score for POSITIVE affects means GREATER happiness, but a higher score for NEGATIVE affects means LOWER happiness
SWLS
SWLS gives just one score: a higher score for life satisfaction ALWAYS means GREATER happiness

4. How do these two measures apply to a concrete case? 

For the past few years Oliver has been working hard on his idea for a startup company, excited about where it might lead. He loves the work and has met some interesting people along the way. Although he still hasn’t had much success with this project or with parts of his personal life, Oliver rarely feels very upset about it. He realizes that things aren’t ideal for him, but he’s fairly comfortable with the current conditions of his life. And he’s proud of how determined he is to keep pursuing his dreams.

Evaluating the argument

Reflecting on your own life and the kind of happiness you personally seek, which score matters the most to you?

Discuss the ideas in this lesson with a friend! Compare experiences and think together critically about which ideas are convincing, which aren’t, and why.

Explore further

Take the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS)
How emotionally happy are you?
Take the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS)
How satisfied are you with your life?
Positive Psychology Center: Questionnaires
Explore other questionnaires measuring happiness and more
LESSON THREE

How good are we at predicting our feelings?

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Recall the name and function of several psychological tendencies involved in “affective forecasting”
  • Apply the idea of “immune neglect” to explain the decision made in a case example
  • Evaluate the given evidence that we are susceptible to “impact bias” in our affective forecasting 
  • Reflect critically on your own intuitive guesses about how certain life changes would make you feel

Self reflection

1. Imagine that you get your dream job, whatever that is. How happy would you expect to be after a year in the job?
  • Add your answer

2.  Now imagine that you and your current best friend get into a terrible argument that ends your relationship. How happy would you expect to be a year after the end of this friendship? 
  • Add your answer

Watch

Comprehending the argument

What does it mean to say that we are susceptible to “impact bias” in our “affective forecasting”?
When we try to predict how we’d feel after good or bad changes in our lives, we tend to overestimate the intensity and duration of these feelings.
How does immune neglect explain why a talented soccer player settles for a safe career, abandoning her true passion?
Neglecting how her “psychological immune system” would pick her back up if she failed in pursuit of her passion, she decides not to risk it. 
An aspiring actor dreams of stardom, only thinking of its glamour, not its everyday moments. What tendency biases his forecasts?
Focalism

Evaluating the argument

At the start of this lesson, you were asked to estimate how happy you’d be after a year in your dream job, and how happy you’d be a year after the dramatic end of your relationship with your best friend.

If this lesson has convinced you that you might have overestimated how much these events would impact your happiness, what evidence affected you the most?
Discuss the ideas in this lesson with a friend! Compare experiences and think together critically about which aspects of the argument are convincing, which aren’t, and why.

Explore more

Miswanting: Some problems in the forecasting of future affective states
Daniel T. Gilbert & Timothy D. Wilson (2000)
Anticipated versus actual reaction to HIV test results
Elaine M. Sieff et al. (1999)
Focalism: A Source of Durability Bias in Affective Forecasting
Timothy D. Wilson, et al. (2000)
Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting
Daniel T. Gilbert et al. (1998)
LESSON FOUR

Why is it often so hard to feel happy?

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Recognize the pattern in the way our happiness level fluctuates around a personal “set point”
  • Analyze the way “hedonic adaptation” operates, both to highlight its generally detrimental effect on our happiness and to reveal its silver lining
  • Describe how time spent on social media impacts our happiness
  • Assess the arguments presented in this lesson, by reflecting on the way considerations of social comparison affect your own decisions

Self reflection

Which company would you rather work for?

Watch

The hedonic treadmill

Studies show that each of us has a genetically-determined “set point,” or baseline level, of happiness. The “hedonic treadmill” is the empirically-supported idea that whatever happens in our lives to increase or decrease our happiness level, our happiness will soon return to its baseline set point.  When we get a promotion, get divorced, have kids, or experience any other notable gain or loss in our life, we get an initial spike — either positive or negative — in our happiness level. But as time goes on, the feeling of happiness or sadness caused by the change in conditions starts to dissipate until we’re back around our set point of happiness. 

Comprehending the argument

Why can hedonic adaptation be both a curse and a blessing to us as we try to achieve emotional happiness?
Curse: When good changes boost our happiness, hedonic adaptation gradually drops us back toward our set point. Blessing: When bad changes bring down our happiness, hedonic adaptation gradually lifts us back toward our set point.
Why do we undermine our happiness when we spend a lot of time on social media?
More time on social media means more exposure to reference points that make our lives seem unexciting by comparison, which brings down our happiness a lot more than it does up from seeing people whose lives appear less exciting than ours

Evaluating the argument

At the start of this lesson, you were asked which company you’d most want to work at:

  • Company A, where you make $50,000 while most of your peers make $40,000
  • Company B, where you make $70,000 while most of your peers make $85,000
  • Company C, where you make $60,000 and have no clue what your peers earn
Has this lesson led you to think any differently about your earlier answer?
Discuss the ideas in this lesson with a friend! Compare experiences and think together critically about which aspects of the argument are convincing, which aren’t, and why.

Explore further

Reexamining Adaptation and the Set Point Model of Happiness: Reactions to Changes in Marital Status
Richard E. Lucas et al. (2003)
Is more always better?: A survey on positional concerns
Sara J. Solnick and David Hemenway (1997)
Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem
Erin Vogel et al. (2014)
LESSON FIVE

How can we find the happiness we seek?

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Understand how building the right mental habits through certain empirically-supported behavioral practices is an effective way to boost happiness
  • Distinguish “growth mindset” from “fixed mindset,” understanding how this difference bears on happiness
  • Compare two activities to determine which better leverages “situation support” in pursuit of behavioral change
  • Draw on personal reflection to evaluate several “happiness practices” and select the most promising one (or ones) to test out in your own life

Self-reflection

Which of these practices is most likely to contribute to your emotional happiness? 

Watch

Comprehending the argument

1. Growth mindset

According to the description in the video, what’s the difference between a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset”? 

Correct! Wrong!

2. Situation support

Researchers who study behavior change have found that people are more successful in making a desired behavioral change when they design an environment for themselves (or happen to be in one) that encourages and reinforces the new behavior over the old one — when their environment is giving them “situation support.” (See for example Brian Wansink, et al., “Slim by design: kitchen counter correlates of obesity” (2016).)

Which of the following is a better example of how Maya might find situation support to help her start meditating on a regular basis? 

Correct! Wrong!

Some other practices to create internal change for greater happiness

Loving-kindness meditation

Loving-kindness meditation is a form of meditation in which you practice generating warm and caring feelings for yourself and others, sometimes including people toward whom you usually have cold or hostile feelings. This kind of meditation has been shown to create lasting changes in how we see ourselves and others, increasing our capacity for compassion and boosting our emotional happiness. For an important study, see Barbara L. Fredrickson, et al. “Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources” (2008) 

Prioritizing experiences over things 

Research shows that when we spend our money with the purpose of gaining enjoyable or otherwise valuable experiences, we get a greater increase in happiness than when we spend this money simply to acquire valued material items. Compared to materialistic purchases, experiential purchases make us feel more alive and aren’t as easily subject to social comparison; they also don’t last as long, making them less susceptible to hedonic adaptation. See, for example, the study by Robert T. Howell and Graham Hill, “ The mediators of experiential purchases: Determining the impact of psychological needs satisfaction and social comparison” (2009) 

Sleep and exercise

Getting adequate sleep and exercise can make a big difference in your happiness level. For a study on the value of exercise to your well-being, see Michael Babyak, et al. “Exercise treatment for major depression: maintenance of therapeutic benefit at 10 months, discussed here.

Evaluating the argument

This lesson introduced you to a number of practices that have been empirically shown to increase emotional happiness. 

In light of this lesson, which the following are you most motivated to start doing (or do more of) to support your emotional happiness?
Take the next step, and find out more about the happiness practices discussed in this lesson. Then choose one and try it out for a month to see if you feel any happier. You can even get scientific about it: Take the PANAS questionnaire before starting your “experiment,” take it again at the end, and compare your before and after scores to see if doing the practice made any difference.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll enjoy the practice and want to keep it going — or feel motivated to try out another one! 

And, as always, share these ideas and experiences with a friend, and be ready to learn from their experiences too!

Explore further

“Spending money on others promotes happiness”
Elizabeth Dunn et al. (2008)
How can mindfulness help us?
TEDx Talk: Hedy Kober (2017)
LESSON SIX

Is there more to happiness than feeling good?

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Explain the idea that happiness is about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain (philosophical hedonism)
  • Summarize Epicurus’s argument that to be happy we should forgo indulgent pleasures and focus on our basic needs 
  • Distinguish a version of hedonism that counts all pleasures equally from one that treats some pleasures as more valuable than others

Self-reflection

Philosophers have been debating the nature of happiness for thousands of years. According to the ancient theory known as philosophical hedonism, happiness is about living the most enjoyable life you can. 

 

1. What would make your life most enjoyable?
Sometimes, enjoying yourself in the present moment means you’ll suffer more in the future. Here are some examples. Can you think of more?

  • Overeating leads to stomach ache
  • Skipping your study group to go to the movies leads you to fail your exam
  • Entertaining your friends with a cruel joke leads to hurt feelings and remorse

Watch

Comprehending the argument

Epicurus, the founder of philosophical hedonism, held that the most pleasant life rested on a foundation of:

Correct! Wrong!

 

According to a philosophical hedonist, intense and luxurious pleasures are:

Correct! Wrong!

Explore further

Epicurus’ Cure for Unhappiness

Jeremy Bentham: Man and Myth

Hedonism & Nozick’s Experience Machine – Shelly Kagan

LESSON SEVEN

Is happiness just about getting what you want?

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Explain the idea that happiness is about having your desires satisfied
  • Apply the desire theory to assess happiness levels 
  • Raise an objection to the desire theory in light of the fact that getting what we want sometimes makes us less happy

Self-reflection

Pick five desires from this list:

Watch

Comprehending the argument

1. Maurice knows that a bike ride always makes him happier. According to the desire theory, this means that:

Correct! Wrong!

 

2. According to the desire theory, why is enjoying life such an important component of happiness?

Correct! Wrong!

3. Sometimes, people want things that seem to make them unhappy. How can the desire theory explain this fact?

Correct! Wrong!

Evaluating the argument

Conflicting Desires

If two desires conflict, that means that if one of them is satisfied, the other one can’t be, and vice versa. You can’t both go out with friends tonight and finish your paper that’s due tomorrow. If you want to do both, you have a pair of conflicting desires. According to the desire theory, conflicting desires are a major impediment to happiness.

Explore further

Theories of Well-Being — Daniel Hausman

Explainer on the history of consumerism

“Well-Being”
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Well-Being by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

LESSON EIGHT

Is overcoming conflict the key to happiness?

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Explain the dual process model of the mind
  • Interpret the concept of inner conflict using Plato’s model of the soul, Freud’s distinction between ego and id, and the dual process model of the mind 
  • Describe the relationship between inner conflict and unhappiness

Comprehending the Argument

1. Plato and Freud both thought that the mind was divided into parts. Which part in each of their schemes is most like System 2?

Correct! Wrong!


2. Plato compared the soul to a chariot being driven by two horses. The point of this analogy is that:

Correct! Wrong!

Watch

Explore further

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann talks about the dual processing theory of the mind, which he helped to pioneer

“Plato’s Theories of Soul”
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

SEP entry on ancient theories of the soul

What to learn more about happiness by Laurie Santos?

The Happiness Lab
Podcast
Course
What psychological science says about happiness
World Economic Forum