A Yale professor who struggled with stress created a concrete guide to being happy. Here's how it works.

  • Dr. Laurie Santos teaches "Psychology and the Good Life" at Yale University.

  • She came up with the course after seeing students struggle with their mental health.

  • Recently, she shared her own obstacles to happiness on her podcast, "The Happiness Lab."

At an annual checkup, Dr. Laurie Santos' tests all looked good — except one.

Her CRP levels, which measure inflammation, came back a little higher. Her doctor said one of the triggers could be heightened stress.

It made sense. Santos, a Yale professor, oversaw over 500 students during the pandemic, ran a university lab, and led a podcast, she said in a recent episode.

But there was some irony to her high stress levels: Santos is also known as a "happiness expert." After becoming head of Yale's largest residential college in 2016 and witnessing depression and panic attacks among her students, she created "Psychology and the Good Life," a course that explores how to improve well-being.

It became the most popular class in Yale's history and was eventually adapted into an online course with over 4.7 million students worldwide.

Recently, Santos decided to open up about her struggles.

In new episodes of her podcast, Santos tackles how she "flunks her own class," from being a perfectionist to fearing boredom.

"Some people really think I'm this walking happiness emoji," Santos said. "But of course, I'm human." She shared some of the lessons she learned.

Curb self-comparison

Santos said one of her biggest problems is perfectionism. In one episode, Ryan Dilley, her podcast producer, said that Santos constantly strives for flawless results in her work.

"Sometimes it's not possible, but it's so hard to watch," Dilley said to Santos. "You're horrible to yourself sometimes."

She told BI that "existential perfectionism" haunts her students, too, who strive to have ideal grades, looks, jobs, and relationships.

"There's no domain in which perfectionism is sparing young people," she said, adding that much of it is driven by frequent self-comparison via social media.

She said this chase for perfection is one of the biggest things people get wrong about happiness. "We have all these theories about the things that will make us feel better," she said, whether it's making more money or scoring that dream job.

"By and large, the research seems to show that our circumstances don't matter for our happiness as much as we think," she said. "We'd be much better off changing our behavior and mindsets."

Question your need for busyness

Santos said most of her issues arise from "trying to navigate busyness and busy culture" as a professor and podcaster. While she loves what she does, she also recognizes how much work it is to balance both responsibilities.

She wants to create "healthier standards for what counts as work," but said it's a struggle because her busyness also greatly contributes to her career success.

Part of what keeps her (and many of her students) so busy is a perceived glamour around hustling. "There's a sort of social status to being busy," she said. Becoming healthier means pushing back against common cultural norms.

Reframe negative emotions

Santos found ways to look at negative emotions through a different lens in multiple episodes.

For example, she learned that boredom isn't something to run from. While it's a feeling she never liked and something her students "definitely avoid at all costs," she also told BI that it's crucial for "coming up with their best creative ideas."

In the episode on stress, she spoke to David S. Yeager, a psychology professor at UT Austin. He taught her that how one frames stress impacts their body's reaction to it: people who learn to view stress as a helpful adrenaline boost or performance enhancer are less likely to be debilitated by it.

"That was really profound for me, because stress really felt like it's just this biological phenomenon," Santos said. "But even there, our mindset really seems to matter."

Take small, daily steps

If there's any big takeaway to get from her course or recent podcast episodes, Santos said it's that "happiness takes work."

In her class, she has students complete surveys to track their happiness at the beginning and end of the semester — a practice she follows in her own life. "You're not going from zero to 100," she said. The goal is to create small changes that amount to a 10-15% positive increase in your mood.

For example, if you're intensely self-critical, that work might look like tracking and challenging your thoughts with a daily journal instead of absorbing negativity. "That's pushing against the habit that feels really natural," she said.

Read the original article on Business Insider