Why aren’t successful people happier?

Yale psychologist Laurie Santos delves into the social sciences to understand how people can overcome the internal obstacles and biases that prevent them from living their best life — and how leaders can set an example.

Two years ago, Yale University psychologist Laurie Santos began to wonder why students seemed so detached from their classmates. Like a good academic, she connected her observations to data — and found it troubling. The National College Health Assessment (pdf) showed that 42 percent of college students reported being too depressed to function well in the previous year. A range of other surveys and indicators have suggested that older people are also having difficulty finding happiness and connection in our 24/7, hyperconnected world.

A specialist in decision making, Santos started a class in the spring 2018 term called Psychology 157: Psychology and the Good Life. She wanted to understand what social science could teach people about the pursuit, attainment, and maintenance of happiness. Building on the work of behavioral economics, the course delved into the unconscious biases and misconceptions that conspire to keep us less than happy — at home, at school, and at work.

To say that Psych 157 was popular would be an understatement. Nearly 1,200 students, about one-fourth of Yale’s overachieving student body, signed up. Invitations for Santos to speak — from media, the World Economic Forum in Davos, and companies — followed. In the fall of 2019, she launched a podcast series, The Happiness Lab, with guests including figure skating champion Michelle Kwan and musician David Byrne. The work and insights Santos discusses — among them that more pay may not make you happier, that good grades in school correlate with low life satisfaction, and that happiness trickles down from CEOs — hold lessons for people who lead organizations, manage people, or simply want to find ways to maintain their equilibrium and peace of mind.

S+B: We’ve never spent more time and money on health, and yet obesity rates continue to rise. Is there a similar dynamic with happiness? It seems as though more is being written and spent than ever on how to lead a fully satisfying life, and yet the data shows we’re becoming progressively less happy.
SANTOS:
Unlike diet and exercise, happiness is something we as a species have been obsessed with for a really long time. Aristotle wrote about eudaimonia more than 2,000 years ago. The pursuit of happiness is in the Declaration of Independence. That said, I think more and more people are [now] really focused on what they can do to become happier. And the research certainly shows that we might be going about it the wrong way. Even this notion of self-care…. You can’t go on any women’s website and not see the term self-care. But all the studies suggest happiness isn’t about self-care. It’s about being open to others and being other-oriented in your experiences.

S+B: It’s tempting to blame many of our woes — whether election security or the decline of civil discourse — on the rise of social media. Is social media making us less happy?
SANTOS:
There’s relatively little data on it, but I think there are important hints that changes in our happiness are really associated with the rise of social media. Take these increases in depression, increases in anxiety. We don’t have causal evidence, but there seems to be a connection there. The stats on mental health, especially in young people, are really harrowing. The recent National College Health Assessment shows that over 40 percent of college students reported being too depressed to function. Over 60 percent say that they’re overwhelmingly anxious. Another 60 percent say that they’re lonely most of the time. And over 10 percent say that they have seriously considered suicide in the last year. It’s different from when I was in college. It’s different even from what was going on five, 10 years ago.

S+B: And is that carrying over to people who are in their 20s and coming into the workforce?
SANTOS:
Yes. We have better systematic data on kids in college, because we can make them fill out surveys. But in a recent YouGov poll, 30 percent of millennials [reported being] lonely most of the time, and about 30 percent…just don’t have a single friend they could call if things come up.

S+B: How to achieve happiness was historically a question for philosophers. How has this evolved from a philosophical question to a question for psychologists and sociologists to tackle?
SANTOS:
It’s still a philosophical question. What the social scientists can answer is what makes happy people so happy. The dirty secret in social science is we don’t have great objective metrics for happiness. My objective metric for whether you’re happy is whether you tell me you’re happy on a survey. I can also do a text analysis of your diary and see positive words pop out. Or I can ask your friends and family members. We can figure out what happy people do differently, and then we can do causal studies to make not-so-happy people do those things, and then we can see if they get happier. In some ways, the dire mental health situation makes it easier for social scientists because however we’re going to philosophically define happiness, what [people are] going through is not it. We can nitpick once we get more than 40 percent of people not feeling so depressed.

S+B: Why did you start teaching the course on happiness?
SANTOS:
I first taught it in the spring of 2018. The class started in part because of my role on campus as head of Silliman College [within Yale University]. In this role, I live on campus with students. And I really started to see what student life was like up close and personal. Students these days are just much more anxious and much more future-focused than I remember being when I was in college. So I thought, what if I put together everything social science says about how to live a better, happier, and more flourishing life? I assumed it would be like any other new class on campus, where 30 to 40 kids would take it. Professors get these graphs when students are signing up. Most people’s scale on the graph was from zero to 100 [students], because that’s a large size for a Yale class. But my scale went from zero to 1,000. In the end, the class wound up being, at its maximum, around 1,200 students. Just under one out of every four undergraduate students at Yale took it. The class went really viral off campus, too. About two weeks into the class, at every lecture a major international or national press was filming — like The Today Show or CBS News.

S+B: In behavioral economics, experts talk about nudging yourself to recognize biases, and then setting up structures and incentives to get past them. Can we hack happiness in the same way?
SANTOS:
It’s a very similar approach in happiness research. One of the successes of behavioral economics was realizing that our intuitions are wrong — about losses, or risk. And the shocking set of findings coming out of the happiness research suggests that our intuitions are just as wrong when it comes to what will make us happy. There are lots of things we’re very motivated to seek out, thinking they are going to make us happier, but they don’t work. At least not the way we think. And we lack motivational capacities to go after the things that really do matter a lot for our happiness.

S+B: What are some of the things that everybody thinks makes them happy that don’t?
SANTOS:
A big one is money. People often pick their job based on which salary is going to be the highest. It is true that more money makes you happier if you’re living below the poverty line. Research by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, two Nobel Prize–winning economists, shows that in the U.S., more money will make you happier up until annual income of around $75,000. And then at that point, even doubling or tripling your salary is not going to improve your well-being on many standard well-being metrics.

 
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Another one is material goods. We think a new house or a brand-new car will make us feel good. And it will for a very short period of time. But then we adapt, and get used to it much more quickly than we think. Oh, and here’s one that is very salient for my students. We think [good] grades will make us happier. It turns out there is a correlation between high school grades and well-being, but it’s a negative correlation. That is, the kids who get the best grades are the most miserable. They also have the lowest levels of self-esteem and the lowest levels of optimism.

S+B: So what does make us happy that we neglect?
SANTOS:
One big thing we neglect is the importance of free time. There’s a lot of research on what scientists call time affluence. Work by Ashley Whillans, a professor at Harvard Business School, shows that the more we give up money to get time, the happier we are. So if you pay people to do your laundry or use your money in other ways to get more free time, that will make you happier. The problem is that we often give up time to get money, so we get it backwards.

Another big predictor of happiness is how much time you spend with other people and how much time you spend with the people you care about. There’s also lots of work showing that we’re happier when we’re being other-oriented — caring about others more than ourselves. People who give more to charity [and] people who spend more time volunteering tend to be happier than people who don’t. [This result is controlled for income.]

S+B: The theme of your podcast is that our brains lie to us about what it takes to be happy. Is it one big lie? Or is it a series of interrelated lies?
SANTOS:
I think it’s a series of interrelated lies. Just like when we think of our cognitive biases, it’s not just one bias. We have all of these simple ways that our minds lead us astray when it comes to predicting what will make us happy. One is this idea that we forget how much we adapt to things. Daniel Gilbert, a professor at Harvard, calls it immune neglect. We forget that we have this psychological immune system that’s going to protect us when things go wrong. Bad things will happen, but we’re going to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps. And too often we design our lives to protect ourselves from facing any tough situations. I’m going to stay in this horrible marriage because divorce would be too hard. Or I’m going to stay in this awful job because going two years without a salary might be really awful for me. We make decisions not realizing that we’re much more resilient than we think we are.

S+B: What are some of the incentives that can push us into happiness-inducing behaviors?
SANTOS:
We don’t have motivational mechanisms to seek out social connections. I see this in my students. I remember the dining hall being the loudest place on campus [when I was in school]. Now, students sit in the dining hall with these big Bose headphones on, checking their phones. That person who has the headphones on could strike up a conversation with a stranger in the dining hall, but instead they put their headphones on and sit by themselves. In the podcast, we talk about this funny study by Nick Epley, who’s a professor at the University of Chicago business school, where he forces commuters to talk to the people next to them. People predict it’s going to be awkward and really awful. But it turns out they feel much more positively than they predict. And that result holds for introverts too.

S+B: Can you tell me a little about the difference between happiness and mindfulness, which is all the rage everywhere, and particularly in the workplace?
SANTOS:
The research suggests that mindfulness is a contributor to happiness. And that the act of “mind wandering” contributes to a lack of happiness. Dan Gilbert and Matt Killingsworth did this study where they ping people at random times of day and ask, “What are you thinking about? How are you feeling?” And they find that people are not thinking about what they’re doing just under half the time. That’s a scary result, because whenever your mind is wandering, you don’t feel as good as you would feel if you were paying attention to the present moment.

S+B: If I’m going to be happier, is working on mindfulness a necessary first step?
SANTOS:
Necessary is a strong word. There are lots of paths. But definitely one path to happiness is through being more mindful and being more aware. It’s no secret that Buddhist monks and other people who spend thousands and thousands of hours practicing mindfulness have a certain calm joy about them. Research by Hedy Kober, a professor at Yale, shows that meditation helps, even for novices. She finds that even the first couple of times you meditate, you decrease activity in the regions of your brain that wander.

S+B: Yale students have most likely already won the genetic and socioeconomic lottery. They have their whole lives ahead of them, and endless opportunities. What’s the problem?
SANTOS:
They did what 94 percent of the people who applied to Yale couldn’t do — they got in, right? And they’re still kind of miserable, much more miserable than I expected them to be. I think this is because my students often have to shut off all of those strategies that build up happiness — taking time for social connection, taking time off, taking breaks, being mindful — to get into Yale. And they really have to prioritize the one thing that we know is negatively correlated with happiness: grades. Accomplishment doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness in the way we think. In my podcast, I interview Clay Cockrell, a therapist for people who are worth more than $50 million. And he says all his clients are miserable. One of the reasons they’re miserable is they feel really guilty. They’re like, “I’m super, super rich, and I’m still unhappy. How do I not feel fulfilled?”

S+B: Companies in recent years have invested in cultures aimed at making people happier. They encourage people to bring their whole self to work. At large companies, serenity rooms and yoga classes are becoming standard. Is it the responsibility of companies to make sure employees are happy at work? Is that a good business idea?
SANTOS:
Oftentimes people think there is some tension between making workers happy versus having workers who achieve the bottom line. But pretty much all the studies of happiness suggest that happy people perform better. They’re more creative. They’re more willing to put in time at work. Companies often think the only way to get people to work harder is to pay them more. But there are so many other ways to motivate people, like having people feel that they’re in it together, or giving them a job that has meaning, or even expressing gratitude to workers. A study by Adam Grant of Wharton Business School showed that call center workers double their rate of calls after a supervisor comes in and expresses gratitude for what they’re doing.

S+B: You said having people feel that they are in this together is an important factor. At a company, what you’re generally doing together is trying to produce higher sales, or profits.
SANTOS:
That is just one metric, and it might be a metric that resonates with certain people, but not everyone. Making money for some anonymous stockholders isn’t a motivation that resonates with our internal psychology that well. So there might be better ways to motivate people. There’s work by Marty Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues on what’s called character strengths — engaging in activities that feel good to you. Do you care about learning? Do you care about helping people? Research suggests that people are happiest at their job and perform best when they’re thinking about their job in terms of maximizing their strengths. Take someone whose job it is to, say, clean toilets. Doesn’t sound all that fun. But when janitors reframe their job to fit with their strengths, they enjoy it more. So if you’re a janitor, say, in a hospital, and you think “every toilet I clean is going to help a kid with cancer,” now all of a sudden you not only love the job, but you perform it better. If you work at a pharmaceutical company, you can focus on selling more drugs this quarter, or you can focus on the fact that you’re producing drugs that are going to help people with horrible diseases. Those kinds of motivations are often much more powerful than paying somebody a couple extra hundred dollars a week.

S+B: So spending time with people you like, being able to disconnect, and feeling mastery over your time all contribute to happiness. Whether you run a cash register at Walmart or are the CEO, there is immense pressure to be always on and connected. And feeling like you’re always behind or not being responsive at work can make you tense. How can we resolve this tension?
SANTOS:
The tension comes from the fact that we think we want to be on all the time. Businesses can set up norms [such that] taking time off, relaxing, and mindfulness are part of the company culture. Or businesses can set up the norm that if you’re not on your email at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, something’s wrong. What that second model misses is the fact that lots of research suggests that you’re actually going to perform better if you can give yourself some time off. The research really shows that time famine works a lot like hunger famine, where you’re just triaging everything. So if you provide more time affluence in the workplace, you’ll get more creativity and higher performance, especially in rich intellectual jobs, where people have a little bit more freedom.

The kids who get the best grades are the most miserable. They also have the lowest levels of self-esteem and the lowest levels of optimism.”

One of the things we talk a lot about in the podcast are the simple things leaders can do to create a better workplace culture. Sigal Barsade, a professor at Wharton, works on what she calls affective spirals. The idea is that we all have someone in our workplace who is kind of negative, and whenever you’re around that person, the mood of the whole team goes down. But Barsade says that we forget that we’re sometimes that person. If we come in pissed off because we hit traffic that morning, we’re going to bring that to our team without realizing it. The flip side is we can be the voice of calm or the moment of cheer in our workplace, too. And Barsade shows that leaders have an especially powerful role to play, because everyone’s paying attention to the boss. So if a leader is able to bring good emotional feeling to the team, then all of a sudden, the team’s doing better.

S+B: For much of history, the point of work was to earn wages that enabled you to cover expenses and support a family. People didn’t believe that work was intended to make them feel that they were being self-actuating at all times. So why worry so much about happiness at the factory or office?
SANTOS:
Another funny misconception we have is that we think we’re a lot happier in leisure than at work. But with many jobs, work gives you a certain kind of flow, and you actually enjoy it more than watching TV and other kinds of leisure. There are studies showing that when you’re at work, you’re doing something interesting, and you say you feel good. But when I ask how you feel when you’re at home at leisure, you might be bored scrolling through Netflix and feeling kind of apathetic.

S+B: Businesspeople love metrics. When we’re talking about measuring happiness, what metrics can we use?
SANTOS:
There are two standard ways to measure it. One is your cognitive well-being, which is your life satisfaction. All things considered, how do you think your life is going? And then there’s the question of how you feel in your life, which is whether you feel a lot of positive emotions. Do you laugh a lot? Do you smile a lot? Do you cry a lot? All of these measures are subjective, but I think even people who are really metric-oriented get that it has to be subjective. People know what it feels like when things are going well.

S+B: Companies often conduct surveys asking if people are challenged and engaged. If you were devising that survey to see if employees were happy at work, what are some of the non-obvious questions that you would be asking?
SANTOS:
Are you satisfied at your work? How satisfied overall are you with your life on a scale of one to five? There are standard, available surveys that employers can use for these kinds of things, most of which are really well validated. There’s one we use in my class called PERMA, which gets at different facets of well-being: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement.

S+B: In many workplaces, collective effort is organized around achieving a goal, with rewards, incentives, and consequences. Is setting goals, whether they’re individual or collective, and then striving to meet them, something that should contribute to people’s happiness?
SANTOS:
There’s lots of research suggesting that goal setting helps you perform better. To the extent that those goals are aligned with what makes you happy, then all the better. I think sometimes when people think about goal setting, they really want to look toward the positive, especially in the business world. But the research shows that effective goal setting requires thinking about the obstacles to your goal too. People who have the goal of losing weight and fantasize the most about how awesome life is going to be when they lose weight — they actually lose the least weight. So we need to ground our positivity in the gritty reality.

S+B: You spoke at the World Economic Forum last January. What were your impressions?
SANTOS:
It was surreal. We had a line of 100 people trying to get into our happiness talk who couldn’t get in because we were in a small room. It was surprising to me that people who are world leaders, who have to worry about Fortune 500 companies, wanted to get into a session on what you can do to be happier. There were also lots of conversations about climate change, the environment, and what we’re doing wrong. I think it was cool to see that the Davos folks are recognizing some of the cracks in what we’re doing. That we might be doing it wrong. We can still maximize shareholder value and give people lives that they’re happy with. But we’re often going about it the wrong way.

S+B: In organizations, does happiness trickle down or flow up?
SANTOS:
There is lots of data that [shows that] it trickles down really well. People look to the leader to figure out how things are going. Should I feel anxious, or should I feel happy about this development? They also look to the leader for norms. Is the norm at our company that we take time off, or is the norm that we work ourselves to death? There are different ways that companies can promote these kinds of norms and practices. They can have one talk at the beginning of the year, and then the norm is never spoken of again. Or a norm can be infused through all of a company’s business practices, through all their spaces, through all their messaging. Employees can tell the difference. They know if you’re giving lip service to a healthy norm — say, time affluence — but they’re really just supposed to work themselves to the bone. People can tell if it’s really a principle that’s held dear in a company.

S+B: Are you happy?
SANTOS:
Yeah. I’m pretty happy. And I’m much happier since doing this class, for two reasons, I think. One is that sharing the research on happiness has given me real meaning in life and a kind of purpose that I didn’t expect. The second thing is I have to practice what I preach because it will just be embarrassing, and my students will call me out on it, if I’m not doing what I’m telling them to do. Everybody can improve their well-being if they do the right things, but it requires changing your behavior. You can’t go to the gym once and think, “all right, I’m done. I’m fit now forever.” So many of the happiness practices — taking time to be mindful, taking time for gratitude, talking to people — they work the same way. You’ve just got to do those over and over.

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