Laurie Santos (born 1975) is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. She is also the Director of Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory, Director of Yale’s Canine Cognition Lab, and the Head of Yale residential college Silliman College. She has been a featured TED speaker, and has been listed in Popular Science Magazine as one of their “Brilliant 10” young minds in 2007, and in Time magazine as a “Leading Campus Celebrity” in 2013. 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.
This is her interview with Network Capital editors.
1. Why do you do what you do and how did you first get interested in it?
I’m a Professor of Psychology and Head of Silliman College at Yale and host of a new podcast called The Happiness Lab. I got into psychology when I was a college student, though I’ve always been interested in human behavior and how the mind works.
2. When did you decide to become an academic? How were the PhD years at Harvard?
I really liked doing research and really, really liked teaching, so becoming a professor made a lot of sense. I had a great time during my PhD years— I had a lab I was really connected with, did a lot of field work I loved, and generally felt like I was having a great time.
3. Tell us about the evolution of your now world famous course of happiness. What was the process of developing it over the years? Was it always a wildly popular course?
I decided to develop a course on happiness when I became Head of Silliman College at Yale. As a Head of College, I live with college students on campus, and I saw the mental health crisis this generation is facing up close and personal. I decided to develop the class in order to teach students more about the science of well-being and how they can develop habits to feel better. The first time I taught the class I had no idea how many students would take it— I imagined it’d be like 50 students or so. You could imagine my surprise when over 1000 students showed up. We had to teach the class in a concert hall. In the end, almost 1 out of every 4 students at Yale was taking the class. We then put the class online for free (see https://coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being
), and now over 400,000 people have enrolled.
4. Why do you think your course resonated with students around the world?
I think a lot of people want to feel happier. They feel like they’re trying to do everything right, but something’s still not working. And that makes sense, because what the science teaches us is that our minds lie to us about the kinds of things that make us happy. And so we really need to learn about the science in order to behave in ways that really will improve our well-being.
5. Was it challenging being yourself in class when TV cameras were pointing at you?
Yeah, I’d say it was challenging. It was also the first time I had taught the class, so it was still evolving when it was being recorded for national television. But overall, it was great that the class got so much attention. It meant a lot of people got a chance to learn about this work
6. What is the most satisfying aspect of doing what you do? What is the most challenging aspect?
The most satisfying thing is that the class and the podcast seems to be helping a lot of people. It’s so rewarding when people email me and tell me the class has changed their life. I guess the most challenging part is that the class and podcast have kept me really busy. I’m missing out on my own time affluence a lot of the time.
7. You already have an online course with 300,000+ students. Why launch a podcast? What are your goals for it?
Well, not everyone has the time and energy to take a full Yale class online. And so I realized a podcast might be an even better format. Podcasts are also episodic in a way that works with the course content— each episode can focus on a single way that our minds lie to us, and can take a deep dive into ideas for how we can behave more effectively to improve our well-being.
8. You are currently on leave. How are you spending your time away from work?
So far I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my podcast, and starting a new book project.
9. What is the one thing you wish people and organizations asked more about happiness?
I wish people asked what *really* works for improving well-being. We all have the intuition that money and material possessions and good grades lead to happiness, but the research shows those intuitions are wrong. And we forget that things like social connection, gratitude and free time really can make us happier.
10. What advice would you give to your 18 and 30 year old self?
To 18-year old me, I would say to try to develop better habits in terms of exercise and fitness (much easier to develop those habits earlier in life). And to 30-year old me, I’d say to worry less, that adult life was going to work out better than I expected.
11. Who are your mentors and how have they helped you?
I’ve had great mentors— from high school teachers and grad student mentors who really shaped my college years, to students and colleagues who’ve inspired me. Right now, I take a lot of inspiration from the researchers doing cool work in positive psychology. Researchers like Liz Dunn, Dan Gilbert, Nick Epley and Sonja Lyubomirsky. They’ve taught me a ton about the science.
12. While teaching this course, have you changed your mind about something?
I’ve realized that I need to practice what I preach more often. All too often, I’m not actually doing the tips that I’m suggesting for my students. So my podcast has taught me to practice what I preach and put the work in.
13. What is the one thing you believe in that others mostly disagree with?
I get a lot of pushback over the finding that money doesn’t cause happiness after you get above the poverty line. People have really strong intuitions that more money equal more well-being but the data simply don’t bear that out.
The link to her podcast: