The most popular course at Yale isn't a freshman survey or some easy A. It's Psych 157: Psychology and the Good Life.
Taught by professor Laurie Santos, the course covers the science of happiness and how to apply it. Since its launch in 2018, it's been taken by a quarter of Yale students and more than 200,000 others in its online version. Which speaks volumes about how, underneath the hustle and bustle of modern life, we all yearn for happiness.
Why don't more of us find it? For the complete answer to that, you'll have to take the course (it's free). But in a recent New York Times interview on how Covid is impacting our mental health, Santos suggested one way many of us often go wrong when chasing happiness.
Self-care isn't just bubble baths and yoga
As we all know, 2020 has been one heck of a wild year. To get through the Covid craziness, many of us are trying to be a little gentler with ourselves and prioritizing self-care. That's a sensible strategy, Santos agrees. The trouble is how many people understand "self-care."
"We assume that self-care looks like a nice bubble bath -- or even hedonistic pursuits, selfish pursuits," Santos says. "But the data suggests that the right way to treat ourselves would be to do nice things for other people. We actually get more out of being more open and more social and more other-oriented than spending money on ourselves. It's a bigger increase to your happiness."
Santos isn't the only scientist pointing out that, if you want to be happier, you should focus more on kindness to others than kindness to yourself (though self-acceptance and pampering are certainly nice too). Research out of Oxford confirms that even tiny acts of kindness can have profound effects on our happiness, and other studies show small acts of kindness can ripple out, boosting mental well-being in the wider community.
Kindness isn't just good for your mental health. It's been shown to have a big impact on our physical health too. You'll recover more quickly after a heart attack, for instance, if your boss is supportive and friendly. Loving kindness meditation may help you live longer.
How to connect during Covid
All of these effects are rooted in a simple truth: Humans are social creatures and we just function better when we feel plugged into a community. Which is a hard feeling to achieve in the time of Covid isolation. Santos suggests a few simple ways to connect with others despite virus-related restrictions and, by doing so, to care for yourself.
"A quick text to a friend you haven't seen or a family member you're worried about, like 'Thinking of you. Wishing I could get together. Thinking of this fun memory,'" can make a real impact, she says. So can unexpected gifts.
"I'm a big fan of surprise presents. Everyone knows they're going to get presents on their birthday, but people don't expect a random, tiny gift and a gratitude letter out of the blue. It's easy to underestimate how powerful that can be to our relationships and how nice that is to get," Santos adds.
You can check out the complete interview for more insights from Santos, but just these simple tips make it clear that if you want to stay sane and happy during a pandemic (or any other time, really), focus less on self-indulgence and more on kindness. Loving human connection will do more for your state of mind than the best bubble bath in the world.