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Feeling negative? Yale’s well-being expert says you can train your brain to be happy

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisMay 23, 2020

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Anyone else feeling a bit like Eeyore these days, with a personal rain cloud hovering above you? When so much is uncertain, being able to look on the bright side and find joy feels like a nice thought, but a hard ask. Maybe, then, it’s high time we teach ourselves to be positive, rather than waiting for those sunny feelings to materialize. On a recent episode of the podcast Kind World, Yale happiness expert and professor of psychology Laurie Santos, PhD, shares how little exercises, which she calls “rewirements,” can train your brain to be happy.

In her beloved Yale University course The Science of Well-Being, Dr. Santos assigns a set of rewirements alongside the regular coursework (readings, papers, tests, etc.). Her reasoning, as she describes in the class syllabus, is that “psychological science shows that merely learning about the empirical findings and theories is not enough to achieve real behavior change…The path to becoming happier and more successful requires more than just learning the material—it involves actually putting in work to set up the right habits and mindset.” Her rewirement prompts, therefore, are “activities and exercises aimed at making you happier, healthier, and more resilient” by “rewiring” your automatic habits and strategies.

Essentially, you’ll never get better at making free throws just by reading about gravity and force, you need to actually go out and shoot some hoops.

“The path to becoming happier and more successful requires more than just learning the material—it involves actually putting in work to set up the right habits and mindset.” —Laurie Santos, PhD

On the podcast, Dr. Santos puts forth a rewirement that feels especially pertinent right now: Doing a small act of kindness. “Could you call an elderly neighbor who needs to hear from you? Could you donate something to an important cause, a local business that might be struggling right now? What could you do to help someone else?” she asks. “Research shows that the act of spending our time and our money on other people actually makes us happier than spending our money and our time on ourselves.”

Not that you’re inclined to doubt the expert, but it’s extremely true! Since the 1980s, studies have proven again and again that spending time or money on others instead of yourself (what’s referred to as pro-social spending) gives you a “helper’s high” because you can see the joyful results of your generosity. Oh and hey, science says these positive feelings are connected with greater health and increased longevity.

So, donate to your local food bank; Zoom babysit your nephew so your sister can have much-needed break from macaroni art. Or make it a two-for: Donate to charity while getting access to more happiness-boosting exercises by signing up for a membership to Happy Not Perfect using this link on your phone—the app will donate 50 percent of your subscription fee to the National Council of Behavioral Health’s COVID-19 Relief Fund.

“Be a little mindful about how that felt afterwards, and my guess is that you’ll get that wonderful ‘warm glow,’ as economists call it, from doing something nice for another person,” Dr. Santos says on the podcast.

For more rewirements you can work into your quarantine routine, you can access Dr. Santos’s full Science of Well-Being class on Coursera. Or, skip the lectures and download the course’s corresponding app, ReWi. As you complete daily rewirements, it’ll track your your progress and you’ll rack up streaks, just like on your fitness apps.

Heck, even if it feels impossible to get an A+ in joy right now, we could all benefit from raising our average.

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