What Would Make You Happy? We Signed Up for a 30-Day Course to Find Out
It wasn't rocket science. My coworkers and I had signed up for a monthlong course that would allegedly turn us into happier people, and I was crushing it. The assignments were, to put it kindly, basic—things a needlepoint pillow or a kindergarten teacher could recommend: Be kind, look on the bright side, say thank you.
But it was science. A Yale psychology professor, Laurie Santos, had created the course, grounding it in measurable research. (She adapted it from Psychology and the Good Life, her spring 2018 class that nearly 25 percent of Yale undergrads signed up for, making it the most popular in the school's history.) According to decades' worth of studies, if we could spend a month living in accordance with the platitudes on pillows, we could expect to be more joyful.
Was I buying it? Not especially. In a world as rotten and rank as ours can be—where schoolkids are gunned down weekly, elephants are slaughtered for their tusks, women are trafficked like cocaine, and oceans are rapidly filling with flushable toilet wipes—is happiness even something reasonable to strive for? Aren't humans just bags of blood randomly pinging around the planet until we all become compost?
Santos doesn't think so. She believes we're entitled to, and capable of, much more joy than we've settled for. "The data suggest that becoming happier is a lot like learning to play the violin or row crew," she says. "They're not impossible to do. You just have to commit to practicing." Santos (whose laid-back affect, wild curtain of curly hair, and liberal referencing of Beyoncé make her seem more like an undergrad herself than the head of one of Yale's 14 residential colleges) calls her assignments "rewirements"—a play on college "requirements"—since they have been proved to retrain our thinking. "I also tell my class they can get a happiness boost from deleting their social media accounts," she says, "but not a lot of them take me up on that."
Weeks 1 through 3 had been a breeze. We started with a few self-assessment tests (the multiple-choice options ranged from "I feel like a failure" to "As I look back on my life, all I see are victories"), then spent the first week making lists of things we were grateful for, as well as savoring special moments. The next, we focused on social connections and acts of kindness, then devoted the third to getting more sleep and exercise.
Reading over the assignments, I had suppressed the world's loudest "duh." But knowing we'd be accountable at the end of the experiment, I diligently filled my notebook with moments of mindfulness, truly appreciating my Thai food and wisecracking with my boyfriend. ("I am savoring you!" I yelled to a friend over the racket at a party, as we sipped old-fashioneds.) And I had to admit how stirring it was to be fully present. It felt almost like double enjoyment, since I got the immediate pleasure, then the pleasure of reflecting on the pleasure. "Sadly, it's hard to savor things in our culture," says Santos. "You buy this fancy pastry because you want to enjoy it, but then you wolf it down while checking your email, and you don't even notice it."
Keeping a gratitude journal, that feel-good chestnut, is similarly based on mindfulness—and was solidly been-there-done-that to much of Team O. "I've gratitude-journaled before," more than one staffer said smugly, already familiar enough with the concept to turn it into a verb. I hid my phone from view as I typed out my list on the subway, worried other passengers would sneer at my earnest paeans to my cats and the morning sunshine in my kitchen. "This exercise really resonates with some people, and others find it a little cheesy, which is fine," says Santos. "But done even five or ten minutes a day, it can have a big effect. It's less about writing things down and more about having time to sit and reexperience what you're grateful for."
We also kept careful tallies of the daily "random acts of kindness" we had to complete. In an attempt to clear this section from my docket, I went online and made a bunch of donations to animal charities. Maybe a little lame—especially compared with one kinetically nice O staffer who chastised herself for not being even nicer ("When I looked at my notes," she said, "I realized I was way behind. It was like, Girl, you did two kind things, and you were awake for how many hours?")—but I still felt like I'd earned a gold star. Research shows this habit offers a veritable combo platter of emotional benefits, since it often involves social connection and reinforces our image of ourselves as do-gooders.
I breezed through the assignment requiring us to engage with strangers and faraway relatives in order to enhance our social network. Meanwhile, the shy folk among us looked stricken by the idea of chatting up fellow shoppers in line at Whole Foods. "That's because the mind lies to us," Santos says. "The data suggest that social connections extend our life-span, help us fight off disease, even make us enjoy what we eat more. Yet when you tell people to talk to strangers, they think, This is gonna be horrible. But people are excited that you want to relate to them. By and large, the practice makes us feel better."
Week 3—the exercise and sleep week—was right up my alley; the older I get, the more both seem like nonnegotiables. Without regular exercise, I'm cranky and sluggish, and while Gayle King famously thrives on only four hours of shut-eye per night, those catnaps would turn me into a serial killer within weeks. Our wellness-obsessed staff wasn't especially shocked to learn that being good to your body would have an impact on your outlook. Still, they had a litany of excuses for skipping the sleep-and-exercise homework: toddlers, the draw of an iPhone screen, visiting family, wine (which was name-checked more times than God at a country music awards show). I felt so bad for them as I lay down for a snooze.
Then came week 4. But before I get into that, I have to ask: Who would pass up a chance to be infused with more mind-expanding, heart-opening grace? Plenty of us. Humans seem to love griping about being miserable and stressed, but apparently relatively few of us want to put in the work to escape those states. To wit: If any group should have been perfectly suited for this happiness project, it was the O staff. Promoting joy through gratitude, exercise, connection, meditation, and self-awareness is kind of our thing. But of the 86 people on staff at O, only 32 signed up for the experiment. And while the assignments were cost-free and brief, many of the 32 trudged along sullenly like teens on a family vacation. In the end, half actually gave up; only 15 would make it through the final week. "I was very into it when I started," said one editor. "But I quit almost immediately. When I got burned-out, it was the first thing to go—almost like I'm too unhappy to try to be happy."
When I asked Santos to explain our lackluster participation, she was sympathetic. "About 50 percent of our happiness is genetic," she told me. "So yes, some people are predisposed to being unhappy, and they might not think it's worth it to seek out these resources, or even realize they could feel better. People also assume that our mood is dictated mostly by what happens to us, but that's only 10 percent of it. The good news is that 40 percent of our happiness is under our conscious control, and 40 percent is a lot. It's just a matter of doing the work.
"Any change is difficult, even small ones you know you need to make," Santos continued. "That's why everybody's New Year's resolutions fall by the wayside. How many of these habits do I regularly do? Far less than I'd like to admit. And I teach this class." There seems to be a Grand Canyon–size gulf between knowing what will make us happy and following through.
On top of this, we're also susceptible to distracting cultural dictates about where happiness lies. So much of what we think we need to be truly ecstatic—a vacation home, a new romance, a Beemer, a butt that looks like two grapefruit halves (things O staffers sheepishly admitted craving)—makes little to no lasting impact on our overall life satisfaction, says Santos. She calls our habit of fixating on these false idols "miswanting" and, in her course, regularly lays out the "annoying features of the mind" that tempt us toward temporary, often materialistic goals. "We're working toward the wrong things," she says. Eyeing a $300 kimono online toward the end of our experiment, I thought, This won't make me happier, so what's the point? It was at once defeating and liberating.
"Our minds are terrible at accurately predicting what will make us happy," says Santos. "I think that's why humans have historically needed religion and faith. Those traditions push us in the direction of doing acts of charity, having gratitude, being in communities where we connect with people—all things that give us a boost. Luckily, nonbelievers can get a boost from those habits, too." Being one of those godless heathens, I was happy to hear that even I could benefit.
As the 32—and eventually 15—of us made our way through our month of happiness tasks, evidence piled up that they were, in fact, providing solid little bursts of joy. "I was lonely over the weekend, but instead of holing up in my apartment and giving myself a facial, I invited a newish friend out to dinner," one editor said with a look approaching awe. "And after hanging out with her, I felt better!" That general sentiment, a bewildered "I feel better," was echoing across the office. We all know that being nice makes you happier and being happier makes you nice (and water is wet, and French fries are delicious), but as we tackled each assignment, staffers were consistently surprised by how well the rewirements worked their magic. At the close of the project, the last 15 standing retook our self-assessments—and found that our mean scores had gone up in every category.
The experiment shined a beam of light on how lucky most of us already are, and shifted our focus onto what matters. "The gratitude-themed stuff made me realize how secure I am, after years of feeling shaky and worried all the time," said one staffer. "I used to be so terrified about some thing coming for me, like a huge bill in the mail or getting fired. But when I pulled back, I could see that this is the happiest I've been in a very long time, maybe ever." Sometimes being happy is just a matter of recognizing that you're happy.
Going home on a packed, malfunctioning subway sometime during week 3, I encountered an oblivious passenger womanspreading into my space with her pointy boots and overstuffed tote. I imagined jabbing her with an elbow, thinking, This selfish jerk thinks she owns the train. Then I was greeted with a bracing notion, as if my brain had taken a sip of vinegar. Why are you so angry?, I wondered. What if you just gave her a break? I sat in that feeling, awkwardly. It was as if I'd been infected by the experiment. What if all of us cut one another a break? How different would the world be if we were several notches closer to compassion, or—okay, fine—happiness?
Now back to week 4.
We were supposed to meditate ten minutes per day, a task that some, including myself, found frustrating, confounding, and nearly undoable. "The hindrances to meditating can be a lack of time or sleepiness," says Santos. "But a major one is 'ill will,' when, midway through, you're filled with intrusive thoughts like What's the point of this? As you do it more often, you'll notice that, accept it, and keep going."
So I'll probably never be a meditation master. But I had other things to worry about, namely our final task, an emotional Everest: Take 30 minutes to write a "gratitude letter" to someone we'd never had a chance to thank. Then, without warning, read it to that someone—ideally in person. O staffers fretted over how to deliver something so intimate. I debated for days before nervously selecting a teacher I'd been close with: Nancy, the exacting, sardonic leader of our high school drama club, where I'd once spent countless extracurricular hours. (Go ahead, ask me to sing anything from West Side Story.) We arranged to FaceTime on a Sunday morning; she and I hadn't spoken in almost 20 years, and I was preparing myself for an award-winningly weird conversation.
After we caught up, I explained my mission. "Oh boy. Should I grab tissues?" Nancy said, chuckling. I launched into the letter, talking about when we met freshman year: "You were, and probably still are, a demanding figure. But your insistence on getting the best out of us felt like a form of true respect, and it made me step up in ways I hadn't thought I was capable of." I started verbally stumbling, too teary to read my screen properly. I looked up to see her eyes flooded, too. When I finished, Nancy buried her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking. I thought about the nearly 40 years she's spent teaching—the infinite nights I painted scenery alongside her as we listened to Bonnie Raitt on a boom box, the thousands of kids she's pushed and bolstered the way she did me, the insufficient thanks she's received. At that moment, we were tied together by a cord of memory, reaching each other through lost time, sending and retrieving a torrent of positive energy. I don't know what the meaning of life is, I thought, but maybe it's something like this.
"My God, what a beautiful letter," Nancy said, wiping her eyes. "I can't tell you how good that makes me feel to hear. But did reading that make you feel happy?"
It did. It really, really did.
Ready to improve your outlook? Try this experiment yourself by visiting oprah.com/gethappy.