How to find happiness in a pandemic

Tristan Zinampan
Dr. Laurie Santos, creator of the 'Psychology and the Good Life' class at Yale University, shares her tips


MANILA, Philippines – The idea of looking for happiness amid a global pandemic – one that has killed close to 280,000 worldwide, and over 700 in the Philippines – can easily seem frivolous, selfish even.

However, Dr. Laurie Santos, psychology professor and the creator of the famous Yale University class “Psychology and the Good Life,” pointed out that taking care of one’s disposition and mental health is an essential part of bolstering one’s immune system – just like eating healthy and washing hands.

In the May 5 episode of the Vox podcast Today, Explained, Santos talked about her course on happiness and applying its lessons within the context of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Santos explained that the class came about after she witnessed up close and personal the mental health crisis plaguing Yale’s student population (According to a 2013 report by the university college council, more than half of undergraduate students sought mental health help while they were in the university.)

Happiness 101

Lessons mostly focus on positive psychology – the science on what to do to be happier – and behavioral change or the applications of this knowledge in real life. “The science shows it’s one thing to know what you’re supposed to do to be happier, but it’s a completely different thing to actually do that stuff,” said Santos in the podcast.

Homework often includes meditation exercises, instructions to sleep and do “random acts” of kindness, and other class “re-wirements” – practices to rewire students’ existing habits.

Also available online for free via Coursera, the class has seen an upshoot since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Santos said that around three-fourths of the course’s 2.3 million learners signed up after the pandemic hit. And even though the physical distancing right now makes social connection – which some scholars say is a pillar for high levels of happiness – particularly tricky, learning the science of happiness is essential now more than ever. 

Here are some tips that Santos shared.

1. Rethink what makes us happy

“We have to come to terms with this fact that our minds lie to us about what makes us happy,” shared Santos.

According to her, one of the first things she teaches in class is to unlearn the notion that “if we can just change our circumstances, everything would be great.” Science has shown that this isn’t simply the case.

“It’s not money. It’s not our material possessions. It’s not our circumstances. It’s more about our behaviors and about our mindsets. And so what are some behaviors that really help while behaviors like connecting with other people socially can be really powerful.”

Santos suggested taking the time to set up happy hour drinks, doing yoga or trivia night with friends over Zoom, checking up on the elderly, and even reaching out to people you haven’t talked to in a while.

2. Learn to be ‘other-oriented’

This can be counter-intuitive in an age where the culture of self-orientation is at a high – self-care, “treat yourself,” etc.

But Santos said science shows that happy people are focused on other people and their happiness rather than their own. She cited a study by University of California, Berkeley professor Liz Dunn and her colleagues, as an example.

Part of the study included researchers handing out $20 to random people on the street with instructions to either treat themselves or to get something nice for someone else. At the end of the day, the people who spent the money on other people are happier than those who spent in on themselves.

Santos replicates this in her class by asking students to think of what random acts of kindness they can do. She also recommended that if one is feeling stressed about their current situation, thinking of how to reach out and help others may help one feel better.

“We think we want to treat ourselves, but that’s actually just not what the results suggest. We should be more focused on others,” said Santos.

3. Protect healthy habits, both physically and mentally

“I think when things get stressful, that’s when we stop exercising, you know, stop our normal yoga routine. We stop sleeping. But that’s actually the time we need both of those habits the most,” said Santos.

She said we must practice habits that are good for both our physical and mental health, stating that half an hour of cardio is effective at reducing symptoms of depression.

Sleep is also a factor. COVID-19-related cases of insomnia have been a frequent topic of discussion. Santos says people should take action regarding their sleep hygiene.

“I’ve tried to institute this myself by putting the phone away around 8 p.m. at night and trying to use that time before bed to talk to my husband or call a friend or like read a physical book, just staying away from the panic scrolling right before bed,” she recommended. 

4. Develop an attitude of thankfulness

Data suggests that counting blessings, actively searching for things to be grateful for, helps boost happiness levels. 

“Even in the midst of this crisis, we can find things. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to find things we’re grateful for right now because we realize just how fragile everything was,” said Santos.  

With the pandemic, people are realizing the little things that they’ve simply taken for granted in the past. According to her, this is the time to appreciate what one has – may it be a job, your home, family, or you and your loved ones’ health.

Finding happiness in such challenging times – when people are actually dying, struggling – can be a cause of internal conflict. How can you be concerned about your own joy when you’re not even a frontliner actually risking your life, right?

Santos said it’s one’s responsibility to work on being happy.

“We also know that things like happiness and gratitude in these positive feelings build up resilience. [We need to be in] peak performance to deal with this crisis once it’s over and rebuild society in a positive way,” she said.

“The data suggests that even though a lot of us can experience things like post-traumatic stress, there’s also just as much evidence for what’s called post-traumatic growth. In other words, after going through a crisis, people, individuals, and communities come out stronger. They come out more willing to do things that promote meaning in their life, and they come out more socially connected and more ready to help the people that are around them.” – Rappler.com

Tristan Zinampan

Tristan is Rappler’s resident pop culture vulture. He leads Rappler’s youth culture section, Hustle.