A professor of happiness explains how to deal with COVID-19

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Dr Laurie Santos has proved a hit with students both at Yale and online. Image: Yale

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  • More than 2 million students have enrolled on Professor Laurie Santos’ Coursera course, The Science of Wellbeing.
  • Research shows mental health has deteriorated as a result of stress and worry as the COVID-19 crisis has developed.
  • Professor Santos says individuals’ wellbeing can be boosted by helping others, and companies and policymakers can also learn from that.

The global lockdown is taking a toll on mental health, with a recent poll in the US showing rising rates of stress and worry, while quarantining has resulted in symptoms of depression for some.

Fortunately, the internet is a wealth of advice on how to stay sane, and one of its breakout stars is Yale academic, Professor Laurie Santos, who has become a media fixture in recent weeks.

Santos’ online course for e-learning platform Coursera, titled The Science of Wellbeing, has become a phenomenon, with more than 2 million students enrolled to date, and more than 40 million views of the course page. She also has a thriving podcast - the Happiness Lab.

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In an interview for the World Economic Forum’s own podcast, Professor Santos explains how her insights can help combat feelings of isolation and low mood, and what governments and businesses can learn too.

Mental health challenge

As Santos sees it, people are looking for mental health solutions because, unlike clear advice on handwashing and social distancing, it’s less straightforward to look after how you feel.

“Everyone's feeling anxious and uncertain and kind of scared, and people just really want things they can do to feel better,” she says.

“I think the class really gives that: evidence-based tips you can put into practice today, that the research suggests will improve your wellbeing.”

coronavirus mental health global fears pandemic lockdown depression anxiety stress work covid19 suicide
Coronavirus has been tough for many Americans’ mental health. Image: Gallup

There is clear evidence that something is needed to help those suffering during the pandemic lockdown.

A recent survey by US pollster, Gallup, found almost 60% of Americans reporting feeling worried, up 20% on last summer, while the percentage considering their lives to be thriving had dropped to just under 49%, the lowest level since the 2008 financial crisis.

Track record

Santos had ample opportunity to road-test her approach before COVID-19 struck.

In 2018, she started a new course, Psychology and the Good Life, at Yale. It rapidly became the most successful in the university’s history, with almost a fourth of the entire undergraduate community enrolled. She thinks students were simply “looking for evidence-based ways of improving their mental health.”

Three decades of work have gone into collecting the evidence on which she bases her advice, rooted in researchers asking what are happy people doing? These are 3 lessons that work...

1. Socialize

“Research suggests that happy people tend to be relatively social,” explains Santos.

“This is a hard thing to do in the time of COVID-19 because social distancing often means we can't physically hang out with the people we care about.”

However, she explains that technology can go a long way to help. “The research suggests that the act of hanging out with folks in real time, in other words, things like Zoom or FaceTime can be a really powerful way to connect with people.

“You see their facial expressions, hear the emotion in their voice, you're really able to connect with them.”

2. Help others

“Happy people tend to be really ‘other’ oriented,” Santos explains, meaning they focus on other people's happiness rather than their own.

“This is something that culturally can be a little confusing,” she says. “We have this idea of ‘self care’, and treating yourself.

“But the research suggests if you make people do nice things for others, like donate money, that tends to boost their wellbeing.

“Doing random acts of kindness, particularly in this time when we're all really struggling, can be incredibly powerful. It has a positive effect on society as well.”


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3. Be present

In other words, practice mindfulness. “Happy people tend to be more mindful - present in the moment, noticing what's happening to them,” says Santos.

“Meditation can be an incredibly powerful tool in the midst of this crisis because it causes you to focus on what's happening in your body at the present moment.

“Your mind can't be ruminating about where you're going to get your next roll of toilet paper or what's happening with your elderly relative.”

Businesses and policymakers

These simple but powerful insights into wellbeing are as relevant to companies and policymakers as they are to individuals, argues Santos, especially when millions of people are uniquely vulnerable.

“I think companies are starting to realize that the act of helping others can improve their own wellbeing,” she says, citing the decision of some firms to support good causes, or to let customers allocate part of their purchase price to a charity.

But she thinks there are broader lessons too: “One of the things that's most powerful for policymakers to realize is that our own theories about what makes us happy might be wrong.

“So our theory might be, ‘I'm just going to relax and focus on my own self-care’. But actually reaching out to a friend would be more helpful.”

She ends on an upbeat note. “Historically, we have gone through losses before. We've come out as a society better and more ready to do the things that we need to do - to build a better society and focus more on wellbeing in our own personal lives.”

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