Science of Well-being Notes

A few years ago I took a Coursera class on the “Science of Well-being“, created by Professor Laurie Santos from Yale. It was spectacular, and I keep coming back to the lessons from it–specifically, to the barriers and the practices.


Dr. Santos started the course by identifying the barriers to well-being in happiness. If everyone wants more happiness–why do we need to learn about it?

She highlights three ideas:

  1. We are bad judges of what will make us happy & well
  2. We forget that we are bad judges of what will make us happy & well
  3. We get used to things–so what worked today doesn’t work as well tomorrow

The Practices

The class highlights practices that are proven to make us happy and well. If you’re skimming the course material, these are mostly in week 5.

  • Savoring – taking the time to step outside your experiences and appreciate them. Smell the flowers, enjoy the sunrise, appreciate your morning coffee. Tell a friend how could this moment was, and be absorbed in it. Don’t rush through or compare to other moments.
  • Gratitude – be thankful for your life and what you’re experiencing–for the way things are turning out and the people who are a part of it. It would be so easy to have missed out on the good you love, and we never know when the seasons will change and this time will be our last. Be grateful.
  • Sleep – Makes us happier, smarter, more pleasant, and healthier. Almost everything we trade for less sleep–more work, cramming for a test, completing an assignment–is less effective than sleeping.
  • Exercise – For mental health, it’s better than medication. Keeps you happier and healthier.
  • Kindness to others – brings us joy.
  • Time Affluence – that is, having a wealth of time to spend in ways we want. Always underappreciated, and allows space for many of the other practices, which fall to the wayside because of busyness.
  • Social Connection – Being with and connected to other people. We often underestimate how happy community makes us, how happy it makes others, and overestimate how awkward we will feel while connecting.
  • Flow State & Using your strengths – For work, the practices for happiness were about doing work that absorbs you and plays to your strengths. That is, do things you’re good at that you can lose yourself in.
  • Calm & Focused Mind – Happy minds don’t often wander. Use meditation or mindfulness practices to help.
  • Visualization & Planning – Take a few moments time to think through what you want and why you want it–for the future, or simply for the day ahead. Then consider the obstacles in the way and make plans to address them.

Simple, powerful ideas.

Meta-Practices: Writing & Counting

While Professor Santos doesn’t address these specifically, the behavior change in the course is built around two ideas for change: writing and counting.

Take the time to consider your happiness and how often you are doing these practices. Keep a spreadsheet so you have data on what happened.

Then reflect and write about what you noticed. If you don’t write, you won’t be able to remember what happened.

I think these meta practices also help, and tend to be tools for achieving any goal–though they’re tough to practice.

I hope these ideas help you be happier and well today!


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