Interview: Laurie Santos
Laurie Santos is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, and the Director of Yale's Comparative Cognition Laboratory and Director of Yale's Canine Cognition Lab.
She's also the Head of Yale's residential college Silliman College—which is my Yale college! At Yale, the "colleges" are like the Houses of Hogwarts, so it's as if she's my Professor McGonagall.
Laurie Santos made headlines in 2018 when her class "Psychology and the Good Life" became the most popular class in Yale's history.
In addition to her work based at Yale, she's also launched a terrific new podcast, The Happiness Lab. If you're interested in happiness, and you like listening to podcasts, check it out immediately.
I couldn't wait to talk to Laurie about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Laurie: For me, it's yoga. I often forget how powerful a quick practice can be, but when I'm sticking to a yoga routine, I'm healthier, stronger, and way happier. Seriously, I can be in the worst mood ever and I'll do a quick half hour yoga and no matter what was going on before that, I'll end up feeling better. I also think a morning yoga routine helps me keep my work on track—I'm in a better mood so I concentrate better and get more done. The problem is—I often forget how amazing yoga makes me feel. My desire-to-do-yoga-regularly doesn't always keep up with my actual-positive-feelings-after-doing-yoga-regularly. Which is why—as an Obliger—it helps to have friends to push me to hit the mat when I'm not feeling it.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
This kind of echoes what I said above, but the biggest insight for me has been the power of exercise and moving my body. I was like the opposite of an athlete growing up—I didn't do any sports and exercise wasn't a big thing in my family. When I was in high school, exercise felt like the sort of thing you did when you hated your body and wanted to change it. I only discovered that exercise feels good much later in life. Now I don't think of a quick hike or hour in the gym as torture but as a reward. And the science bears this out—a half-hour of cardio is as good of a mood-booster as a prescription of the anti-depressant Zoloft.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your students—most?
For me, the biggest puzzle in well-being research (and in the science of the mind generally) is the disconnect between what we think we want and what will actually feel good. As I'm constantly telling my students, our minds lie to us about what will make us happy. We think it's money or a better job or the perfect relationship, but the science shows it's not any of those circumstantial things. But even knowing this research, it's nearly impossible to change our intuitions. Knowing what we're supposed to do isn't always enough to do it. It's an intriguing but also very frustrating feature of our minds. And it's one of the reasons we need to hack our habits through all the great techniques you talk about on your site.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Despite being an ivory tower expert on this stuff, I still struggle when it comes to real habit change. Honestly, I admire you and the other Upholders out there who can just put habits into effect. As a card-carrying Obliger, I've been able to make some habits stick (exercise, etc) by recruiting the power of social pressure. But that only works when I'm in a good Obliger place. I'm also very prone to Obliger-rebellion, and when that kicks in my normal social strategies don't always work. So for me it remains a struggle.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
As noted above, I am a card-carrying Obliger, but I'm also one who is incredibly susceptible to Obliger-rebellion. I have to be really careful that I don't overcommit because I'm really prone to destructive phases of blowing off all my commitments if I'm not careful. Lately I've been trying to build in more Rebel strategies in order to feel a little less trapped by outside obligations.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
I'm particularly susceptible to bad social influences. Other people around me at a party drinking a bunch and eating unhealthily makes me drink a lot and eat poorly, even if I walked into the party with a clear commitment to do otherwise. As an Obliger, I really try to avoid bad social influences, as I feel like I'm particularly susceptible to them. And as mentioned before, I've had deep periods of Obliger-rebellion where I (quite flagrantly) drop positive habits I've worked on. But I do think recognizing that tendency has made me be more careful about overcommitting, which has really helped over time.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
These questions are connected so I'll answer them together. The most life-changing book I've ever read is the Enchiridion (or "Handbook") by the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Epictetus starts his book with the idea that there are two things: the stuff you can control and the stuff you can't. Recognizing which is which is a concept that really has changed my life. And so that's the quote that my husband and I use all the time. "In life, there are two things."
One Last Thing
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