Santos hosts a podcast called the Happiness Lab and teaches an online class called “The Science of Wellbeing” that has reached over a million people through Coursera. In teaching others how to be happier, Santos uncovered a set of science-based insights that can help us all better manage the emotional challenges associated with the global coronavirus crisis.
I want to start by asking you what insights from research on well-being you think are most important to the current crisis?
So many of us are realizing that unless we do something, our mental health is going to really suffer. One good thing is that the science shows us there are simple interventions we can be doing to feel better, but they take some intention and some work.
That’s reassuring. Where should we start?
The biggest thing the science suggests is that we have to be really intentional about our social connections. We have to worry about our immune function right now, and we know feeling lonely and feeling socially isolated completely tanks immune function. But the key thing we have to do to protect our physical health is shelter in place and be by ourselves.
To stay socially connected right now means using the technologies we have from phones to FaceTime to Zoom to get those informal interactions we’re all missing. That can look like checking in on your elderly parents once a night or calling friends more often than you would normally, but it can also look like doing the fun informal things we do socially together over these technologies.
I did a spa night with my college roommates where we all did mud masks on Zoom and I did a dinner with a friend in Seattle who I hadn’t seen in a long time.
I’d recommend doing silly things you’d never do socially over technology before, like share a yoga class online with a friend. So think about the social connections you had a month ago before all this started, and figure out how you can build on those with technology.
That’s great advice. A lot of our mutual friends in the scientific community have been advocating for something called the three blessings exercise. Could you explain how that works and why it might be valuable to try?
Yeah, this idea is so critical right now when we can easily get in the mode of, “woe is me, everything is terrible.” Research shows that we really can benefit from counting our blessings even when it feels like there aren’t that many blessings to be counted. The simple act of scribbling down three things you’re grateful for can significantly bump your mood, in some studies as quickly as within a couple of weeks. It’s completely free. It takes five to 10 minutes a day. At the end of your day, just scribble down a few things that you’re grateful for right now.
I’ve been doing this myself. I have the tea that I really like. Neither I nor my husband is sick and I can still hug him, which is something I want to savor. And my mom who’s in this vulnerable category — she’s older and she has [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] — she’s following the instructions and she’s staying home and I’m so proud of her for doing that.
I want to pivot for a minute: There’s a lot of work on pro-social behavior and how it affects well-being that seems relevant as we’re all trying to figure out how to chip in right now. Do you see prescriptions for people from that research?
Yeah, there’s so much work suggesting that if we want to be happier, we need to be other-oriented rather than self-focused. And I think this goes against the standard cultural line right now, when we think we need to treat ourselves or do self-care during the pandemic.
Research suggests that doesn’t work as well as other care during the pandemic. Tons of lovely work by folks like Mike Norton and Liz Dunn [scientists who have researched how money can be used for happiness] show that the simple act of doing something nice for others, whether it’s spending money on others or spending your time on other people, can boost your well-being more than if you spent that money or time on yourself.
Right now, that becomes all the more important. I think one of the frustrations people are feeling about staying inside is that they see so many vulnerable, sick people in need. And people say, “Just stay home, do nothing,” which violates our desire for agency. We want to take active steps to be helpful.
But we can do really simple things to help. Some of us are experiencing a bit of a time windfall right now. Some of us aren’t working as much, some of us don’t have the normal commute time that we usually spend. We can use that time windfall to help, whether that’s by calling and advocating for people in need, or doing chores for people in need, or going on social media and writing gratitude letters for the health-care workers.
Okay, certainly not all of us have time windfalls, but some of us do and I love that advice. Relatedly, for most people, money is tighter, but a few lucky folks have small financial windfalls. How should we think about those?
I’ve seen this in myself. It’s small, but those cups of coffee I’m not buying every morning, that’s three bucks a day I’m saving that I could be using to do something nice for other people. Whether that’s buying groceries for someone in need or buying a gift card to a local restaurant that needs the support right now.
If we have them, we can be using those mini-financial windfalls to be helping other people. And it helps the folks that are really in need, but it also helps us. It’s this wonderful win-win situation that doing nice stuff for others is going to boost our well-being in a time when we really, really need it.
That is one of my favorite findings, honestly. It’s so lovely. I hope we can all find ways to help others in this crisis!
Do you have any final words of wisdom?
If I had a last word to share, it would be self-compassion. It really is an awful time. There’s a reason we’re calling this crisis unprecedented. We’re dealing with a deadly virus that’s incredibly scary and uncertain. It’s okay to feel crappy. It’s okay to not be working efficiently from home. Give yourself and your family members more self-compassion and more of a benefit of the doubt than you usually would.
Feel crappy and lick your wounds, but as soon as you have the space, try some of the strategies we’ve been talking about because they can help.
Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist, is on Twitter @Katy_Milkman. She is president of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, host of the podcast Choiceology and co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative.