Mar 19, 2021 | LIFE | By Olivia Hahnemann-Gilber | Photo by Bibi Powers

For some, the social and physical limits of the COVID-19 pandemic have brought about an opportunity (and a necessity) to focus more on one’s mental health. As the number of activities that normally consumes one’s day have been condensed for many people, there is more time to ponder the question: How can I optimize my happiness during a time of such ubiquitous distress?

I have personally grappled with this question throughout the pandemic. In an attempt to gain insight into what happiness means to me during this time, I turned to a reliable companion of mine: the Apple Podcast app.

In searching through the vast world of podcasts, I came upon “The Happiness Lab,” created and hosted by Yale University Professor of Psychology, Dr. Laurie Santos. This unique and beautifully relevant podcast explores the psychology behind happiness, highlighting tips and tricks for how one can strive to be a happier person. 

More specifically, Dr. Santos identifies the many ways in which humans tend to misjudge what will make them happy; she corrects these mistakes by pointing to truesources of happiness and backs them up with fact-based psychological evidence.

With ideas ranging from how to improve one’s mindset and body image to advice from ancient Greek philosophers, “The Happiness Lab”is interesting, educational, and can be incredibly applicable to one’s life.

One of my personal favorite episodes, “Psychopaths and Superheroes,” delves into the minds of the world’s most altruistic people. What incentivizes a person to risk their life for the life of a complete stranger? Why are some people more willing than others to be compassionate to the point of self-sacrifice, and what does this say about them?

These are some of the questions which Dr. Santos analyzes in the episode.

As it turns out, Dr. Santos concluded that these ‘superheroes’ also tended to be some of the happiest people. In other words, helping other people could make you a happier person overall.

Through the use of personal accounts and of psychosocial research done in the connections between altruism and happiness, she points out the positive correlation between the two; as the frequency and degree of a person’s altruistic acts increase, their happiness levels are also likely to increase.

So, if life is feeling sad and stressful and you have some extra time, Dr. Santos would advise you to engage in an activity that helps others — she claims that even the smallest acts of kindness can make you and others around you a lot happier.

Another episode which I’ve tried to incorporate into my daily mindset is “PJ and Alex Love to Gripe.”

This episode tackles the human urge to complain. Everyone gripes, and almost everyone assumes that voicing complaints will alleviate the burden of the many daily annoyances which we face as human beings.

However, Dr. Santos utilizes research and personal stories to expose the harm that these small complaints can have on one’s mental health.

Of course, it’s great to talk about one’s personal struggles with a friend, family member, or therapist; yet, griping about the small stuff doesn’t actually help, and seems to make things feel more negative overall.

Instead, the episode introduces the power of gratitude.

In a study with college students who were either asked to list complaints or express gratitude, the students were asked to take a survey about their overall happiness before and after the experiment, as well as a week later.

In the latter ‘gratitude’ group, the students left the room much happier than when they entered. The effects also lingered for this group of students; they still had higher happiness scores than the ‘complaints’ group a week later.

Another “Happiness Lab” takeaway, then, is the mood-boosting impactof practicing gratitude, which seems to be helpful even in small amounts.

For more advice relating to happiness strategies, check out “The Happiness Lab” with Dr. Laurie Santos. You can also find the discussed episodes here and here.

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