Are we doing happiness wrong?
You might think you know what it takes to lead a happier life… more money, a better job, or Instagram-worthy vacations? Nope. In this end of year episode of Here to Help, Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos speaks with Chris about what will truly make our lives better. Laurie has studied the science of happiness and found that many of us do the exact opposite to get there. Based on the psychology course she teaches at Yale — the most popular class in the university’s 300-year history — Dr. Santos will cover the latest scientific research and share some surprising and useful stories that will change the way you think about happiness and work.
- Hello, everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. And welcome to the next episode of Here to Help. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day. And what powers that mission is people. Here to Help is a look at how experience, strength, and hope inspires people to want to help others. My final guest of 2022 is Dr. Laurie Santos, professor of Psychology and the head of the Silliman College at Yale University. Dr. Santos is director of Yale's Comparative Cognition Laboratory, as well as director of Yale's Canine Cognition Laboratory. I'm going to be curious to learn more about that. She has been a featured TED speaker and has been listed in Popular Science as one of their brilliant 10 young scientists in 2007. In January 2018, her course titled Psychology and the Good Life, became the most popular course in Yale's history, with approximately 1/4 of Yale's undergraduates enrolled. In September 2019, she became host of the podcast, The Happiness Lab, published by Pushkin Industries. Laurie has studied the science of happiness and found that shockingly, many of us do the exact opposite of what it takes to get there. Laurie, thank you so much for joining me today.
- Thanks so much for having me on the show.
- Before we get started, I'm going to do a quick visual description for folks who may be listening, or for people who may be visually impaired. I am a middle-aged man, balding with glasses, wearing a blue sweater. I'm sitting here in my home office. Behind me, a little bit out of focus, you'll see some LPs and books and my red sparkle drum kit.
- And I'm Laurie, middle-aged woman, dark curly hair with more gray than I'd like to have. I'm coming in red dress, sitting in my living room with some art behind me and some cool doors and Eames chair.
- All right. Well, Laurie, let's start where we always start these conversations. How are you doing right now?
- I'm doing pretty well, actually. It's very cold here, so I'm like trying to allow and come to terms with the fact that it's winter in New England, which is not my favorite season. But other than that, I'm doing pretty well.
- Fantastic. Well, so let's start by talking about happiness. So you are arguably one of the world's leading experts on happiness. I'd love to hear a little bit about what led you to become interested and focus your work in this area, but also can you start by explaining, how do you define happiness?
- Yeah, well, you know, I'm a nerd, right? And so, you know, nerdy psychologists try to define things in ways that we can actually study them. And I think we could have, you know, I teach a class on happiness, but I could have a whole semester class just on the definition of happiness and debating what it is and so on. But we nerdy social scientists think of happiness as having two parts. One is being happy in your life and the other is being happy with your life. So being happy in your life is just that you have, you know, decent ratio of positive to negative emotions. It doesn't mean you have no negative emotions. I think we'll maybe talk about that as we go on, but, you know, the ratio of kind of good things like joy and laughter, is pretty good to the negative stuff like sadness and anxiety and so on. That's kind of being happy in your life. But being happy with your life is the idea that you're kind of satisfied with how things are going. You have a sense of purpose and a sense of meaning. And I like this definition because it's worth noting there are moments where those dissociate, right? There's sometimes in your work life and in your family life where you're doing something really meaningful, but it can be tough. It can come with some, you know, tough and negative emotions, right? But then we also know people who, you know, have every hedonic pleasure in their life. There's lots of fun and things like that, but with their life, there's some emptiness. And you know, for me, if you're maximizing both of those, then you're feeling pretty happy. And in terms of how I got interested in this stuff, you know, I've been a psychologist teaching at Yale for the last 20 years or so. But for most of that time, I was a professor at the front of the classroom. You know, I was watching students in my classes, but I didn't really know what student life was like. That all changed when I took on this new role as a head of college at Silliman. So Yale is one of these strange schools like Hogwarts in "Harry Potter", where there's like Gryffindor and Slytherin. There's like these like colleges within college, you know? And so Yale kind of has this structure. And being a head of college means I'm kind of the CEO of one of those, right? I kind of live on campus with students and eat with them in the dining halls. And that was when I really saw college student life up close and personal. And honestly, I was shocked by the level of mental health dysfunction I was seeing. You know, it wasn't just students who were kind of feeling a little bit stressed. And it was students who were having, you know, acute mental health crises, clinical levels of depression and anxiety, suicidality. It was like really intense. And I thought maybe, you know, is something wrong with Yale? You know, what's going on at these Ivy League institutions? But it turns out that this is just what students are facing nationally. I should have also mentioned I'm living in Boston this year. That's the T, which is driving by. This is lovely, you know, one of the perks and maybe not so much perks of working from home, so you might hear that go by a little bit. But yeah, so, you know, I was seeing, what was happening nationally. And nationally right now, over 40% of college students report being too depressed to function. Over 60% of college students nationally report being overwhelmingly anxious. More than one in 10 has seriously considered suicide, right? You know, these are numbers that are shocking. But they were so shocking it felt like in my community, I had to do something about it, right? It just meant we weren't really teaching our students in the way we thought we weren't dealing with this crisis. And so that was when I kind of retrained in the work on happiness. I thought, you know, I need to know how to teach my students evidence-based skills. I need to know what my field says so that I can give my students some strategies to overcome this stuff. So it was really kind of out of concern for this community and realizing like, we need to figure out out tools so we can fix, you know, what's coming. You know, especially at a place like Indeed, where folks are thinking about the workplace. You know, if college students are facing a mental health crisis that's that acute, you know, that's going to be on the doorstep of workplaces in the next three to five years in a way we really need to deal with.
- I mentioned in the intro that you also lead Yale's Canine Cognition lab and I know that you did earlier work with animals. I'd love to understand the connection and how that work basically prepared you for diving into the science of human happiness.
- Yeah, it's worth noting kind of like, the kind of work I did with animals. I think a lot of people who study animals are often exploring this question of, what makes humans so special and so awesome, right? You know, we are here, having this conversation over a podcast, using this interesting technology to talk across many, many miles, other species is doing that. We want to know like, why are humans so special that they can do that? I did a little bit of that work, but a lot of my work with animals explored the opposite question, which is like, you know, we humans, yeah, smart, but also problematic in a number of ways, mess stuff up, continually behave in ways that don't maximize our happiness and maybe not maximize our money and other kinds of things, right? Why do we have such bad intuitions, right? Why do we make so many mistakes? And I was really interested in the possibility that some of those intuitions are there because they're built-in over evolutionary time. They're the same dumb strategies that we might share with animals. And so I think, you know, the connection between the work in animals and the work in happiness was that I'm really realizing that a lot of the errors that we seem to have about happiness, they might also be the kind of thing that are built-in. One of the things I start my class with at Yale is this idea that we don't have the best intuitions when it comes to our happiness, right? We have these strong ideas of the sorts of things that will make us happy, but a lot of those intuitions are wrong. And so that kind of comes directly from the work I was doing in animals showing, like, animals may share some of these biases. And we have to kind of think of all the smart things we do with an eye towards we're not perfect. And some of our intuitions that might be built-in to some interesting extent, those intuitions might be messed up.
- You were talking before about the eye-opening experience of actually living on a college campus as an adult and spending all of this time with students. And as I said in the intro, you started teaching this class in 2018, Psychology and the Good Life. And that it blew up and became this just incredibly popular course on campus. Can you talk about, you know, in addition to just the living on campus, what did you learn from spending time talking about happiness to these students? And what kind of insight did you gain about people, you know, of that age and that generation?
- Yeah, I mean, you know, a couple things. I mean, one is I think, you know, what's shocking about those kind of scary mental health statistics that I quoted before is that students aren't like trying to be miserable. Like obviously, they're trying to be happy. And the particular group of students I was working with, you know, Yale students who had made it into an Ivy League school, they're kind of on this path for everything we might objectively think of as success for life. You know, they're ostensibly pretty miserable. And so one of the things I think it taught me was that, you know, even people who have all the skillsets in place and can actualize what they really want in life, were kind of going about it the wrong way. Like these are students who could really do anything in life, right? And they're kind of setting up systems that are making themselves miserable, right? And so it really taught me that we might have the wrong intuitions when it comes to what it means to be happy. You know, these are students who are really focused on academic achievements, grades, you know, at the cost of things like their social connection, their sleep, their ability to be present and be mindful taking care of their bodies, right? And it felt to me like a little bit of a microcosm of what's going wrong generally. And I think especially in the workplace, right? Which is that, you know, it's not like these students weren't working to do things that would make them happy. They were trying to, you know, put work into having a good life and having a happy life, but they were, in some sense, going about it the wrong way. And so it really taught me that what we need is we need the right kinds of strategies, right? Like we all need kind of help to overcome these intuitions and look at, hey, what does science really say about the things we can actually do to feel happier, actually do to feel fulfilled at work? And then we can start putting those things into place in our lives.
- I want to, obviously, it's sitting in the seats that we sit as Indeed in thinking about work. I want to get to that in one second, but I just want to come back to, as someone who has read exactly one book on evolutionary psychology and did not know that that field existed actually until I ended up reading this, you know, one of the things that I took away, and you can tell me where I'm missing something, is that we've been programmed for tens of thousands of years basically to remain dissatisfied. So we continue to strive for survival, right? Which is what evolution is all about, passing genes on from one generation to the next. And you know, one thought is that, if the answer is that we're programmed for this, it means that no matter what we achieve, we're never going to be satisfied, right? And so to what degree when you're talking about these types of students is achieving success almost worse because you think that this thing, I'm going to get into Yale and now I'm going to feel great and then you get there and you're not, because we've been programmed to not be satisfied and continue to strive for more. Does success almost lead to more dissatisfaction?
- Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, props from the Yale professor about reading the evolutionary psych book 'cause you kind of got it right. I mean, natural selection is not in its business to make us happy, if anything, it wants us to keep pushing. You know, get more resources, get more genes out there, right? Push, push, push. So it makes sense that we have intuitions that are messed up. And one of those messed up intuitions, which probably come straight from the evolutionary pressures that drove it, is this idea that we kind of keep pushing for more. We think, oh, if I get this thing, I'm going to be happy. But then we get that thing and it's not like we're like, all right, done. You know, happily ever after. Like, you know, I can just chill for now. No, we immediately kind of want to go onto the next thing. My favorite example with Yale students is, you know, in class, I show videos. These college students today, they film everything and put everything on TikTok and YouTube, but one of the things they put on TikTok and YouTube is their moment of acceptance. You know, so they're on some website where they're to click, did I get into Yale or not? And they click on it and they say, "You got into Yale", and they scream and they're really excited. And students report, yeah, that was a, you know, that was an awesome moment when I found out I got into Yale. They say the next like three seconds later had this moment of deep misery and dread, which was like, I just spent all of high school pushing for that and now I'm going to have to just do it right again, right? And this comes from a bias that researchers called Arrival Fallacy. It's kind of like the happily ever after fallacy. It's like, when I get this, I will be happy. But in practice, you're not. And in often cases, once you get to that thing, there's a moment of kind of like, almost existential crisis of what's the next rung on the ladder that I need to get to? Or what's the next ladder I need to start climbing? We often find ourselves climbing ladders that we might not even want to be on. You know, forcefully and with all our effort. And so I think we, you know, working with Yale students, in particular, has taught me about the power of that fallacy. You know, these are these kinds of things that are built-in. But, you know, I think one thing that comes from an evolutionary perspective that I think it's worth remembering is sometimes we hear about what we're built to do and we're like, oh, you know, that's it. I guess I'll always fall prey to the arrival fallacy. I'll always do happiness wrong. No, we are constantly having, you know, ways to overcome our evolutionary kind of constraints, right? You know, you didn't mention in your visual description, but you're sitting there with glasses, right? I have contact lenses on like, we'd be, you know, I don't know how bad your eyes are, but I'd be an evolutionary mess, right? Like I'd be eaten by some tiger a long time ago 'cause I can't see anything, right? You know, we are constrained by where we are physically, but we have developed technology that allows us to talk and socially connect across these things, right? Like, we overcome our evolutionary constraints all the time. And I think we need to do that in the behavioral domain as well. We just need to know what we need to do and then we kind of can ignore what evolution programmed us for.
- Yeah, glasses definitely have helped evolutionarily, but for me the GPS is more important 'cause I would've been lost in the woods years ago and never seen again. So, okay, so we have this sort of ladder that we climb. You know, going through middle school to get to high school. You get to high school, you get to college, maybe you do some graduate work. And then you end up in work. And then it never ends, right? At least for some people. I guess the question is for us, we think about work and the meaning of work all the time. On the one hand, it seems like it is a slippery place to be, given the brains that we were given here and this striving. At the same time, you talked about the importance of meaning and purpose. And hopefully, for many people, there's an opportunity at work to find your place in society, your place in the world and to have some meaning. So how is it that we navigate that? And what is the role of work in happiness on both sides?
- Yeah, I mean, I think work can be an important spot for happiness, you know, in a lot of different ways. I mean, one, it takes up a lot of our time, right? You know, it's going to be probably 1/3 of our time if not more with you have sleeping and kind of out of time of work. And so if we're not maximizing our happiness there, that's just a lot of time lost just, you know, statistically, in our lives. I think work also has lots of opportunities for happiness, right? It's a place that many of us get really close social connection and develop, you know, like teams and bonds and things like that. It's also a domain where we're, you know, literally doing work, right? So we're often doing things that can be really meaningful, can help the world, can kind of allow for creative output and so on. The problem, though, is that we kind of, when we think about what we want out of work, we can kind of get messed up with these intuitions, right? Like a lot of us, you know, think, oh, you know what? What would make me most happy at my job is if I earned a lot of money or I could get to the next accolade and so on. And it's not that money, you know, isn't important for happiness. I think if you're living below the poverty line, it definitely is. You need a living wage. You need to kind of have, you know, roof over your head and food on the table. But the evidence suggests that once you get to a certain point, like more money is kind of not going to matter at your job. If anything, you'll kind of get in this extrinsic reward mode where you're not kind of reaping the internal rewards and satisfaction of doing your job. You're just going for like, well, when's the next accolade? When's the next bonus? When's the next, you know, like salary raise or something? And that can actually impede happiness rather than kind of increase it. But there are things we can go for and it fits with sort of not going for the next thing, not falling prey to the arrival fallacy, but finding ways to enjoy the journey. And there's lots of evidence that at work, you seem to enjoy the journey most if you're engaging in tasks that allow you to use what are known as your signature strengths. What are signature strengths? Well, researchers go out and they look at like, what are the kinds of things people value? And they sort of think about like all kinds of strengths that you can have that, you know, might be good for the world, right? Things like bravery or humor or creativity or like social expertise and empathy, or love of learning, right? You can kind of probably kind of come up with some on your own. Just like good, positive, valuable traits for people to have. But it turns out that there's some of those traits that resonate particularly well with you. You know, if I was to give you a list of them and you read through, you might be like, yeah, you know, bravery is cool, but I'm really into humor. Or yeah, you know, it's like empathy is great, but I'm a leader. I really like when I lead. These things that kind of pop out in the whole value space are what are known as your signature strengths. Now there's evidence that if you use those strengths at work, if you find ways to infuse them into your normal job description, you wind up happier at work. You wind up performing better at work. Your managers will say, "Oh my gosh, you're doing so much better." But in addition, you start to not think of your job as a job or even a career, you start to think of it as a calling. And so a lot of the happiness advice at work is to really find, you know, think carefully and very intentionally about your signature strengths and then how you can build them in.
- So one of the things, you were one of the speakers at Indeed's signature annual customer conference, FutureWorks early this year. That's where I first heard you speak and we got to meet and talk there. And one of the things that you said just completely blew my mind, just because it's such a simple concept, but I've never heard anyone say it before. So we in the work universe are obsessed with this idea of work-life balance. People talk about it all the time and what does it mean and how do we get more of it. And you said, you know, work-life balance is actually maybe not the best way to look at it, that you prefer to think of it as work-life harmony. Can you talk through that for the folks that haven't heard this and what does that distinction mean to you?
- Yeah, I mean, I think there're kind of two problems with this idea of work-life balance, right? One is like, if you really think through the metaphor and if you picture in your mind the balance, you kind of see, you know, scales, almost judge's scales. You know, work over here, life over here. And I think we get the implicit sense that, you know, if we want to invest in work and work's going up, that the balance is kind of, although life balance is sort of going down. That there's these trade-offs. That it's a zero sum game, right? Like you invest in work, you know, life is going to take a hit. And to invest in our mental health, this is something that my Yale students worry about. It's like, I could invest in my mental health, but what that necessarily means is that my academic performance is going to go down, my work performance, and my career success is going to go down, right? I think that's kind of implicit in the metaphor. So I think this is just problematic that we sort of think that. But I think the bigger issue with the metaphor is the evidence suggests that it's just scientifically incorrect, right? All the available studies that I know of show that as you start investing in your mental health and your happiness, what happens is you start performing better. What happens is that you start working more innovatively and more creatively. One of my favorite subjects on this looked longitudinally, right? Because we get confused. We think like, if we're successful at work, we'll get happier. We need to show that if you're happier at time one, you'll actually be more successful at work. We have to show the causal arrow goes from happiness to making you perform better. And a study that really looked at this surveyed cheerfulness in 18 year olds, right? This is just kind of standard, you know, surveys of like how happy are you. You know, how cheerful you are over time. And they use that measure in 18 year olds to predict work success, job obtainment, and salary at age 27 and at age 35. And that correlation is there. In other words, if you're a more cheerful 18 year old, you're more likely to be performing better at work at age 27 and you're more likely to make more money. In part, 'cause you are performing better, right? This is not what we think as 18 year olds that we should be investing in cheerfulness. But there's, you know, this evidence really suggests that our mental health kind of matters. And so that's why I like this idea of work-life harmony rather than work-life balance. It's not a zero sum game. If you invest in your mental health, if you are feeling better, you will work better, too. And I think that's essential for us as individuals and individual workers to think about. But I think it's an important metaphor for work places to think about. Because I think it's, you know, it's not just us that worries a little bit about this balance. I think, you know, this is often tough for managers to say, you know, I'm worried about one of the people on my team, but if I let them take time off, if I try to help them invest in their wellbeing, what's going to happen to performance? And the answer, again, from every available study is performance is just going to go up if you take the time to protect what's going on in your mind.
- I'm curious, does the research say anything about, is that a symmetrical relationship? So I can logically understand that if I invest in my mental health, I'll do better at work. Is it positive or negative to invest more in work? And what is the spillover into life? Do you have to be careful about that?
- Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, just the evidence really suggests as you get busier, as you're not doing the things. I mean, I think one way to frame it is life is really an opportunity cost, right? You know, in the sense that you only have time to kind of put your focus into certain things. And if the focus is overly going into the work, to the point that you're not seeing your friends, you're not sleeping, you don't have a moment to spare, you feel so time-famished that you're like really activating your fight or flight system, those things are going to have consequences for your mental health. And so it's not so much that you want it, like it's about a harmony, right? You could imagine if you just like, you know, had leisure all the time and you never did any work, that harmony could get off too, right? What we want to be doing is in taking care of our mental health, such that we're really able to work well. And I think that's kind of the balance that we're shooting for.
- So moving beds into offices so employees can work 120 hours a week, maybe not the best idea from a scientific perspective?
- Having this conversation now, where all these interesting experiments on four day work weeks coming out of Ireland and everywhere. And my read of that, of all these experiments and empirical studies that have looked at this, is that working a little bit less winds up making everybody more productive, right? Which, again, we don't think. We think it's like number of hours at your desk is going to somehow predict like how much output you have, but like, we are not machines as much as we'd like to think we are. And even machines, I imagine, if you run the photocopier too much, like it's going to break, right? And so I think, you know, we're not machines and we really need to take that into account that like what motivates us, what allows for creativity, what allows for innovation, it might not just be kind of working all the time.
- So let's talk about compensation because in all of the research that you see externally, but we do extensive surveying of job seekers all the time and that consistently comes up as one of the top reasons that people look for a new job. You've talked about the fact that that might or might not actually be correlated with, you know, happiness and therefore, might or might not be the best strategy. What does your research show?
- Salary matters if you're not making very much. If you're like living below the poverty line, you know, if you're not making enough to kind of have a reasonable existence where you feel kind of safe and secure, definitely getting more money matters a lot. And if you're in that situation, yes, you should switch jobs. You'll be much happier. But I think a lot of us are kind of, you know, know that relationship probably exists at really low incomes and we extrapolate it out past when it continues to matter. And continues to matter these days, there's evidence at least from a 2009 study, that if you're earning over 75K in the U.S. right now, then doubling or tripling your salary won't matter at all for your levels of stress, for your levels of positive emotion, and so on. It's not what we think, but it's what the data really show. And, you know, 75K in 2009, maybe it's a little bit more now, but it's not the level that we think. And you think this matters a lot for job seekers. I mean, I see this in my Yale students, right? They all have to pick what am I going to do when I leave this place? And they're successful students, so they often have lots of job offers on the table. And honestly, a lot of them pick based on like, what's that salary number? You know, I'll just go to whoever's going to pay me most. And again, over a certain amount, it doesn't seem to really matter for the things we care about. In fact, if you looked at the kinds of compensation that really do matter for people's happiness, it's things like giving people back access to a little bit more time. While there's not really that much evidence that wealth affluence, like monetary affluence, boosts our happiness, there's a lot of evidence that time affluence, this is this term that social scientists use, really matters for our happiness. And the opposite feeling, what this term I used before, time famine, where you feel like you're starving for time, you're literally starving for time, that's a recipe for really reduced wellbeing. In fact, there's one study that shows if you self-report being time-famished a lot, that's as bad a hit on your wellbeing as if you self-report being unemployed, right? Which is way below, you know, the 75K cutoff, right? So I think we need to kind of get in the mode of realizing that yes, you know, we have to put food on the table, right? We have to earn a living, right? That matters and we should do that fairly and with living wages. But once we get past a certain point, it's kind of not going to matter that much for our lifestyle as we think.
- You had a recent episode of your podcast where you talked about this idea of how to not get too worked up about work. How do you give advice to someone who might be worked up about work to approach things in a different way?
- Yeah, well, I mean this is, you know, this is a topic that's very salient for me right now. You know, one of the reasons I'm in this apartment with the nice art and so on is I'm taking a break from my life at Yale and living in Boston. And that was in part because I was getting a little bit worked up about work. You know, I was starting to feel a little bit burned out myself, to the point that I was feeling a little bit emotionally exhausted, getting a sense of sort of cynicism of kind of being annoyed with the people at work, kind of feeling a sense of ineffectiveness, right? So this is something I know what happens when you get kind of worked up about work. And one of the pieces of advice is to really start to invest in other things outside of work. I mean, I think, you know, it's really easy to have your whole identity invested in work, right? And we start this really early on in life. You know, if you have a young kid, they go home for the holidays and some people ask like, "Oh, and what do you want to be when you grow up?" Or my college students like, what do you want to major in? It's like, not who are you as a person? Are you kind? Like, what hobbies do you have? What do you love outside of work? It's like our whole work is our identity, right? And we need to, I think, if you're feeling a little bit like work is starting to feel overwhelming or too much or you're feeling burnt out, it's time to really look at the other investments that you are making in your life. The investments that you're making in your leisure, right? You know, how much time and intention are you putting into those things? You know, as you're growing at work, what does it look like for your identity on the outside of these things? If you're having the answer, like, I don't even know what that looks like, you know? It might be time to take stock and say, you know, "How much of my identity do I put into my friendships or my family?" Or, you know, just the kinds of things I love to do outside of work. How am I investing in those things? And again, I think because of this idea of work-life harmony, investing in those things is not necessarily going to be this balanced hit of what happens at work. It might be that you're feeling more energized by some hobby that you have, or a close relationship that you've kind of invested in more. Like you're probably going to get that energy to bring that back to where you're doing at work, too. And so one of the ways we can really, kind of get out of the mindset of work, work work all the time, is to say, "I've invested in my career. I boost my resume and done all this stuff. What would it look like to boost the other aspects of my identity, other parts of my life?" And especially if you're feeling like I don't have those, then that's a moment to really rethink, like what those could be and what those could look like.
- Oh, as an employer and for other employers who might be listening to this conversation at some point, when we think about the experience and the challenges that university students are facing, which maybe different than when I went to school or when you went to school. When people start their career, it's almost like, you know, early childhood development, right? So we have a chance to help shape the relationship with work for a new generation of people who are coming in. We have new college grads who start at Indeed every year. What are some of the things that we could think about or other employers could think about in terms of the environment that we want to set up for people who are starting their work career to help set them up not just for success in this job, but to have a more healthy relationship with work throughout their lives?
- Yeah, well, you know, maybe I'll start with the bad news, which I kind of alluded to before, which is like, you know, this generation of college students is really, really struggling. Again, you know, over 40% reporting too depressed to function most days, like hard to get up most days. Over 60% saying they're overwhelmingly anxious. More than 55% saying they're very lonely most of the time. And again, more than 1 in 10 is seriously considering suicide, like, sometime within the last 12 months, right? Like when that shows up on the workplace's doorstep, it means that realistically, we need to think about ways to provide more mental health support and kind of more strategies for kind of working on this work-life harmony, right? Like, I think that's just going to be the nature of the mental health crisis that winds up on workplace's doorstep. And that's much more extreme than before. So for example, rates of depression in college students have doubled between 2009 and 2011, depending on the data set, right? So it's gotten much worse and it's gotten much worse fast. And so I think that's just a reality that businesses are going to have to deal with. I think the good news is that there are lots of ways to deal with that reality, right? Like one great thing about what we know in social science is we have good tools for reducing people's burnout, for increasing people's sense of calling at work, for kind of allowing people the mode to kind of fix up their work-life harmony. Workplaces can see this research and just kind of start to put it into effect. And I think one of the big things to do is to really listen to that work on signature strengths and what people value. You know, it's not about more and more compensation. It's not about throwing resources there. It's really about throwing resources into the whole person. And one of my favorite pieces of work that looks at, okay, well, you know, that sounds great in the abstract, but how can businesses really do that, is some work by the researcher Amy Wrzesniewski, who's a professor here at Yale at the School of Management. And she does a lot of work on what she calls job crafting, which is where management tries to work with different employees to figure out, okay, where can we infuse more of your signature strengths into the job description you have? You know, it's not so much like changing people's job tasks to do different things. It's like, given the things you have to do anyway, how can we fit some of these strengths in? And you know, for different kinds of employers, you might be thinking like, oh yeah, that might work for some really interesting, you know, cool jobs like your academic. Of course, you can infuse your strengths into your job. But for the kind of workplace I run, you know, that's going to be really tricky. One of the reasons I love Amy's work is that she studies job crafting in a workplace environment where you might not think there's a lot of flexibility. A lot of her work is in job crafting in hospital janitorial staff members. So these are people who are like, you know, cleaning a chemo ward or washing linen when people are sick, you know, like vomiting and gross stuff like that. And you can say like, how do they infuse leadership and humor and creativity into a job like that? And what she finds is that a lot of the team members in these organizations, the ones who love their job and perform well, they do it naturally. You know, so she tells stories of a janitorial staff member who says, you know, yeah, my job is cleaning up when people are sick in a chemo ward, for example. But you know, that's my job description, but my real job is talking to the patients and making them laugh, right? Like they're at this awful moment in their life. They're sick, you know, they just vomited. I come and I say, "Hey, you know, I'm going to get overtime cause you vomited, thank you." And they laugh and I laugh. He's like, "That's my job." Or another, you know, worker who had creativity as one of her signature strengths talked about working in a coma ward where the patients were, you know, in comas over time. And she said, "My job, you know, I'm supposed to clean up, but what I do is every day, I move the flowers a little bit or I put different bows and things and I just have the sense that if I'm changing things around, maybe that will help the patients." Like, you know, I don't know scientifically if that's really working, but this is her expressing her creativity to do something different. And so I love Amy's work because it shows, you know, if you can job craft in that, I think, pretty limited job description, you can actually do it in different workplaces. And this is something we as individual employees can do in our own jobs, but I think it's something that managers and HR professionals can start thinking about, is how can we get creative with the stuff people have to do? You know, to kind of do what they're supposed to do, but do it in a way that allows them to enjoy the journey, to get a sense of fulfillment and pleasure and purpose out of what they're doing.
- So in thinking about your experience of taking a step back and going on sabbatical to focus on your own burnout and you're working on your podcast and doing other things, in academia, there is this built-in structure with sabbatical, which actually seems like a really healthy thing. In the rest of the world, there remains, I think, a pretty significant stigma still of when we talk to our customers all the time and one of the things they look at and they say gaps in a resume are a real problem or job hopping. Someone who moves around every couple of years as opposed to staying somewhere. But if people are making these decisions for their own mental health and for creating more work-life harmony, what, if any, advice is there for how someone can navigate those conversations with a prospective employer about why their resume might include these gaps?
- Yeah, well, I think, you know, you mentioned the stigma, I have incredibly privileged life where I get to be an academic and take these sabbaticals, but it was pretty stigmatizing for me, too. You know, there's the article that in the New York Times that was like, I think the headline was like, "Happiness researcher too burned out to keep being happiness researcher", you know? So it's like, you know. But what I had to explain was, you know, it is not a story of that. What it's a story of is recognizing the signs, right? And taking kind of action on them really. If you had an employee who, for example, was doing some job, say you're in tech. And you realize like, I'm not trained enough in the latest technique of, you know, programming or whatever, I need to get some training to do that a little bit better, right? Like, that might be seen as a really good thing. Like, wow, you independently identified a spot where you needed to build your skillset up and you did that. I think we start need to start thinking about mental health in the same way, right? Like I was realizing that if I kept going at this pace that it would, you know, mean I couldn't do my job very well, right? And again, I think we need to remember the signs that that's what it means. This is not being weak. This actually is taking care of yourself in a way that will allow you to perform better. It matters for the bottom line that like rest and taking breaks and these kinds of things matter for increased performance later on. So I think, you know, companies need to remember that that just scientifically is what the data show. I mean, it didn't have to be that way. It could be that, you know, it wasn't work-life harmony. It was really work-life balance. And yeah, you know, if you want to focus on your employee's mental health, oh well, like the work's going to go down. But that's just not the way that science works anymore. It just doesn't look like that. And so I think just recognizing that scientific fact will be really powerful. Then again, for people who are kind of going through this, I think you know, more and more the demands of work-life and especially the place we find ourselves in, where I don't like the term great resignation, but I think great renegotiation is a great term where people are thinking more carefully about what they want their balance to look like. And en masse as we do that, that's just necessarily going to be reflected in our resumes and what's on our LinkedIn profiles. And I think that's going to be okay. I think this kind of thing is going to become more and more normative as people read the science of what really allows for productivity and that includes rest and breaks. I think the best workers are just going to have those gaps. My hope is that, you know, soon, as you look at somebody's resume, you're like, "Whoa, you took a couple months off to take a break. Like that shows me that you're not going to come here and get burned out and be a drain on my healthcare system and be a drain on what's happening." Like you're actually taking care of yourself in the right way. I hope college admissions offices will start thinking in that way soon. And I think it feels far away, but the science catches up really fast. Especially in the business world. I think they catch onto the what performance. You know, people pay a lot of attention to what yields high performance, and we're getting a lot of scientific data that high performance can come from rest and breaks. And so I think, you know, in the next five to 10 years, we're going to see a different view of those gaps in the resume. I think people will like, "Oh, that's great. You took time out to protect yourself. You're coming back energized and that's who I want to hire."
- So in all these discussions and reflecting back, this is the last episode of the year for us. A lot of the conversations that we have are around bias and barriers in employment and in particular, around equity and the fact that any of the issues that we're talking about, whether it's mental health or sort of any of these other challenges, they tend to be dramatically more acute for people in marginalized groups. People of color, people with disabilities, women, anyone at the intersection of any of those. Is there any research that you have about understanding the differences there about how some of these themes play out differently for people in different communities? And what can organizations do to sort of understand and help navigate those issues?
- Biggest thing to remember is that, you know, the outcomes of or the kind of consequences, I should say, of things like structural racism, all the structural barriers that people of color, people from underrepresented groups, even first gen college students for example, face, it's going to make all these mental health situations even more acute in those populations, right? And the data in college students bare this out. The data in adults bare this out. And so I think that's just something to keep in mind. What that means is that it's all the more essential if we care about fair, equitable workplaces to make sure that these opportunities to kind of get rest, these opportunities to take care of ourselves are available not just to everyone, but especially to people from marginalized groups. And I think there's a second reason why this is so important. You know, one of the critiques I often get, you know, sometimes from my students is sometimes from people who hear my podcast is like, you know, this focus on happiness. It kind of bugs me because I feel like if everybody is happy, then we wouldn't fix the things in the world. Or maybe another way to put it is like, how can we be happy when there are structures of, you know, racism and sexism and all the isms out there in the world? How can we be happy when the world is falling apart? If we focused on our happiness and we all had the wonderful work-life harmony, we might ignore those things and never solve them, right? We might kind of Pollyanna through the life and just say, "Everything's great for me, I'm going to ignore that." But the data suggests just the opposite. The data suggests that if you look at the extent to which people, for example, go to a climate change protest or take action to fix climate change or go to, you know, like invest in social justice through a Black Lives Matter protest or something like that, or even just try to fight, you know, simpler aspects of structural problems in their workplace, people are more likely to do that when they self-report feeling happier, right? I mean, it is not shocking when you hear the finding, right? You kind of need your own bandwidth to fix any of these things. But it means that if we really care about equity and fixing the structures that are causing these problems, we might need to focus on our mental health, right? You know, if you look at whether or not a college student, for example, today is taking action on social justice, this is some work at Georgetown. What you find is the more they self-report, like I'm pretty mentally healthy, the more likely they're actually taking action to fix stuff. And so I think, you know, if you are from a marginalized community and you care about, or you're not and you want to be an ally and you want to fight some of the structures that are causing so many problems, you actually need to take care of yourself. I'm going to mangle the quote from, you know, the activist Audre Lorde, but she talks about self-care as a political act. Like self-care is the way that we fight some of these problems. And so this idea of putting your own oxygen mask on first is really essential. So I think in general, so many of of these issues are worse for marginalized communities. But for all of us, if we really care about fighting some of these structural barriers, we all need to be taking care of ourselves to figure out innovative solutions.
- That's fantastic. Well, I could keep asking you questions all day. This stuff is, is incredibly, I think, relevant and meaningful to us in our work and thinking about helping people find better jobs, but really being happier in the work that they do. But what I'd love to do is just close with the same question that I ask everyone at the end, which is really in the context. This podcast started at the start of the pandemic. And you know, we've been through various different phases in that time, but the question is, when you look back over the last few years and everything that we've been through and so much of it has been so incredibly disruptive and difficult and there's been so much suffering and exposure of inequities and all of those things. And yet, many people have been able to, through that experience, see or experience something that has given them some hope for the future. So what hope for the future do you have from your experiences over the last few years?
- Yeah, both my experiences over the last few years, and I think, you know, in digging into this work a lot more, which a lot of the kind of my focus on happiness has happened in the context of the pandemic, which has kind of been an interesting lens, I think, to start thinking about this stuff. I think the thing that gives me the most hope is that we actually know the answers empirically. Like, we know how to stop burnout. We know how to stop things like not feeling excited about your work. We know how to stop things like depression and anxiety. We just have to kind of put those practices into effect and that means challenging our intuitions, which is hard and it means behavior change, which is even harder. But I think we kind of have the answers and that gives me a lot of hope. Like that didn't need to be the case. We might just be clueless about, how do we fix this stuff? We actually know. And that gives me a lot of excitement that we can put this science into practice in our own lives and in our workplaces and make things better for everybody.
- Dr. Laurie Santos, thank you so much for joining us today and thank you so much for the work that you do in your research, which really, I think, will help more and more people be more happy in whatever it is that they're doing.
- Thank you so much for having me on the show.
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