Yale’s most popular class is free and it changes how you spend your money.
Many of us worry ourselves sick, literally, about money. We may barely have enough for today’s bills, much less saving for retirement. Or we just feel like we need more to keep up with our friends and neighbors. We invest a considerable amount of time and energy thinking about how to get more dollars in our pockets, and sweating over watching them come out again as we pay for both needs and wants. What if changing how we think and act could break this cycle of anxiety?
Yale’s most popular class ever, Psychology and the Good Life, is now available to anyone for free online at Coursera. The 10-week class is taught by Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology and cognitive science. Hundreds of high-achieving students at the Ivy League institution say the class changed their lives for the better. They’re a smart bunch; Yale’s acceptance rate is only 6.3 percent of applicants. So what was it they didn’t know?
People are prone to predict incorrectly how much they’ll enjoy something in the future. Santos talks about a handful of “annoying features of the mind” that cause us to go after material things that have almost no enduring impact on our happiness. Think about that expensive sweater that was going to turn you from frumpy to fantastic, or the car that would make you feel sooo important.
“Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago, that our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade — are totally wrong,” Santos says.
She references a renowned study done in 2010 at Princeton. After surveying more than 450,000 Americans, researchers discovered that happiness did tend to rise with income, but only to a point. At about the level of $75,000 per year, the correlation came untied.
Change Your Headgame
Be smart and try some of the following strategies to improve your mental well-being.
Since then, other studies have shown a closer link between income and happiness at higher levels, such as the 2012 Skandia International Wealth Sentiment Monitor, which found the two to go hand-in-hand to $160,000. Bummer! But Santos thinks the wealth factor is overrated.
Mind Over Matter (and Wallet)
Santos says the more recent study is important, “but I don’t think it changes the message of the class, which is that high wealth has a teeny effect on happiness. The key is that it’s way less than what we predict, and it’s a lot less effective than the other practices we suggest.” Phew.
“Money doesn’t increase happiness in the way that we think,” Santos says. “Our minds are lying to us about how much of an impact extra cash will have on our happiness.”
So what will bring about an internal smile?
- Learning new skills for a more positive life outcome. Go for a talent that isn’t related to more money or career advancement.
- Increase your kindness factor. Spend more on other people, less on yourself.
- Spend more time with friends and family. Make a conscious decision that they are the priority.
- Spend less on things that don’t last. The new sheets, the new car, the new perfume — send the money you would have spent on them to a charity, or just let it ride in your bank or investment account.
- Make every day a healthy one. Create habits of journaling, meditating and exercising.
Happiness and Depression
Santos says that what works for you may not work for the person sitting next to you. Try different things to see what puts a smile on your face, or eases that nagging anxiety within. The Yale students need a solution as much as anyone.
“In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,” says Alannah Maynez, 19, a freshman who took the course. “The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions — both positive and negative — so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”
In fact, a 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates at the school sought mental health care sometime during their student years there. And it isn’t just a problem at Yale; colleges and universities across the country report a rise in students needing mental health services. The class is a start.
“Students want to change, to be happier themselves, and to change the culture here on campus,” Dr. Santos said in an interview. “With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits, things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.”
Happiness of Nations
The correlation of happiness to money breaks down on a national level, too. The 2013 World Happiness Report found that the happiest nations are not those that are the wealthiest. The survey discovered that the happiness of people in Mexico, for example, was greater than that of U.S. citizens. The happiest people are scattered across Scandinavia: Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden are all in the top 10.
If the study has you wondering if there’s an English-speaking country that rates well, you’re in luck. There are two: Canada came in 6th for happiness and Australia grabbed 10th place. The United States has the world’s largest economy, but slid into 17th place for happiness out of 156 nations surveyed.
"The highest-ranking nations have an average income 40 times greater than the lowest, but the ability to have someone to call on in times of trouble is only twice as likely in high-ranking nations,” explains John Helliwell, a University of British Columbia economist who specializes in the study of macroeconomics and well-being. “That suggests that improvements in factors such as generosity make a much greater impact than earning more cash."
Rewiring: You Do the Work
The class requires little formal homework, which may be one reason for its popularity. However, Santos says it’s the “hardest class at Yale.” To get any benefit, students have to hold themselves accountable to learn new strategies for happiness and use them throughout a lifetime.
Students go out with assignments to perform acts of kindness and make new social connections. The final is a “Hack Yo’Self” project for personal self-improvement. How will you change your habits to tell your brain that money isn’t always the answer? Check out our sidebar for ideas to kick-start a more financially worry-free life.
Click below for the other articles in the September 2019 Senior Spirit
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