Dr. Laurie Santos on students, happiness and COVID-related stress

Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and head of the Silliman College at Yale University, helps her students make sense of the world through her course, Psychology and the Good Life, which is the highest-enrollment class in the university’s history. It’s also available as an online class via Coursera, which has been taken by more than 3 million people.

Along with her work at Yale, Santos produces “The Happiness Lab,” a podcast that explores topics related to happiness and personal fulfillment. Santos is a New Bedford native who grew up in a bi-national household and attended New Bedford High School before going on to earn a phD from Harvard University in 2003.

Here, Santos talks to The Light about how New Bedford High School students can prioritize their own happiness and positive mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. She offers insight into social media usage, the effect of someone’s environment on happiness, and how people can handle the stress of uncontrollable circumstances.

This is the inaugural installment of The Light’s InPerson feature, a series of interviews that focus on inspiring people with links to the New Bedford community.

NEW BEDFORD LIGHT: How did your upbringing in New Bedford, and your experience at New Bedford High School, influence your future career path and your attitudes toward happiness?

LAURIE SANTOS: I first became interested in psychology when I was a high school student back in New Bedford high in the ’90s. It was really fantastic to go to high school in New Bedford; I learned a ton. At the time, I was able to take AP biology classes and early psychology classes. It really got me excited about thinking about the field of social science, and really prepared me ultimately for the kind of work that I do today.

NBL: Some current seniors at New Bedford High School are experiencing stress and anxiety stemming from worries over COVID-19. How can a student manage stress and work toward happiness — in an environment where they don’t have much control — whether that be at school or at home?

LS:  I think it’s worth noting that feeling stressed about COVID-19, especially as a high school student, is normative right now. In other words, it’s the normal thing to be feeling. I think sometimes when we experience negative emotion or stress we think that there’s something wrong with us, or that we’re doing something wrong. But in a really uncertain, anxiety provoking situation like COVID-19, feeling stressed out and experiencing negative emotion, that’s a normal thing to be going through. So, I think we need to really make sure that high school students recognize that it’s OK to not be OK right now. That said, I think if students are going through stress and anxiety, there are lots of strategies they can use to navigate these things.

One simple strategy we talk a lot about on the podcast is just the simple act of using your breath. The act of taking a few deep breaths really is a mechanism for shutting off your sympathetic nervous system — that fight or flight response that so many of us are experiencing right now. The simple act of taking a few deep breaths can turn on our rest and digest system, which allows us to de-stress just a little bit. 

A second strategy is to not suppress or run away from negative emotions, but to give them time to be there. On my podcast, I talk about meditation practices that can help us with experiencing negative emotions. One good one is a practice that’s known as R.A.I.N., which is an acronym for Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Nurture. So, in the practice, you take five minutes or so to sit down and recognize your emotions, whether that’s frustration, sadness, anger, anxiety and so on. You take steps to allow those emotions to be there and sit with those emotions as they take their course. 

You do that through the “I” step, investigate, which is to sit there with your emotions and really pay attention to how they feel in your body — notice what’s going on in your body. What the science shows is that emotions are like a wave. If you sit with them for a while, they’re going to take their course. And that’s when you do the final step, which is “N,” nurture. Ask yourself, ‘what can you really do to take care of yourself?’ Can you take something off your plate? Can you contact a friend or call a friend and really connect with somebody? Research shows that practices like R.A.I.N. can reduce negative emotion over time, even in populations that are really suffering, such as first responders. So, I think it’s a great strategy to use when you’re feeling a little anxious and stressed out.

NBL: On a similar note, how can someone strive for happiness when they may be constrained in other ways, for example, an adult working two jobs or someone who may be a caretaker for someone else?

LS: I think it’s obvious that certain kinds of circumstances affect our happiness. But the science shows that they don’t always affect our happiness in the ways we think. In other words, even the worst of circumstances don’t force us to be unhappy; there are still actions that we can take to feel better. 

One of those actions is really trying to engage in healthy habits. As much as possible, take three minutes to take a few deep breaths, so you can regulate your stress and deactivate your sympathetic nervous system. You can also take time to connect with somebody that you love. There’s lots of evidence that social connection is really important for our well-being but can also be a strategy that we can use to build resilience, especially during times of stress. So even in very difficult circumstances, it’s worth remembering that there are strategies we can use to feel a little bit better. It doesn’t often feel that way, but the science shows there are things we can do to feel better.

NBL: Social media has been a useful tool for keeping students connected to their friends, family and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the supervisor of clinical and behavioral services at New Bedford Public Schools said that social media can be a double-edged sword. How much time online is too much? When should a student unplug? How does this relate to happiness?

LS: My favorite strategies for dealing with social media in a way that’s healthier come from the journalist Catherine Price. She has a lovely book called “How to Break up with Your Phone” where she argues that we don’t need to break up with our phones per se, but we might need to take them to couples counseling. 

She advocates for a strategy that she calls WWW, which is an acronym for: “What for?  Why now? And what else?” She argues that every time you pick up your phone to use social media, you should ask yourself those three questions. First, what for? What was I going on social media for, was it to really connect with somebody directly? Was I bored? Was I feeling anxious? Did I have a purpose for going on social media, or did it just happen? 

Second, why now? What was the trigger? You know, maybe you were looking for information, but maybe you were feeling something, perhaps you go on social media more when you’re feeling anxious, depressed or bored. Again, just notice what you’re going on there for. And then the third question — which is perhaps the most important one — what else? This is the opportunity cost question. What else could you be doing rather than going on social media? Maybe this is a time when you could be connecting with somebody in real life. Maybe this is a time that you could be sleeping, or even just being present — taking a few deep breaths. 

Catherine Price’s work shows us that it’s not necessarily how much time we’re on social media, but it’s how social media is making us feel. And so, if we can take steps to use social media more mindfully, to really notice what it’s doing to our minds, to our bodies, when we use it, we can try to find strategies to use social media so that we can get the benefits from being connected without getting the drawbacks in terms of our mental health.

NBL: Some New Bedford High School students struggled with the transition from virtual learning to in-school instruction. What makes a fertile environment for happiness? How much of an impact does someone’s environment have on their happiness? 

LS: Well, all the changes that students are going through right now are causing lots of uncertainty and lots of frustration. I mean, they’re causing uncertainty and frustration for adults, right? So, it makes even more sense that teenagers going through this would be feeling a little bit off kilter. I think the evidence suggests that our environments and our circumstances matter for happiness less than we think. But there are things that we can do to promote environments that boost our well-being. 

One strategy I give my own students is to make sure that the rituals they’re used to for starting and stopping their day are still present. What do I mean by this? Well, when we were going to in-school instruction before, there was a time when you left your house — you went from home mode into school mode. And I think virtual learning means that disconnect isn’t often there, and that can feel really confusing for students. For students who are doing virtual learning, [I advise them] to set up some ritual to signal that you’re starting the day. That can be as simple as when you’re done using your computer or your tablet for a day, throwing a towel over it, or sitting in a new spot at home when you’re at school versus when you’re just home for the day. These simple little environmental changes can have a big impact on our learning and how we feel during school time.

NBL: One New Bedford High School senior said of the prevailing attitude in school, “people have kind of just given up and they just want to settle for the bare minimum.” How can students find motivation in a situation that, for them, can seem never ending? How do expectations for your experiences play into happiness?

LS: I think one way to find motivation is just to realize that we have control over our own thoughts and emotions. We don’t think so, it can feel like our thoughts just come up naturally, and our emotions are automatic. But there is much more control than we think, especially in a tricky situation. I like to tell my students about a parable that comes from Buddhist philosophy called the parable of the second arrow. It goes something like this: 

Buddha was talking to students and asked the students, “Hey, if you’re walking down the street, and you get hit by an arrow is that bad?” And his Buddhist students said, “Yeah, that’s pretty bad.” And he went on to ask, “Well imagine if you’re walking down the street and you get hit by a second arrow is that even worse?” And Buddha’s students said, “Yeah, that’s much worse to get hit by a second arrow.” 

Buddha goes on to note that the first arrow, we can’t often control in life — that’s the circumstances, that’s if we have to switch to remote learning, that’s if the pandemic rises up, and so on. But the second arrow is our reaction to those situations. And Buddha goes on to note that the second arrow is always under our control. In some sense, it’s the one we stab ourselves with. If we respond to online learning by giving up completely or settling for the bare minimum, or not engaging in healthy habits or social connection that could make us feel better. I think what the parable tells me is that there’s a lot of control that we have over the situation, in terms of our response to it. It doesn’t feel like it, but you really can take control over your emotions and thoughts, if you have the right strategies.

NBL: Switching gears to your course at Yale, Psychology and the Good Life, is there a place for a course similar to yours at the elementary, middle, or high school level? If so, what could that look like? What is a core concept that would transfer well to younger people?

LS: I really hope there’s a place for courses like my “Psychology and the Good Life” at the high school level, because I’m working with colleagues right now on a grant-funded project to bring this content to high school students. Any educators in New Bedford that want to learn more can go to Psychology and the Good Life.com. It’s a website where educators can sign up for the materials we’ve created so far, and can be in touch to learn more about when we have new resources available. My hope is that providing this content to high school learners will allow them to learn some effective, evidence-based strategies early on, so they can put them into effect before they become older adults.

NBL: Is it the responsibility of a school district to teach positive mental health practices? How involved should a school district be in promoting students’ happiness? How can a district do that?

LS: We found at Yale that teaching students about strategies they can use to promote their happiness is an effective way of improving students’ mental health. We’ve now done a study on our online Coursera Science of Well Being class, and what we found is that students who take that class get a bump of their well-being at the size of around one point on a 10 point happiness scale. So, it’s not huge, but it’s a significant bump that most of our learners receive. And I think this tells us something — that we can really be using school curricula to teach strategies that can improve students’ mental health, in some cases at scale. So, I do really think it’d be great if New Bedford public schools could get classes like this on the books, and it would be awesome for me as a New Bedford high alum, to have that be one of my classes.