March 9th, 2019

Q & A with Laurie Santos, Ph.D, Yale associate professor of psychology

Laurie Santos, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology and director of Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory and Canine Cognition Center

Laurie Santos, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology and director of Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory and Canine Cognition Center

Research in happiness attracts attention from wide audience.

Today’s young adults are experiencing stress and mental health problems at levels we haven’t seen before. The good news is that they seem to be reaching out for answers and help.

According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, counseling centers at colleges saw a 30-40 percent increase of utilization in the five years before 2015 even though enrollment was up by only five percent.

Beyond crisis care, students also appear interested in finding the intersection between a successful life and a happy life as evidenced by the popularity of a course on happiness offered at Yale University.

Called Psychology and the Good Life, the course is taught by Laurie Santos, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology and director of Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory and Canine Cognition Center.

The class filled so far beyond capacity that it was moved to a larger hall to seat the nearly 1,200 students enrolled.

Santos, whose Comparative Cognition Laboratory explores the evolutionary origins of the human mind through primates and canines, sees a link between that work and her work on happiness.

She spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the course, her research, and her recent appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss the neuroscience of happiness with participants at an IdeasLab.

You have become famous for teaching the most popular class ever at Yale University, a course on happiness. What kind of feedback have you had on whether students see a positive change?

We only have anecdotal data so far, but many students reported that the class caused them to make positive changes in their lives, mostly through engaging in the positive activities we refer to as “rewirements” in the class (e.g., habits like taking time for gratitude, making new social connections, exercise, and sleep).

Why did you decide to teach this class?

I decided to teach the class when I became a head of one of Yale’s residential colleges. As a head of college, I lived on campus with students and saw first-hand the mental health crises they were experiencing. I taught the class because I wanted students to learn better strategies to improve their well-being.

How do you approach the process of teaching happiness?

The course begins by introducing some misconceptions that people have about what makes for a satisfying life. We then discuss that many things we think matter for our happiness— wealth, material possessions, and even good grades— simply don’t. In fact, recent studies suggest that these goals may even undermine our sense of well-being.

We then take a good hard look at the psychological biases and dumb features of our minds that lead us astray, biases that make it hard for us to see what makes us happy and make us seek out the wrong sorts of things.

We discuss what psychology research shows about what we really should strive for to live a satisfying life.

Having gotten our life goals straight, we next talk about how to put these new life goals into practice. We review scientifically-validated strategies for harnessing our cognitive biases to live a better and more satisfying life.

We end the course by thinking critically about how to use what we’ve learned both to hack our own happiness and to make a difference in our communities.

Any future plans to add another session or to add similar/follow up classes?

I’m currently taking a year off of teaching the class now, but I hope to offer it again (probably in a capped version).

We’ve also made a shorter version of the class available online for free to anyone who wants to take it as part of Yale’s digital offerings on Couresera.org (see http://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being).

You were invited to speak at Davos on happiness–again, a very popular offering with people lined up out the door. Apparently, this is not just an American dilemma. What were people most interested in?

People want to know what science says about how to live a satisfying life. I think even in that community of wealthy businessmen and world leaders, people are seeking better strategies for improving their well-being.

I was intrigued by how ubiquitous the search for a better life is, even in really privileged audiences like the folks at Davos.

Your research with the Comparative Cognition Laboratory has received national attention as well with research on how primates and canines are similar and different from humans in how they develop. What is your current research and what do you hope to show with it?

These days a lot of our primate work is focused on the origins of our theory of mind capacities. In some of my favorite recent studies, we’ve shown that non-human primates share some of the mechanisms we use to think about the minds of others, but not all of them.

Our current work is aimed at working out the nuance of this— which representations do non-human primates lack, and what consequences does it have for their social reasoning.

Our work with dogs has focused on a related question— what aspects of social learning are unique to species. This work has shown that dogs lack some of the basic biases that humans have when learning from others, such as over-imitation.

One of the things that you have done is a study where monkeys use money. This sentence from a Liberty Science Center release stopped me in my tracks: “She found that, in monkey business, capuchins make the same poor economic choices that humans do, such as overbuying certain food items when their prices drop.” Can you explain?

In very early work in my lab, we were interested in whether monkeys show some of the basic economic biases that we see in humans, biases like loss aversion and reference dependence.

We tested this by giving a group of capuchin monkeys access to their own token economy in which they could trade tokens with experimenters for food. We found that many of our human-like biases about money are shared with monkeys.

How does one train a monkey to use money?

We reinforced them for touching the tokens, then reinforced them for picking them up, and then for handing them to an experimenter. Most monkeys picked up token trading in a single session.

Another study looked at empathy in dogs. I don’t think it would shock a dog owner that dogs are in tune with us. What is the goal of this research?

We’re currently beginning a line of work aimed at testing basic social cognition not just in pet dogs but also in service dogs. Our goal is to learn how training to be a service animal shapes a dog’s basic social cognitive competency.

Do you think your work on happiness will overshadow the work you do on cognition or do they tie in more neatly than that for you?

I think the work ties together because all of it is focused on using the science of psychology to better understand ourselves, how our minds lie to us, and what we can do to live better.

Catherine Robertson Souter is a freelance writer and social media agent based in New Hampshire. A contributor to New England Psychologist since its inception, she previously wrote for Massachusetts Psychologist among other media outlets.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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