Episode 88 – Dr. Laurie Santos, Exploring True Happiness

How many of you have had an amazing, epic, mountain top moment happen in your life — but deep down inside, the view from the top didn’t make you feel quite as happy as you imagined? To be honest, we’ve all had that experience. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Today, Jessica spends time with Dr. Laurie Santos — a cognitive scientist and researcher of all things happiness. Together they’ll unpack some of the baggage that leads us to ignore the sweeter moments in life and keeps us from being truly happy.

Laurie Santos

Jessica: Hey everyone! Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Join me here every week for conversations on living lives of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared.

Alright, how many of you watch the Summer Olympics? I love watching the Summer Olympics for one reason: gymnastics. So, it’s the 2012 London Olympics, the stadium is filled with fans, and the USA Gymnastics Champion, McKayla Maroney, is waiting to accept her Olympic Medal. Her name is called, she steps up onto the podium, and in that moment the camera captures her in a vulnerable moment with a giant scowl on her face. A scowl. In this moment of the greatest achievement in McKayla’s career, she has a disappointed scowl on her face because she is winning the Silver Medal. What is supposed to be an epic moment in her career isn’t because, instead of relishing her Silver Medal, all she can think about is how she missed the Gold.

Well, as it turns out, McKayla’s reaction is common. In fact, research shows that Olympians who win the Bronze Medal are actually happier than those that win the Silver. Why is that? This is a concept that I learned from our guest on today’s show, Dr. Laurie Santos. Dr. Laurie Santos is the Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. She’s the Director of Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory, Director of Yale’s Canine Cognition Lab, and Head of Yale Residential College, the Silliman College. She is also the host of an epic podcast that I would love for you to tune in to after you listen to our conversation. It’s called The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos, and in it she studies happiness. Her premise is “Maybe our minds are wrong about telling us what it will take to make us happy.” And that’s exactly what she teaches us today.

We talk some about reference points, we talk about comparison, social media, overparenting, anxiety among today’s students … it is a rich conversation and I can’t wait for you to tune in.

And I don’t say this very often, but I hardly listen to podcasts because I have no commute to work, I do group exercise, I have three kids, and I’m running a business. So, but I love your podcast and especially this last year as an entrepreneur, I’ve been on this journey of letting go of the myth that there is a point of arrival. And so, your interview with Michelle Kwan, I mean I like I just broke down. I was in tears, and so, I wanted to know if I can take you back in time a little bit, because I know it’s been a hot second since you did interview her. But tell me, because I know you are a fan of hers now too. Tell me what you learned about interviewing Michelle.

Dr. Santos: Yeah, well first I mean it was just such an amazing opportunity to get to talk to her. I mean I remember watching her skate back in the day. And so, when I found out she was, she was coming for a talk on Yale’s campus. And so, when I found out she was coming, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have to get her for the podcast interview,” in part because I had known about this story where she had the gold medal in some sense ripped from her but was just so kind of beautiful about it and just was able to just kind of take that moment and make it just even more beautiful. And so, I was super excited to talk to her. I don’t know where you do your podcast recordings, but mine are in my house in a closet. And so, I had to invite the Michelle Kwan into my closet, which is filled with a bunch of mattresses. And I’m like, “I know this is not really a proper recording studio.”

Jessica: That makes me love you. That makes me love you, Laurie.

Dr. Santos: I’m like, I know you’re kind of really famous, but yeah, so completely unflappable. Just sat down in my closet with a bunch of mattresses, and we just got started. I think I knew her story, but kind of hearing her tell it just made it so clear. I think what she was skating for wasn’t the metals. It was just this process of just loving the grind. she loved being on the ice. She talked about skating over the Olympic rings and that bringing her to tears, and it just became clear that she wasn’t doing this for the accolades. She was doing it because she loved it. And that was why she was so great at it. That was why she derived happiness from it. Even in the face of what, for most athletes would be just kind of an awful moment. She was just able to sail through it.


Reference Point vs Reality

Jessica: Well, it’s funny that you describe this as an awful moment because in your podcast, you talk about and that the research that’s been done that says that you’re actually happier if you get a bronze medal as opposed to a silver. And Michelle has, she won a silver and then I believe a bronze in two Olympics. And tell us a little bit about that phenomenon and why is that so?

Dr. Santos: Yeah. Well, it’s kind of a puzzle, right? Because if you watch the Olympics or you watch any kind of sporting event, groups that do incredibly well and are second best in the world are often really unhappy when they find that news out. Silver medalists in general on the stand are incredibly unhappy looking, not just kind of less happy than the gold medalist but actively showing emotional expressions of disgust, anger, sadness, and so on, which is kind of weird in the sense that there is second in the world. What’s even more puzzling is that if you look at the expressions of the bronze medalist, they tend to be incredibly happy. I mean, in some cases they look happier than the gold medalist, which is weird because they’re even objectively worse off than the silver medalist.

And so, the question is sort of what’s going on. And so, what the research shows us is that what’s going on is that we as humans don’t evaluate things objectively in terms of, so objectively, how we’re doing. We’re gold, we’re silver, we’re bronze we’re first, second, or third. We always evaluate relative to some reference point. There’s somebody else that we’re comparing ourselves against and that’s how we measure how well we did. And for the silver medalist, it’s obvious who they’re measuring themselves against. They almost got gold. And so, when they think about how well they did, they can’t help but compare and feel like a loser. And that’s where the sadness, the anger that disappointment comes from.

“We always evaluate relative to some reference point. There’s somebody else that we’re comparing ourselves against and that’s how we measure how well we did.” Dr. Laurie Santos

Bronze medalists in contrast have a different comparison point. They weren’t gonna beat the gold medalist. There are multiple people in between them, right? But they think that this … a few seconds off and they could have been not on the stand at all. They buy just a singe, they ended up getting a medal. And that wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion given the way it went. And so, they’re ecstatic. Their reference point is kind of making them happy.

And so, this is fun if you care about Olympic medalists and Michelle Kwan and things like that. But this is the kind of thing we do all the time. Objectively we can be doing incredibly well in our businesses, in our work, but then if somebody else is doing just a little bit better, now all of a sudden, we feel sad. Objectively our vacation can be fantastic, but if we peek on Facebook and somebody looks like they’re doing better, all of a sudden now we feel terrible.

And so, this idea of social comparison really can rob us of our happiness unless we find ways to overcome that. And really, and this is one of the reasons I really loved talking to Michelle, she was really able to do that in her own way by kind of loving the grind. It wasn’t about comparing herself against someone else. It wasn’t even about the metals. It was just that she loved what she was doing, and so she didn’t need a comparison.

Jessica: And I think that was my big takeaway. I mean I thought I’d come really far in this, OK? I have written a book and a big piece of it was her success doesn’t diminish yours. And I speak a lot to women. I talk a ton about comparison. I’m 10 years in now to leading a really successful business, but we did not reach our sales goals, and we missed them by a pretty big mark. And I saw it as such a failure. And I did. I got out of touch with the love of the game, the love of the practices, the love of the activities.


Comparison Cognition

And I think that’s why hearing you interview Michelle was so powerful to me. But I think I’m pretty an enlightened person. I’ve done some work therapy, executive coaching, and yet I still get tripped up. And you are the director of Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory. So, let’s talk a little bit more about comparison, because you also can talk about the benefits of comparison. So, share with us a little bit about comparison cognition and what is it and why do you study it?

Dr. Santos: Yeah, well I think, I mean one of the things we know from studying how social comparison works is that you can know that all these phenomena are going on but that doesn’t necessarily shut them off. And this is true for social comparison, it’s true for lots of the ways our mind works. You can know the kinds of things that you’re supposed to be doing, right, and know that these phenomena exist, but that doesn’t necessarily make them go away. And that sucks, it sucks to be in some sense an expert on some of these biases and still fall prey to them myself. I’m gonna feel just as bad about my vacation if I scroll through someone else’s Instagram. I’m gonna feel just as bad about my bikini pics when I see Beyonce and her bikini, right? That’s just the way minds work, even if you know.

And so, I think that’s kind of the puzzle. I mean, for people like us who know this work and have gotten this kind of training, it’s still really hard. You still have to put a lot of work in to find strategies to get around this stuff. And I think that that’s a really important message for folks to hear. I mean, sometimes folks think like, “Oh, I’ll hear this Michelle Kwan podcast, and then all of a sudden I’ll just be good.” But actually, that’s not really the case. It’s just gonna keep taking work to avoid the comparison. And that’s kinda just what the research suggests.

Jessica: Well, it’s crazy because after listening to your interview, that was one of my big takeaways of Michelle’s strategy is you gotta love the practices, the grind. I mean you’ve gotta love. She just practiced and she loves skating and she talked about the joy she could even remember the audience and what the audience sounded like. Her big takeaway from the Olympics was not “That was my moment to get gold and I will forever never hold a gold medal.” But it was really about the experience because she just loves skating. And I ended up rearranging my whole work schedule and I went on this big tour of the East Coast to go meet up with all of our stakeholders, which we call Noonday Collection Ambassadors. And just to get back in touch with the love of what I do, the love of entrepreneurship. What are some other strategies that are helpful if you fall prey to comparison?

Dr. Santos: Well, I think one is taking a different comparison point, right? I mean, what the research shows is that our minds can’t shut off comparison necessarily, but we can definitely pick which comparison points we’re paying attention to. In the podcast we joke about finding a bronze lining. If you’re the silver medalist, you’re looking to gold, but if you’re the bronze medalist, you’re feeling pretty good even though you didn’t objectively do that well. And I think we can all do that in our lives. I think we have this natural tendency to compare against the best people out there or our personal best performance. If you had a bad sales period, you’re comparing it against some sales period where you did really fantastic. If you’re thinking about good your vacation is, you’re not comparing it against some mediocre vacation. You’re comparing it against the best vacation you could imagine.

“What the research shows is that our minds can’t shut off comparison necessarily, but we can definitely pick which comparison points we’re paying attention to.” Dr. Laurie Santos

But we don’t necessarily have to do that. And the fact of the matter is, is that there’s lots of comparison points out there that make us look pretty good. I think we can do this a lot when it comes to salary and income. One of the main reasons that we feel like we’re not making enough money is that we’re constantly bombarded by The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and the rich people we see on TV and on social media. If you actually look at what real people earn, sometimes you can say, “Wait, hang on, I was feeling bad before but now, this is actually something that can make me feel better.” And so, I think finding those comparisons that aren’t necessarily the best of the best of the best but what real people are doing—real body, real salaries, real vacations, real sales performances—that can actually make you feel better.


From Negative Visualization to Gratitude

A second thing you can do is not to necessarily look to real people but to do an imaging visualization where you think about what life would be like without that sort of thing. And this is a tendency, this is a practice that researchers called negative visualization. It’s kinda like the, “It’s A Wonderful Life" phenomenon. If you think back to the famous Christmas movie, it’s what would my life be like if I just wasn’t there? But we could do that for anything. What would life be like if I didn’t have this job opportunity at all? Or what would life be like if I didn’t have this vacation at all? Or didn’t have my spouse, or didn’t have my kids? You can quickly do that fast negative visualization and it causes you to have a lot of gratitude.

I mean, basically what you’re doing is you’re setting up a comparison point that’s in some sense really bad. What would life be like if I didn’t have this job at all. Now all of a sudden just the act of having the job, even if it’s going badly, you’re like, this is great. I can’t. I’m so grateful for having this there. And so, we can use the power of imagery to set up our own comparison points and that can sometimes make us kind of remember how grateful we are for the things we really do have. It can kind of shut off that comparison.

“We can use the power of imagery to set up our own comparison points and that can sometimes make us kind of remember how grateful we are for the things we really do have. It can kind of shut off that comparison.” Dr. Laurie Santos

Jessica: Do you find that there’s certain types of people that struggle with this more than others and your research?

Dr. Santos: Yeah. And there are definitely data suggesting that people, there’s some people who are prone to fall prey to this even more than some others, right? And in fact, there’s measures of social comparison that you can get and research shows that folks who are on social media kind of get more of a hit from being on social media if you’re prone to social comparison than if you’re not.

And I think you don’t necessarily need a scientific instrument to measure this, right? You can tell if you’re the kind of person who really pays a lot of attention to other people. Do you pay attention to your own grind? Are you the kind of person who really feels it when other people are doing slightly better than you do you get the little green eyed monster, right? If you’re that kind of person, you might need these strategies even more than someone else who’s not as prone to this tendency.

Jessica: Let’s talk, you brought up salary and money. And I love that because you do a whole podcast talking about  one of the guys who wins the lottery and I think ends up committing suicide. And your whole thesis is there is a threshold of happiness and we over project usually this point of arrival. We think we have point of arrivals in our mind, whether it’s our weight, when I finally weigh that, when I can finally fit into those jeans, when I could finally earn that salary, when I finally land that boyfriend. And we over project how happy that’s gonna make us and yet we under project our ability to go through hard things. Tell us a little bit about that because that whole point really stuck with me.


Over Projecting for Points of Arrival

Dr. Santos: Yeah. And so much of our happiness isn’t something that … when we think about happiness, we’re often projecting things, right? This is how we make decisions. When you decide whether or not to take a certain job or whether or not to go on a certain vacation or whether or not to date a certain person, you’re often making those decisions using some prediction about your own happiness. Will this dating this person make me happy? Will this job make me happier than my current job? And so on.

The problem is that what research shows is that a lot of the way we go about making those predictions, those mechanisms kind of suck. They’re just really inaccurate. And one of the things that’s inaccurate about them is that we tend to over project how good things are gonna feel and over project how bad things are gonna feel, both in terms of their intensity and in terms of their duration. So, take a good thing, I’m gonna get a promotion at work or I’ll use the example you used. I’m gonna fit in those jeans finally. I’m gonna lose that last 15 pounds and finally fit in those jeans. When we project how good that’s gonna feel, we think the intensity is going to be huge, right? It’s just gonna feel so amazing. And we also think the duration is gonna feel huge. “Once I fit in those jeans, like everything else for the rest of life, all hunky dory, I’m just great.”

But it turns out we’re wrong on both counts. It doesn’t feel as good as we think. And it definitely, that good feeling doesn’t last for as long as we think. And that means that sometimes we put these good events in our lives up there like, “I’m gonna just keep my life on hold till I reach this happiness point of the perfect jeans or the perfect job or the perfect relationship.” And in practice, once we get there, we’re not gonna be as happy as we think.

“We tend to over project how good things are gonna feel and over project how bad things are gonna feel, both in terms of their intensity and in terms of their duration. … It turns out we’re wrong on both counts. It doesn’t feel as good as we think. And it definitely, that good feeling doesn’t last for as long as we think.” Dr. Laurie Santos

That’s kind of the bad news. But the same phenomenon gives us some good news, which is that there are things that we think, “Oh my gosh, if this happened in my life, my life would be over right now. If I lost a child or lost a spouse or I got fired from my job or had a really bad sales quarter,” right? We are making predictions about how awful those events would feel. But those predictions are also off in terms of their intensity and in terms of their duration.

We have all these mechanisms that kind of kick in to make ourselves feel OK even in the worst of circumstances. And we also have brains that find meaning in things that are really bad. Again, even in the worst of circumstances. And so, in the podcast we talk to people who’ve both had these awesome good things happen, like win the lottery or just absolutely terrible things happen. Losing limbs in a car accident or getting an incurable disease. And in all these cases, what you find is what we would predict from the outside like, “This would be fantastic,” or “This would destroy my life,” those predictions simply are wrong.

And that is important for the good stuff. It means we shouldn’t be out there throwing our all into pursuing these things given that it’s not gonna give us the happiness we think. At least we should be more realistic about what those achievements are gonna feel like. But I think it gives us an even clearer glimpse into the fact that we’re just gonna be more resilient when the bad stuff comes up. When the breakups happen, when we get bad news at work, when we get bad health news, it’s not actually gonna be as bad as we think. Our resilience is going to kick in much more than we expect.


Happiness: Always an Accolade Away

Jessica: And the mindset, what do you think it’s costing us, that mindset that when we get to this point of arrival, it’s gonna equal A, B, C, and D? What is that costing us?

Dr. Santos: Well, I think the cost is that when we kind of get in those mindsets, what happens is that when we finally achieve the thing, we’re off in terms of our prediction of happiness. So, let’s take the jeans example. When I finally lose the 15 pounds, I fit in these jeans, it’s gonna feel amazing. There’s that one morning you put them on, and it feels good but maybe not as good as you expect. And what that means is instead of realizing, “Wait, hang on, my prediction was off.” What we think is, “I need to double down. Maybe I need to lose another five or maybe I need to fit into these other jeans that I’m just simply never ever gonna fit into,” right?

I think what happens is when we don’t get the result we want, it’s not that we throw away the enterprise. We kind of double down on that next accolade, that next thing. And I think the domain we see this most in, in the kind of business world for all the women who are kind of listening to this podcast, is in the context of salary. We think if as soon as I achieve a certain salary level or a certain level of success at work, I’m gonna be good, I’m gonna be happy. And then that doesn’t happen. And we’re like, “Oh wait, maybe it’s not that success level. Maybe it’s one higher that I have to achieve, I have to do more, more and more,” and then we do more and then that doesn’t work. And then we think, well, I still need more?

And so, I guess two things there. One is that we end up continually kind of going after this stuff that’s not gonna work. But in the face of it not working, then we double down. And that means we’re constantly on this treadmill of pursuit of things that aren’t gonna give us the happiness we expect.

“When we don’t get the result we want, it’s not that we throw away the enterprise. We kind of double down on that next accolade … We end up continually kind of going after this stuff that’s not gonna work. But in the face of it not working, then we double down. And that means we’re constantly on this treadmill of pursuit of things that aren’t gonna give us the happiness we expect.” Dr. Laurie Santos

Jessica: So, what gives us happiness? How do you define happy?

Dr. Santos: Yeah, well this is, it comes from the research, right? And one of the things that the research tells us is that the things that really make us happy, that really give us longstanding happiness, happiness that’s gonna stick, they’re not often the things we think. It’s not the money and the shiny accolades. It’s different stuff. And so, one of the things the research suggests does really bring happiness is social connection. Taking time to have truly meaningful social connection with other people. And that can be your friends and family members. It can be a barista at a coffee shop if you really take time to talk to that person and make connections. Happy people tend to have these deep, meaningful social relationships.

And, this again, we kind of know this but what’s scary is that we often put those things on hold when we’re prioritizing the other stuff like time at work time to be at the gym to perfect our bodies. Those are the things that we often can be prioritizing. And that means we’re putting on hold some time with the people we care about. And from a happiness perspective, that’s kind of an error.

Another thing the work on happiness suggests can bring us, again more well-being than we think is taking time to be other-oriented. And I think this is a mistake we make a lot in the present environment. Right now, we’re in the midst of the holiday season, we’re about to enter the new year. And every magazine you look at it’s like, “self-care, treat yourself, put yourself first, self, self, self.” But the research on happiness suggests that that might not be the best strategy. In fact, research shows that happier people tend to be other-oriented. In other words, they’re kind of worried about helping others. They wanna volunteer more, they wanna donate more of their money to charity rather than buy stuff for themselves.

They tend not to be as focused on themselves. And again, this is something that we just don’t predict. It’s just kind of countercultural to say, “I’m having a bad day at work. Rather than get myself a really nice latte or a manicure, I’m gonna gift a coworker a really nice latte or a manicure.” I mean, the research shows that that would make us happier but it’s kinda not the strategy we think.


Making Time for Happiness

The final thing I think that’s really tough about happiness and that we, that’s a tough, especially for busy working professionals, is that happier people tend to prioritize their free time. Happier people have what researchers called time affluence, this idea that you just feel wealthy in time. It’s a very foreign concept to me. I more often feel what researchers called time famine where you’re literally famished for time. But again, we think the route to happiness is pack your schedule, pack, pack, pack more and more and more and more, more meetings, more stuff, more accolades. But actually, the research suggests is just the opposite, it’s having some time to breathe. It’s maybe canceling some of those meetings to have some time off just to have a break. Again, not what we expect but it’s what the research shows.

Jessica: Oh my gosh, that’s the story of my life right now. Because my big goal for 2020 is to take control of my schedule. And I realize I need more free time to feel creative and present, and yet I feel really selfish about carving out just random free time during my workday. I don’t have any problem like self-care actually. You’re like self-care, I’m like I love a good mani. I mean, I don’t know if it makes me happy. It’s definitely makes me happier when I take a friend and treat her who can’t really afford it. So, I love that. That is double happiness for me. But I wonder where does that come from, this idea of, I mean, I love that research actually shows that, what’d you call it? Time wealth?

Dr. Santos: Time affluence. It is like being wealthy in time. Yeah.

Jessica: I mean, how do we get a mindset of time affluence?

Dr. Santos: It’s really hard. I mean, it’s hard for a couple of reasons. One is, as I said, our minds, the whole theme of our podcast is this idea that our minds lie to us about the sorts of things that make us happy. Our minds think pack the schedule, that’s gonna do it. More and more and more, right? But it turns out our minds are just wrong. I think in this case our culture is wrong too. I’m here at Yale University where I see these elite college students, they can’t not pack it in. And in fact, when they don’t have stuff on their schedule, they almost get anxious. Their first reaction to a little time affluence is to kind of freak out about like, “what am I doing wrong?” It’s almost a status signal that you’re doing something wrong, that you’re lesser than the people who have really packed schedules.

So, I think we have these cultural influences telling us more and more and more fill the schedule. But in practice that’s just not gonna work in the way we think. And so, I think the steps that we need to take to become more time affluent is first to realize that this is a problem, to realize that this is actually a hit to our happiness and we’d be better off if we took some time off. And then I think it’s just to really, I mean like all good things that you gotta schedule it, you literally have to schedule the empty time. Both in your workday and I think in your personal life, I mean literally go into your GCal and block off times, you can write “Time Affluence.”

And I think when you get there, I mean, first of all, you just feel so free. I mean, I imagine you’ve had the same experience. I do. When you think your schedule is packed and you have meetings all day and you get to some meeting and the meeting was canceled and all of a sudden you have a free hour, it’s like you feel amazing and it feels like much more than a real hour, just a single hour. And I think that’s actually one of the important things about time affluence. It’s not the objective amount of free time you have. It’s the amount of free time you feel like you have. And that means that we can work on our perception of our time in ways that can make us feel more time affluent, that don’t necessarily require a lot of actual free time.

“It’s not the objective amount of free time you have. It’s the amount of free time you feel like you have. And that means that we can work on our perception of our time in ways that can make us feel more time affluent, that don’t necessarily require a lot of actual free time.” Dr. Laurie Santos

One thing researchers talk about is sort of reframing the perks in your life as giving you more time. So, the next time you take out, get some takeout, don’t just frame it as like, “Oh, I’m getting takeout.” Frame it as this is, “I’m doing this to like save myself some time. If I had to cook this Pad Thai on the stove, it takes at least an hour and a half. Now, I don’t have to do that. That’s a free hour and a half I have for something else.” It’s just a simple reframing. But the act of doing that can make you feel like, “Oh my gosh, I have lots of free time.”

I tell this to a lot of managers who work with employees. There’s so many companies now where they give employees food and so on. And I’m like reframe that to them as not just … it’s a nice company culture but this is a way to give you some free time. When you get home. You don’t have to pack your lunch because you’re gonna have it here. And again, just that simple reframing can cause people to realize like, “Oh my gosh, I have an extra hour. I didn’t realize.” Now, you feel time affluent and you get this sort of wellbeing boost that comes with it.


Technology, Mental Illness, and Hope for Happiness

Jessica: One of my favorite interviews on my podcast Going Scared was with Rich Karlgaard, who is the publisher of Forbes. And he wrote a book called Late Bloomer: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. And I’m curious because you and we talk a lot about that, what you’re saying your Yale students are like, “Pack it in, more achievement, more activities, more gold stars.” How does your work on happiness apply to those who are suffering from anxiety and depression and the like? And do you feel … has there been an … what has increased depression and anxiety among young people and then how is your work as a professor at Yale kind of influencing mental illness on your campus?

Dr. Santos: Yeah, I mean this was the reason I got into it honestly. I’m a head of college here at Yale, which means I live on campus with students. I’m the faculty presence in the dorms basically. And so, I see all these mental health crises up close and personal. I mean, it’s tragic, right? This question of why these things are increasing … I mean, it’s, in some ways it’s the million-dollar question. We know that these things are increasing and they’re increasing at staggering rates. It’s not just about stigma going down. It’s not just about people reporting more.  We know that these things are going up.

I mean, just one recent statistic among young people, people under 30 is that depression rates among people under 30 have doubled in the last 9 years. Which is incredibly sad and crazy, but we don’t really totally know what’s going on. That’s the honest answer. There’s probably lots.

Jessica: I mean, can you correlate though, in the last 10 years, that’s when the iPhone came out and…

Dr. Santos: This is what I was gonna say, right, is that there’s little causal data on this stuff, but there is one striking correlation that you brought up, especially nine years. What happened nine years ago, these devices that we all have in our pockets. It’s incredibly hard to do good research on whether those types of things are affecting us because there’s no one around that doesn’t have an iPhone. Or if they don’t have an iPhone, they’re kind of weird. It’s like they’re not socially representative for other reasons. But there’s lots of reasons to suspect that tech might be hurting us in ways that we don’t expect. I mean, one reason is that tech is really hurting our sleep, something else we know is really important for wellbeing. And this is especially true among young people.

I think that the recent statistic I heard was that the percentage of 15-year-olds who have a smartphone that sleep with it is around 85%. And you know why? Because they use it for their alarm clock, right? That’s why they have it beside them in bed. But of course that’s gonna affect their sleep because there’s a lot of attention grabbing stuff on the other side of your iPhone, and so it’s gonna affect your sleep, not to even mention the blue light and things like that.

We also know that technology is affecting our social connection. How often have you not stopped to talk to someone in the office just because you were checking your email. I experienced this too. I live on campus with students as I was mentioning, and we have this lovely courtyard that you walk through. And anytime you walk through the courtyard, there’ll be students in my community who I’d love to have a two second check-in with. But sometimes when I’m rushing across the courtyard, I have my phone out and I’m checking my email and I just … honestly just don’t notice the students that are there, definitely don’t do the stop and chat with them. Right.

And so, I think the ease with which we have these distractions on our phone means that we have less social connection than we could. Or think about the last time you were out to dinner with a friend or your partner, right? When somebody had the phone out, that’s stealing our attention. It’s breaking the depth of the connection we feel with that person.


Smartphones and Smiles

And there’s some lovely research coming out about this. A professor at the University of British Columbia, Liz Dunn has been studying the social effects of phones. Again, not just being on social media or something like that but literally just having your phone out. And what she finds is that people who have access to their phones say in a waiting room or in some situation where you could be social, they smile at people 30% less than if they didn’t have their phones with them. And that simple act of just smiling and connecting with people, that’s part and parcel of a lot of the social kind of connection that we have that’s really increasing our happiness.

And so, if you multiply that 30% less smiling towards by everyone in the world who has a smartphone in their pocket that’s paying a little less attention to their partners or a little less attention to being mindful when they’re in certain situations, when they’re eating food and so on, these things I think are not helping us. Again, so there’s not great causal evidence about it, but the correlation is striking even if you just look at individual behaviors. There’s definitely things we could do with our smartphones to improve our wellbeing. But a lot of time we’re not doing those things. A lot of time we’re using them in ways that just statistically should be reducing our wellbeing.

“There’s definitely things we could do with our smartphones to improve our wellbeing. But a lot of time we’re not doing those things. A lot of time we’re using them in ways that just statistically should be reducing our wellbeing.” Dr. Laurie Santos

Jessica: I have three kids, eighth graders, sixth grader, fifth grader. We let our daughter buy her phone in the seventh grade, so it’s been about eight months now and I’ve hated it, hated it. But at the same time, I know that it’s real and I do feel like this is this guinea pig generation. That it’s like we’re gonna be start. Now, there is research now. There are people that are researching this, and they are, I believe, gonna start revealing and showing correlations. If you could take us 10 years from now, what do you think are some of those, I don’t know, this is asking you probably something impossible. But in light of some of the research that’s coming out, what are some of those activities and things that we can do that the correlates with our iPhone that you think will increase our happiness? What do you … What conversations that you think are gonna be a little bit more prevalent?

Dr. Santos: Yeah, well I think a couple of things there. I mean I think again, a smartphone is just a tool. We can use it for positive things. We can use it for not so positive things. What are the ways we can use our phones in terms of a positive effect on our wellbeing? Well, one is to use them for social connection. It’s funny that an iPhone is called a phone because if I look at how often I actually use it as a real phone to pick up, talk to someone in real time on the phone, that happens way less than me checking my email or me reading some blog or me, doing whatever, right?

And so, I think using phones in the way, in some ways they were intended, which is to actually make a real connection can be helpful. And I think using them for all the practices that we’ve just talked about taking time off, use your GCal to schedule some time off. Or use one of these many apps that allow you to engage with something mindfully, these sort of mindful meditation apps or a gratitude app, another great technique. Thinking about the things you’re grateful for getting back to the things we were talking about with social comparison before.

So, I think there’s lots of ways that we can use our phones positively. I think another thing that will happen in the next few years is that I hope we’re going to develop better norms about how we use our phones. And I think that’s one of the problems now is that they’ve kind of just infiltrated all aspects of our life because they’re really addictive. There’s fun stuff on the other side of our phone. But I think as we study more and more about the effects of these things, we might get better norms. When you come into a restaurant, there’s a spot that you check your phone. Just like you put a cigarette out when you walk inside, we might get to a point where normatively you should be putting your phone away when we engage with certain situations.

“I hope we’re going to develop better norms about how we use our phones. And I think that’s one of the problems now is that they’ve kind of just infiltrated all aspects of our life because they’re really addictive. There’s fun stuff on the other side of our phone. But I think as we study more and more about the effects of these things, we might get better norms.” Dr. Laurie Santos

And I think more and more that that’s gonna happen. In fact, I’m optimistic more even because it’s starting to feel like even cell phone companies and apps are realizing this and trying to help us get off our phones more and more. So, for example, the latest iPhone will actually tell you how much time you spent on your phone. You get that hint about your screen time. And I don’t think anybody’s ever looked at that and said, ”Oh, I should be on my phone much more often.” It basically everyone looks at that and says, this is terrible. I’m gonna talk to my kids more and so on. So, I think, I think apps and cell phone companies, they don’t wanna be cigarette companies. They don’t wanna get regulated from outside. And I think they’re gonna try to help us do a little bit better in terms of our norms with our phones.

Jessica: That is so interesting. I am so excited to … yeah, for the social norms around how we use our phones to begin to change and for it to be a cultural shift, which I have a lot of hope that that will happen.

Dr. Santos: Well, it is also worth noting that we can start that shift ourselves too. We all have our own little mini cultures. You talked about your family, now your kids are getting old enough to have phones, what are your family rules about phones, right? Do they put them away at dinner … where do you put them? Do you shut them off and put them out of sight when you’re having a conversation with a family member or a sibling, are there time limit rules? They go off at 8:00 PM. It would be great for a whole culture to kind of figure this out, but we can do that locally in our families and our business organizations and our relationships and our friendships.

You can set ground rules with friends before you go out to a dinner with a friend you say, OK, ground rule for phones. They have to stay in the bag. This is when they come out … we can do that. And even though it takes a little bit of work, the research suggests that we can really have a huge benefit to our wellbeing just because not having those phones around will make us a lot more mindful in all those situations.


Intentionally Meaningful Connection

Jessica: Well, it’s funny that you brought up the barista because this morning I was getting coffee and I had just posted a meaningful post on Instagram. It was a little vulnerable. I knew it would be helpful to people. So, I was scrolling through the comments, giving people taps that were commenting and I’m ordering my coffee. And the barista was like, “So, how’s your morning been?” And just kind of interrupted that situation of me being on my phone, having human interaction, which I say I don’t like or do. And here I was doing it and I was like, ”Oh, my morning’s been great.” And she’s like, ”What are you gonna do today? I’m like, ”Well, actually later on I’m gonna take my daughter and her friends to go see a movie tonight, "Frozen.” And she’s like, ”I love ‘Frozen.’ I just took my sister to see that.”

And I had the most human interaction with the barista, and it did start my day off in a really happy way, right? Where I had a connection. And it was just another note to me that I had to put my stupid phone away when I’m checking out at the grocery store or wherever it might be. There’s just so many. But it requires a certain amount of intention and almost like a contract with yourself. We’re gonna be sitting down with our daughter. We actually have quite a bit of rules but we’re needing a check-in, kind of like six months like, “Hey, how our cell phone hygiene going?” But it almost, it just requires a commitment, because they are, they’re just ever present.

Dr. Santos: I love the way you said it, which was that you’re in the middle of this Instagram kind of binge where you’re looking at stuff and all of a sudden you’re interrupted with someone’s like, “How’s your morning?” And you’re like, “Huh, what?” You probably didn’t even realize like, “Oh my gosh, there’s a barista there. I could talk to that person,” right? We don’t notice what we don’t notice, and our phones are so attention grabbing in some ways we don’t know what we’re missing.

A lot of times I hear from parents who have heard the podcast and I’ve heard some of this stuff about technology and stuff and they’ll write to me, kind of saying that they tried to talk to their kids about it and their kids are like, ”Mom, well that’s you. Do you know all the times I’m trying to get your attention and I can’t talk to you because you’re paying attention to your phone?” And I think we realize this a little bit but again, we don’t notice so we don’t notice. And so, you’re not noticing all the missed opportunities that are going by.

And so again, I think you said it perfectly, right? We just need some intention, right? We need some rules ahead of time, and we need to kind of have a revisit two months in like, “OK, how’s this going? When have I been good about this, where have I messed up? How can I do a little bit better?” They are wonderful devices and they help us in so many ways, but if we could get some more of the benefits without less of the costs, I think we’d all be happier as a society.

“We just need some intention, right? … They are wonderful devices and they help us in so many ways, but if we could get some more of the benefits without less of the costs, I think we’d all be happier as a society.” Dr. Laurie Santos

Jessica: I think we need some guides too. When I think about health and wellness, it’s like you have guides, like fitness gurus that you might follow or Keto, if you’re needing to lose a little weight or whatever. I could see that happening in the next few years too. “Oh, I’m on this tech diet or something.”

Dr. Santos: Yeah. Well what’s really telling is, if you look at the people who create this stuff … you know Steve Jobs did not give his kids phones, right? A lot of these people who are creating these technologies themselves try to avoid it. It feels insidiously like a lot of the people who are creating the processed food are like, “Oh no, no, well my wife and I never eat that stuff, right?” And so, that’s a little telling that they know the potential problems with this stuff. But I agree, I think we’re gonna need more hints about, it’s what’s called attentional hygiene. This idea that we’re kind of regulating where our attention is going cause otherwise there’s lots of forces that are just totally ready to grab it out there. And unless we work hard to make sure we’re directing it in the ways we want to, we could be getting a real cost that we don’t realize.


Dr. Laurie Santos Going Scared

Jessica: So good. So good. OK. We are airing this episode in 2020 and I like to ask all of my guests, how are you going scared right now?

Dr. Santos: Well, I think for me it’s like really trying to find ways to overcome the sorts of things that are scary to me. I mean, I think we’re starting our second season of my podcast, which already just doing a podcast as like a nerdy academic was kind of a scary thing. But I think jumping into Season 2 where I think we’re gonna be pushing the mould a little bit and really getting into some controversial issues. And so, I’m looking forward to that but it’s making me a little scared. I’m also now recovering from an injury. I slipped on the ice and hurt my knee very badly. And so, I think going into 2020, I have a lot of physical therapy and kind of health recovery ahead of me that I’m not looking forward to. But I’m trying to kind of embrace that with acceptance and intention and sort of look at it as a journey and a spot where I can grow more. So, those are my 2020 going scared tips.

“I’m trying to kind of embrace that with acceptance and intention and sort of look at it as a journey and a spot where I can grow more.” Dr. Laurie Santos

Jessica: Going scared tips. The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos. It is so, so good. And it’s funny because you don’t come off as a nerdy academic. You’re so approachable and all the stories are so relatable. And then the research is all so interesting and I think, especially I have a lot of moms who listen to this podcast, a lot of entrepreneurs, and we’re raising little ones. The ones that are eventually in depth at Yale and you’re seeing, “Oh my gosh, these kids are anxious and overachievers,” and we kind of want to stop that cycle, really we wanna stop it now. And so, I think a lot of the tips that you give and the research that you show is really helpful for people parenting.

Dr. Santos: No, I think that’s right. I mean I think it’s hard to apply to ourselves sometimes, but we definitely worry a lot about the wellbeing of our kids. And the science gives us tips. As moms what we face is a struggle where we have the wrong intuitions, just because our minds are wrong, right? Everyone has the wrong intuitions but that means your intuitions about parenting might be wrong too. And so, I think it’s all the more important to learn about the science so you can figure out, OK, what are the best practices? How should I do this, right? To sort of make sure that, again, the kinds of mental health problems that I’m seeing in my students, some of that’s deeply genetic, some of that’s out of our control, but some of that we can fix up if we have the right, healthier practices.

One of my big breakthroughs of 2019 that is completely transforming how I’m approaching my 2020, is how I have let go of a point of arrival. You see for years, I feel like I have been striving and white-knuckling my way to some point of arrival that I thought would finally mean freedom and joy and success. But after a hard 2019 in my business and in a remodel and some personal life things, I realize that I’ve had the wrong reference point. I want to be like Michelle Kwan—Michelle who said, “It’s not about the medals, it wasn’t about the results, it was about the journey and absolutely loving the journey.”

I’ve learned so much from Dr. Santos, and I hope that you tune in to her podcast, The Happiness Lab. Now, if this conversation was helpful for you, it would mean so, so much to me if you would head on over to iTunes and leave a review about the Going Scared podcast. We read our reviews live on air sometimes, I read all the reviews. It helps us know what sort of content you’re learning from and what you want more of, and it helps more people find these sorts of valuable conversations. So, do me a favor if you enjoyed this conversation … we don’t do sponsorships, we don’t interrupt our conversations with ads, so why don’t you use that time you would have listened to an ad and go and leave a podcast review for Going Scared.

Our wonderful music for today’s show is by my good friend Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz, and I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.