A surprising key to happiness: do less

March 20, 2024
Dr. Laurie Santos taught the most popular class in the history of Yale University and shares "keys to happiness" on The Happiness Lab podcast. Photo courtesy of Dr. Laurie Santos.
Dr. Laurie Santos taught the most popular class in the history of Yale University and shares “keys to happiness” on The Happiness Lab podcast. Photo courtesy of Dr. Laurie Santos.

Want to be happier? Try doing less.

This seemingly counterintuitive advice comes from happiness guru, Dr. Laurie Santos. She skyrocketed to fame after teaching the most popular class in the history of Yale University, “Psychology and the Good Life.” Hundreds of students signed up to learn how to be happier.

Then Santos and Yale offered a free online version of the class called “The Science of Well-Being,” and hundreds of thousands of people, then millions, (4.6 so far) signed up for the class. In 2019, Santos also launched her chart-topping podcast, “The Happiness Lab.”

All of Santos’ advice about happiness is rooted in evidence from research.

And when it came time for Santos to apply these lessons to her own life, an interesting thing happened.

Like many women, she realized she was dealing with burnout, and in order to be happier herself, she decided to simplify her life.

Santos will share her insights as the keynote speaker for UCHealth’s signature women’s health event, evrē, which takes place on April 6 in Denver. Pronounced “every,” the event aims to help all women lead healthier lives. (Learn more about evrē and sign up to attend.)

When Santos visits Denver, she’ll talk about how we all can rethink happiness to lead better lives. And she’ll highlight 10 scientifically-proven tips for boosting mental health and reducing burnout and stress.

Among the top ‘keys to happiness’ that Santos frequently cites are:

  • Prioritizing social connections.
  • Practicing gratitude.
  • Getting plenty of sleep.
  • Eating a healthy diet.
  • Helping others.

When Santos identified her own burnout, she also learned about the value of speaking openly about struggles.

Facing burnout and taking actions for a fix

Along with her work as a professor and researcher at Yale, Santos used to serve as head of one of Yale’s 14 residential communities called Silliman College. All students at Yale are assigned to live in one of the university’s colleges where they can dine, relax, study and enjoy enrichment activities with one another. Santos and her husband, Yale philosopher Mark Maxwell, lived at Silliman, and Santos regularly advised students and helped create a popular coffee shop and wellness center at Silliman.

“As the head of college, you’re like the CEO of that college or a benevolent aunt to many students,” Santos said. “So, I would run events and make decisions about how the college was run.”

After the popularity of her happiness programs surged and the pandemic hit, Santos found that her time and energy for meaningfully engaging with students had declined sharply. She needed to heed the advice she shared with others, so she resigned as head of the college and uprooted herself.

“The decision to step away was a really big one. It involved moving and changing a lot of the ways I spent my time every day,” Santos said.

Dr. Laurie Santos had to make changes in her own life after realizing she was suffering from burnout. All of us can be happier if we adopt a counterintuitive approach: try doing less. Photo courtesy of Dr. Laurie Santos.
Dr. Laurie Santos had to make changes in her own life after realizing she was suffering from burnout. All of us can be happier if we adopt a counterintuitive approach: try doing less. Photo courtesy of Dr. Laurie Santos.

The pandemic was hard on the Yale community, as it was for so many other people, Santos said.

“It was a really tough time to be leading a group of students who couldn’t engage in the university in anything like the way they were engaging before, and I started experiencing a lot of the symptoms of burnout. I was emotionally exhausted,” Santos said.

Santos said she was also experiencing a phenomenon that experts call “personal ineffectiveness.”

“Even if I did my job perfectly, I felt like I wouldn’t be making a difference,” she said.

Santos also noticed another common symptom of burnout: cynicism, “where everybody’s just getting on your last nerve….and it’s hard to feel compassion for people.”

Even though she knew there’d be plenty of chatter both at Yale and in the media about a happiness expert who was unhappy, Santos decided she had to give up her job as head of Silliman.

“I really needed to make a big change. It was a hard decision,” she said.

And sure enough, word got out.

“I was in the New York Times Magazine for talking about my burnout,” she said.

Stigma about openly discussing challenges is common, Santos said.

“But there may be a special stigma when you’re ‘supposed’ to be an expert in this. What I realized is…I wanted to be practicing what I preach to my students, and the feedback has been incredible.”

Along with students, younger scholars and staff members were grateful to Santos for speaking up.

“They said, ‘thank you for doing this so publicly because it made it easier for me to make the decision to take time off and to realize that no one’s perfect, and we all have to take care of ourselves,’” Santos said

In addition to giving up some of her academic duties, Santos also took off a full year off.

“Burnout doesn’t just stop. You really need to make some serious changes,” Santos said.

She’s lucky that professors get regular breaks known as sabbaticals. Many choose to do research in far-flung locales during their sabbaticals. But Santos also knows from her research that human connections and regular social interactions are vital to happiness. So, rather than living in a new community that might have felt lonely, Santos and her husband decided to spend their sabbatical year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they have many friends and Santos had attended Harvard University for both college and graduate school.

“I took action to try and fix the burnout,” Santos said.

Filling herself up and embracing the benefits of subtraction

The sabbatical proved to be fun and restorative.

To nurture relationships, Santos and her friends held regular movie nights.

“One of the biggest predictors of people’s happiness is their sense of social connections. You’re making time for friends and family and the people you care about,” she said.

“We did a lot of dinner parties and movies every Monday,” Santos said. “It gave me the routines and social connections that I had been missing after the pandemic. That was really huge for me, and I had a feeling that I was healing.

“Some people came every week and others only came every once in a while. But it was this space where people could be social together and enjoy a new film together,” she said.

Santos also enjoyed her favorite physical activities: yoga and long walks.

“I had the time to move my body. That’s important,” Santos said. “One of the reasons I love the Boston community is that it’s not really a car city. People walk a lot, and I love walking during my daily life when it doesn’t feel like exercise. I don’t have to commit to going to a gym, but I get a lot of steps in. That was great for me.”

Santos also enjoys keeping a journal.

And she kept things as simple as possible during her year away, a lesson that could prove invaluable to people who overschedule themselves or their children.

In a recent podcast episode, Santos teamed up with Tim Harford, host of “Cautionary Tales,” for an episode called “The Happiness of Subtraction.”

Santos highlighted a concept that’s tough for humans to embrace — especially overachievers — doing less.

“It seems like we’d all be much happier, maybe even healthier, if we could figure out the importance of sometimes doing nothing,” Santos said.

Or busy people could go a step further.

“Sometimes, the best thing we can do is to actively take something away,” Santos said.

She notes that it’s very hard for humans — especially those who are addicted to constant notifications from their phones and packed schedules — to choose to subtract and simplify.

But Santos cited examples or travelers who try to pack in too many stops in a city like Washington, D.C., when, in fact, more down time, would prove relaxing, beneficial and perhaps even more memorable than gazillions of museums.

And helicopter parents are notorious for constantly adding activities to children’s lives when kids clearly would benefit from being less busy.

“College students today have oversubscribed schedules and never have time to do anything,” Santos said. “I think that’s because they grew up in a generation where parents gave them so much to do that they got used to never having time.

“You want your kids to learn how to play soccer and to get piano lessons. And you definitely need them to get a math tutor and an SAT tutor and all of these things. So you pack your kids’ schedule to the point that they have no time for rest, no time for play, no time for being social with kids their age,” Santos said.

Imagine the power of subtracting activities, rather than adding them, she said.

The recipe for raising happier kids is relatively simple.

“Just take a bunch of stuff out of kids’ schedules,” Santos said.

Fostering happiness in young people: teaming up with teens and Big Bird

Santos has been thinking a lot recently about how to foster greater happiness among young people. She has adapted her popular happiness for teens who can now access a free version online. Check out “The Science of Well-Being for Teens.”

And she partnered with Big Bird, Abby Cadabby and Grover of “Sesame Street” fame for a three-episode series on “The Happiness Lab” to highlight concrete steps parents and families can use to boost wellness and happiness among children.

The episodes explore how to help kids regulate their emotions and reduce negative self-criticism.

Santos said it’s never too early — or too late — to improve your emotional well-being.

Among her college students, Santos said she often heard that they wished they had developed better well-being habits earlier in life. The class for teens has already been a big hit.

“We’ve had 100,000 teenagers take it so far, which is great. It offers the same sorts of strategies (as for adults) but they’re geared toward kids in middle school and high school,” Santos said.

Parents also can work with their children at very young ages to develop positive happier habits.

“Parents can help kids feel less anxious and less stressed. One way to do that is by taking care of their own stress and anxiety. I’m so often reminded about the power of emotional contagion,” Santos said.

Focusing on greater happiness is not a selfish pursuit. Instead, pursuing greater joy will likely cause joy to spread.

“Your emotions are affecting other people. One way to help your kids is to give yourself permission to help yourself.”

evrē, UCHealth’s signature women’s wellness event, is back. Check out the brand new Stockyards Event Center for this annual wellness event that supports women’s physical, mental and emotional health through an inspiring speaker, workshops, fun fitness classes, health screenings and more. You don’t want to miss this! Register today.


About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.