In the last few years, on-campus health services and teaching staff all across North America have observed a disturbing trend in university students. There is a significant increase in depression, anxiety-related illnesses and stress levels.  In fact, university counselling services are struggling to meet the demand.

The Canadian numbers are staggering. From the latest National College Health Assessment:  65% university students felt overwhelming anxiety, 44% felt so depressed it was difficult to function, and almost 90% felt overwhelmed from what they have to do at some point in the previous 12 months.  

Psychology of the Good Life

Laurie Santos is a psychology professor at Yale.  She saw her students suffering and decided to do something about it.  Dr. Santos delved into the positive psychology research and designed a course to help her students cope.  She called it “Psychology of the Good Life” and in its first year, over one quarter of Yale students signed up.  It is Yale’s most popular course, ever.  Dr. Santos was on to something.

Santos’ course offered many insights. She taught her students that we can control a lot more of our happiness than we might think.  Yes, there is a heritability aspect to well-being – probably about 50%. Life circumstances – catastrophic events, winning the lottery, etc. – account for an additional 10%. But we actually have control over the other 40%. By developing an intention and openness to modify our behaviours, we can influence our happiness and well-being.  Below are three simple practices from Santos’ course that could have a big impact on students and non-students alike.

Make Time for Gratitude Every Single Day

Complaining about the weather, politics or that one irksome email is easy to do.  But this can encourage negative emotions. Santos says that cultivating a gratitude mindset can improve your emotional state. Research by Emmons and McCullough at the University of Miami, backs this up.  In three separate studies participants wrote a few sentences per week about what they were grateful for. This practice resulted in a more optimistic outlook, fewer physicians’ visits and more time spent exercising.

Psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman from University of Pennsylvania asked study participants to write and personally deliver a letter expressing gratitude to someone in their life who they thought hadn’t been properly thanked.  The results were huge – many participants felt a surge of well-being and happiness that lasted for up to one month. Some described it as one of the best experiences of their lives.

My sister Heidi and her family have a daily gratitude practise  Most nights, at dinner, they light a candle, sing a simple song and each name their favourite thing that happened that day.  It’s a game-changer. Says Heidi, “the end of the day can be difficult for a four-year old. When she’s starting to unravel, our gratitude practice can help bring her back into focus … and as a parent, when I scan my whole day, it helps me focus less on the frustrating times and more on those funny or happy moments.”

Help Others, Not Ourselves

When asked whether spending money on ourselves or spending money on others would lead to greater happiness — most of us pick ourselves. (as Tom and Donna from the TV show Parks and Recreation popularized – Treat yo-self!)  But we are wrong.

Elizabeth Dunn, a happiness researcher at the University of British Columbia , has a number of studies observing our spending habits and happiness. In the studies, participants experienced higher increases in happiness when spending money on others, rather than themselves.

For example, one randomized study provided participants either $5 or $20 in an envelope to participants and asked them to either spend it on themselves or someone else by the end of the day.  The researchers asked the participants to rate their level of happiness before and after the experiment – even with as little as $5, spending money on others provided a “non-trivial” rise in happiness.

For most of us, a $5 donation is a very minor alteration in spending allocation.  But even this small amount can make a difference.

Engage in More Small Social Interactions

Social critic and former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne recently wrote a piece for the MIT Technology Review. In it, he points out that many consumer technologies are designed to eliminate human interaction. Online shopping is replacing retail outlets like bookstores. Downloading and streaming digital music means you don’t need music stores. Social media outlets aren’t really social – they only simulate social connection; many of us sit at home on our smartphones and spend less time in the public sphere. Worldwide, there are far fewer social interactions per day due to these consumer technologies. This change just might be making us less happy.

Behaviour scientist Nicholas Epley from the Chicago School of Business, has looked at small talk and happiness. In one study, his researchers approached commuters on the subway and put willing participants in one of three groups.  They were asked to either strike up a conversation with a fellow traveller, remain in solitude, or do what they normally do.

The participants predicted that the conversations would be awkward and that the solitude would be great. But they had the opposite experience. Those who connected with someone reported significantly more positivity and those in solitude had significantly less positivity from baseline.  These small social interactions make people happy.

My Experiment

Lately, I have been mulling over this happiness research. So last week, a high school friend and I took a day off work and went record shopping in Toronto. It was fun. Record shopping in Toronto is like Disneyland for music nerds.  We got there early, mapped out our walking route, shared our wish list with each other and started the hunt.

In the past, I have tended to keep my interactions brief in retail environments. But not this time. In each of the (ahem) six record stores, I made a concerted effort to strike up a conversation with the store employees. These are the awesome folks that make music recommendations: “oh you like band x?  I bet you’ll really like band y!”

My experiment went surprisingly well! The conversations were anything but awkward. The topics ranged from the weather, the record I was buying, or the state of record stores these days. And the employees gave me some very personalized music recommendations. Sure, my spotify algorithms are good at making recommendations too. But that technology was designed for efficiency, not with my happiness or well-being in mind.  And in my opinion the tradeoff isn’t worth it.

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The practices that Dr. Santos describes are important tools that we can all implement. She now offers a version of her course free of charge at coursera.  

About The Author

About The Author

Michael Torreiter has been working as a Naturopathic Doctor in Waterloo, Ontario since 2006. He is now working at CARESPACE Solutions