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Why science says you deserve to be happy

(Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images)
(Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images)

This rebroadcast originally aired on October 12, 2021.

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The COVID pandemic upended life in almost every way imaginable.

“It disrupted a lot of things that naturally make us happy,” cognitive scientist Laurie Santos says.

This upheaval, the loss, the inequities laid bare by the pandemic has some people questioning: Do I deserve to be happy?

“We feel guilty because [we think] … we don’t deserve to be happy because there are people who are experiencing trauma or people going through these bad times” Santos says. “I think that gets to some kind of misconceptions about how happiness works, that it’s this like, zero-sum game.”

Fact: Happiness is not a zero-sum game. So, what is it?

Today, On Point: What science says about why you deserve to be happy.


Laurie Santos, cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Yale University. Host of the podcast “The Happiness Lab.” (@lauriesantos)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Also Featured

Phyllis Levun-Agostino, artist and educator from Highland Park, IL.

Toni Kief, writer from Marysville, WA.

Interview Highlights

On a definition of happiness

Laurie Santos: “Social scientists tend to find happiness in kind of two parts. So they tend to think of happiness as being happy in your life, and being happy with your life. So being happy in your life is having these moments of joy. Whether that’s chatting with the barista at the coffee shop, paying attention to the beautiful fall leaves outside.

“It’s just these moments of true joy, positive emotion in your life. That’s not to say that there’s no negative emotion. It’s just that if you have negative emotion, you want it kind of balanced with these moments of positivity. That’s kind of being happy in your life.

“But there’s also the sense that happiness is about being happy with your life. That’s the sense of meaning you have. It’s the answer to the question: All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life right now? And it’s worth noting that those two forms of happiness can dissociate. One of my deans had a baby recently, and  I often use the example of her. Because I think in her life she’s so happy, this new meaning that she has with this new bundle of joy. But with her life there’s poopy diapers and less sleep and things like that, right?

“I think we all know other people who have the opposite dissociation, right? Where they have all the worldly comforts possible in their life. It’s great, but they’re feeling really empty with their life. And so what the social science tries to do is to figure out, OK, what are ways that we can bump up both of these? Because if we have both of these in place, I think you can say that you’re living a pretty happy life.”

On happiness during the pandemic

Laurie Santos: “We are not supposed to be purely happy right now. It would be a non-normative situation where your social connections are getting messed up. Your routines are getting messed up. Literally, people are dying. And to just be perfectly happy-go-lucky and not experiencing any negative emotion, that would be non-normative. It is the right thing to do right now to have your happiness be affected, to experience some negative emotions. The key, though, is kind of how you take care of yourself in the midst of that.

“Do you try to avoid those emotions and run away from them? Or do you find ways to allow them? Do you beat yourself up over having them? I think this was something I was hearing in a little bit of Phyllis’s remarks. This idea that, Well, I’m not supposed to be happy. It’s for someone else, I’m doing something wrong. No, no, no, we’re supposed to experience negative emotion, especially if you’re in a situation of unemployment, or losing your job or something like that.

“I think that we forget that we’re not necessarily supposed to be happy all the time. Sometimes negative emotions are important. They’re useful. And the analogy I often use with my students is with physical pain. If you stick your hand on a hot oven, that’s going to be painful. That feeling is telling you you need to do something. It’s telling you you need to pull your hand away.

“I think the sadness, the frustration, the anxiety we’re all experiencing, it’s telling you you have certain needs that aren’t being met in the context of the pandemic. But the good news is that there are strategies that we can all use to get those needs met a little bit better.”

On how to achieve happiness in America

Laurie Santos: “This is one of the reasons that for a relatively overall wealthy nation, a very unequal-wealthy but a wealthy nation, the U.S. isn’t as happy as other equally wealthy nations. We have a lot of cultural structures that don’t necessarily promote any of the kinds of activities that we were just talking about. That said, what the research really shows is that these things don’t have to take a lot of time.

“A random act of kindness could be texting a friend to check in. A social connection could be just talking to the person at the grocery store when you go pick up food. This act of doing something nice for others could be holding a door open. The simple act of being present or exercising could be parking your car a little bit further when you walk into the grocery store.

“These are all tiny, tiny things that don’t take a lot of time. And I think this is another misconception. We think the pursuit of happiness needs to be this grand pursuit where we have to take all this time to do it. But all these activities are five minutes here, three minutes here and there. Things that even in the busiest time famished of lives you can squeeze in.”

On how to remember you deserve happiness

Laurie Santos: “Remember that happiness is under your control. Text a friend, notice how it makes you feel. Take three deep breaths. Notice how it makes you feel. Have a nice chat with someone on the street. Notice how it makes you feel. These things are under our control.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.