It’s the most popular class at Yale University, and has received a great deal of attention just these past few months as people across the globe enrolled in the virtual version on Coursera. The Science of Well-being, as taught by Dr. Laurie Santos, sets out to identify habits for filling our lives with more happiness. Might these lessons for happiness translate and apply to cities?
I first heard of the class about a year ago. I’d been researching happiness and Professor Santos’ name kept coming up. I came across her podcast—the Happiness Lab—and began learning about the incredible popularity of Yale’s Psychology and the Good Life course. As Covid-19 hit this past spring, I found myself with a little extra quiet time and, as I was looking for ways to stay positive in a trying time, I (along with thousands of other learners throughout the world) enrolled.
While I undoubtedly learned a great deal about improving my individual happiness, I viewed my entire class experience from a perspective in which I constantly questioned: “how might this apply to cities and to my planning practice?”
To explain the answers I uncovered, I’ll first want to define some of the course’s key points. But feel free to jump ahead to my takeaways for planners.
The Science of Well-Being, Abridged
We are facing a worldwide crisis in which mental health is in a frightening state. Rates of depression and anxiety are shamefully high. And I suspect these rates will only rise as Covid-19 continues. All this is to say there has never been a better time than now to start designing for happiness!
Fortunately, there’s something we can do about it.
As individuals, about 50% of our happiness is believed to be attributed to our genetics and 10% to our life circumstances, leaving 40% of our happiness within the control of our own actions and thoughts.
Understanding which actions lead to happiness, first requires us to understand some of what makes us un-happy. In her class, Dr. Santos talks about our human tendency for “miswanting“—that is, we want certain things because we believe we will be happier. We believe we will be happier if we…earn more, find true love, have nicer things (home, car, clothes, tech, etc.), are recognized as successful, are liked by people, win the lottery, look sexy, etc. When, in reality, most of the things we believe we want actually contribute to greater psychological distress (only a select few of our common wants—i.e., social connection—aren’t too far off the mark).
Miswanting is just one of a few pesky, “annoying features of the mind,” as they’re referred to in the class. Indeed, our intuitions are often totally wrong when it comes to happiness. For one, we tend to think in relative terms—meaning we are constantly comparing ourselves and our lives to some reference point, either to others around us or to moments in our past or our anticipations for the future. Additionally, our minds train us to get used to things, so things we thought would make us happy perhaps do…at first…but our bar is instantly raised, and after some time we want more or different things. Unfortunately, we don’t even really realize this is happening! Have you ever worked through your lunch break (tsk tsk!) and then continued working as your plate of scraps sat on your desk? It’s only after you leave and return that you notice the strong aroma from your meal. This experience is similar to the phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation,” through which we quickly return to our prior levels of happiness. Rarely, however, do we even notice hedonic adaptation as it’s happening.
We also tend to employ an impact bias. This means that we assume negative events (e.g., losing the ability to walk after a car crash) will be much worse than they truly are and, vice versa, that positive events (e.g., winning the lottery) will make us happier and for longer than they do in reality.
So what’s someone to do about all this? Well, for starters, we should put a stop to miswanting. One way we can achieve this is to invest in less “stuff” in the first place. Stuff is enduring…it sticks around…but (thanks to hedonic adaptation) we get used to it. Instead, we should invest in experiences. Studies show that happiness endures when it’s brought on through an experience. Our happiness levels don’t adapt after experiences, which are also less susceptible to social comparison (though, I’d argue that social media threatens this…but that’s for another day).
We can thwart our hedonic adaptation by savoring our experiences, expressing gratitude, and thinking of the ways we might not have had all that if our lives only went a different way. We can also increase variety in our day-to-day, so our experience is constantly fresh.
So we see that we can want different things (e.g., experiences) as a way to address miswanting, but we can want better things. That is to say, instead of material things, we can want strong social connections, we can strive to be kind, we can work toward living fulfilling lives, etc. We can want meaning in our life and work, achieved by using our signature strengths or by employing a growth mindset in which we view the opportunities to improve.
And of course, we can take better care of ourselves. Studies have proven that adequate sleep and exercise can boost our mental well-being, while meditation helps us focus our attention on intentionality and, in turn, can also lead to more positive moods.
All of these habits for greater happiness—savoring, gratitude, signature strengths, kindness, social connection, exercise, sleep, and meditation—are referred to as “Rewirements” because they help re-wire our brains.
In addition to understanding the tendencies of the mind and how to overcome them with the rewirements, the course talked about tactics for successfully employing its lessons in our lives. For instance, we can set ourselves up for success by creating the right environments to encourage good behaviors, for building the social context we need to succeed through a supportive community, and for setting goals appropriately.
Intentionally practicing these habits is so important. The class emphasized the significance of practice from the very beginning, when it introduced the concept of the G.I. Joe Fallacy. Merely knowing that we can be happier is not sufficient. Knowing is only half the battle, and not enough to change our behavior.
Applying the Science of Well-being to Planning
After taking the class, I outlined some of the takeaways I believed could apply to my work as a planner, which I discuss below.
Recognize that influencing a community’s happiness is within our reach. To start, planners need to know that mental health is a growing concern, but that it’s within our ability to change our collective well-being (I mean, that’s what we do as planners anyway, isn’t it?). If 40% of our individual happiness is within our control, I’d imagine a similar percentage (if not more) can be influenced for communities at-large.
Adopt a growth mindset when considering a community’s potential. If we believe there is always opportunity to improve, grow, and evolve, we are starting from the right place to take appropriate steps toward creating happier communities.
Identify when our communities are miswanting. Are our priorities, policies, and/or capital budgets emphasizing the wrong things—for instance, things that will produce only temporary benefit, that will soon wear off? Where can we invest money and resources instead that will make the experience of a community more enjoyable, or contribute opportunities for social connection? Investing more into schools, parks, public spaces, community centers, libraries, and cultural or recreational venues, for instance, can provide a variety of opportunities for residents to grow together and enjoy shared experiences.
Uncover and embrace a community’s signature strengths. Every community is unique and thrives in their own way. I relate the concept of signature strengths to knowing a community’s identity, having a long-term vision, and celebrating a community through placemaking strategies.
Brainstorm strategies to support social well-being. Communities might get creative when encouraging people to develop social connections or express kindness and gratitude. Neighborhood groups should have strong support from the larger community. Neighborhood programming can encourage volunteer efforts or provide opportunities to connect with others. Public art, meanwhile, might express values and messages of kindness and gratitude throughout the community. Tell me, what other strategies might help support behaviors for well-being?
Prioritize public health. Resources need to continue prioritizing public health through recreational opportunities, farmers markets, healthcare programs, and the like. Taking care of oneself should not be difficult or out of reach.
Set up planning efforts for success through appropriate goals and with planning processes that promote happiness and social connection among residents/participants. A community’s long-term happiness will be achieved by setting clear goals, recognizing potential hurdles, and strategizing how the community will overcome those hurdles. Furthermore, the planning process should bring people together, encourage residents to consider their collective strengths, and provide opportunities for volunteering and taking ownership of an effort.
Though the class was intended to help individuals, I do believe there are a great deal of lessons we—as planners, urbanists, and community members—can translate into our day-to-day. Enrolling in the class indeed helped me better understand the relationship of my own thoughts and actions with my overall well-being. But it also helped me consider ways to improve my public meetings, or the implementation strategies that I craft for each project.
If you haven’t yet taken the class, I encourage you to dedicate a few hours a week for just 10 weeks to see if there’s anything you might learn. Once you’ve taken the class, please tell me what other ideas you glean for planning happier places!