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The Most Popular Course at Yale

What happens after you read my notes!! Guaranteed!

Buccaneer State Park

November 22, 2019

“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” My mind.

The most popular course at Yale is not an econ class or a history class; it is a psychology class called, “The Science of Well Being.” The professor has an associated Coursera course which I just completed.

Well being and its cousin, happiness, are topics of interest to a lot of people these days, me included. For the past three years, I have done a lot of reading on the subject. I took happiness for granted for 57 years - I’m happy when I am happy and I’m not when I am not was my attitude. Turns out I had a lot to learn. This course was a good summary of much that I have learned.

What follows are my notes from the class. The course is geared toward college-aged kids, or 60 year olds who assumed that happiness was something that would happen “after I finish this activity.”

Note: While the course is supposed to be about well being, the professor focuses mostly happiness. Well being includes happiness but also other elements, such as contentment and healthy. With that, here are my notes.


Psychologists have been studying happiness and the broader term well being for several decades. Martin Seligman coined the term "positive psychology" in the early 1990s.

Well being is the state of being healthy and happy. Britannica defines happiness as "a state of emotional well being." Happiness can exist without well being, but well being can’t exist without happiness.

As a result of the studies of happiness, a number practical conclusions have be drawn (yikes, passive voice!) to help people understand the do’s and don’ts of happiness.

The “big names“ in this field are:

Dan Gilbert

Ed Diener

Sonja Lyubornirsky

Daniel Kahnamen

David Myers

While happiness appears to be a subjective topic, studies have shown that happiness can be objectively measured accurately using self assessment surveys.

Let's start with what we misunderstand about happiness:

The Misconceptions about What Will Make Us Happy

- Many things that we think are going to make us happy either don’t or don’t as much as we think they will or for as long.

- For example, the correlation between income and life satisfaction is 0.10

- Kahnamen and Deaton found that emotional well being increases up to a salary of $75,000 but above that amount it levels off. At $75,000 all our basic needs are met

- Examples of things that don’t make us as happy as we think they will:

Good grades


Awesome stuff

Marriage (honeymoon lasts 1-2 years then its back to premarriage levels)

- It is also true that bad things don’t make us as unhappy as we think they will - or for as long.

Why Don't These Things Make Us Happy? Why Are Our Expectations Inaccurate?

- Answer - ANNOYING FEATURES OF THE MIND (Cognitive biases)

- Factors that influence happiness

50 percent genetic

10 percent life’s circumstances

40 percent our actions/thoughts/habits

> our happiness level is only partially a character trait; we can significantly influence our level of happiness

We are putting our time and energy into the wrong things in order to be happy.

Miswanting - the act of being mistaken about what and how much you will like something in the future.

Annoying Feature #1 - Our minds strongest intuitions are often totally wrong

(Intuition - the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.). See Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Annoying Feature #2 - our minds don’t think in absolute terms; they think in relative terms, relative to a reference point.  A reference point is "a salient (but often irrelevant) point against which we are judging all the time."

- An example is silver medal winner not being as happy as bronze medal winner. Silver’s reference point is gold; bronze’s reference point is not getting a medal.

- Another example is salary.  You tend to measure it against two reference points - what you used to make and what others make (“social comparison”).  Study shows that if I get a $10 raise, I would have been happier with a $14 raise. => no raise is ever enough.

- What others make is a trigger point even if you have all you need.  Our minds pick poor reference points because they take in so much information irregardless of whether it makes sense as a point of comparison. The correct reference point for salary is your past salary, not someone else's salary.

- Facebook and Instagram have a profound effect on decreasing people’s happiness (when doing upward comparison). Bad reference points.

Annoying Feature #3 - our minds get used to stuff. Hedonic Adaptation.  

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is "the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes." According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. Hedonic means “relating to or considered in terms of pleasant (or unpleasant) sensations.”

- Good things that “stick around” reset your reference point in a positive way.

Annoying Feature #4 - we don’t realize we have hedonic adaptation - that our minds are built to get used to stuff.  The impact bias, a form of which is the durability bias, is the tendency for people to overestimate the length AND the intensity of future emotional states.  It involves your expectation of a future event.

- The impact bias is much greater for negative events than positive events.  This might result in us being risk adverse to things that we would actually enjoy.

- The impact bias does not decrease over time - you overestimate the impact to the same degree every time. Why does this happen?  Perhaps two reasons:

a. Focalism bias - we focus on only one event and not all surrounding events

b. Immune bias -  we are more resilient than we think; we forget how resilient we are. It’s an insidious bias. Punchline - you won’t feel as bad for as long as you think.

- Anticipatory anxiety happens when people experienced increased anxiety and stress when they think about an event that will happen in the future. Such anxiety may occur in response to large events such as giving a presentation at work, but it can also precede minor, everyday activities such as driving to work, parking your car, or having conversations with co-workers. I

How can we overcome our “annoying features (cognitive biases)?

The following strategies require us to use them intentionally and effortfully.

Strategy 1:  Rethink “awesome stuff” and instead focus on “awesome experiences” to overcome hedonic adaptation.  Don’t invest in awesome stuff because it just sticks around, and we get used to it. Experiences don’t stick around and therefore we don’t get used to them (we don’t adapt to them).   This is true no matter what your level of income is. Another benefit of this approach is that anticipation of an experience has a 2.5x larger benefit than anticipating buying something.  Experiences are also less susceptible to social comparison.

Strategy 2:  Thwarting hedonic adaptation (getting over getting used to stuff)

- Savoring - stepping outside of the experience to appreciate and enjoy it.  Be mindful. We can also savor past experiences but limit it to a few minutes per day.

- Negative visualization - example “It’s A Wonderful Life”. It helps you to appreciate what you have.

- Make this day your last - not last day of life but last day of the experience (end of vacation, etc.)

- Gratitude - the quality of being thankful and appreciating the things you have. Has powerful psychological effects. At the end of each day, write down three things you are thankful for.  Sharing gratitude has a profound effect, especially if been out of touch for a while.

Strategy 3 - Reset reference points

- Remember that reference points tend to be subconscious

- Concretely re-experience - go back and remember your old reference point - the one before you got the new, good thing 

- Concretely observe - step outside and see what another reference point could be

- Avoid social comparisons - say stop!  Try to be aware of what reference points you are letting into your head

- Minimize social media - at least be mindful about what you are letting in.

Interruptions - instead of binging, take breaks; it will extend your enjoyment. But for “bad things” do them all at once.

- Break routines/add variety - proven to increase your happiness.

Stuff That Really Makes Us Happy

There are things we should want that make us happy, but we don’t know we want them.

Better Wanting #1 - want the right parts of the things we already want

- Good job - a job that aligns with our character strengths

- Character Strengths - 24 virtues identified by Seligman that are universal. Key is to identify your top 5-7 and use them to guide your decisions as to what will bring you well being. These top ones are called “signature strengths.”

The 24 character strengths are:

Appreciation of beauty






Forgiveness and mercy









Love of learning

Modesty and humility




Self regulation

Social intelligence



- Happiness increases if you use your signature strengths consistently; job satisfaction goes up.


- Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times.  The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.  For each person there are thousands of opportunities and challenges to expand ourselves.

- Good jobs cause you to experience 'flow.

- Be aware that in our leisure time we tend not to put ourselves in situations that can lead to flow.

What should we be doing regarding pursuit of good grades?

- Don’t focus on grades - they don’t make you as happy as you think they will and pursuit of good grades steals away enthusiasm for learning

- Focusing on grades undermines the growth mindset. People with growth mindset get better grades over a period of time. Fixed mindset folks get turned off by poor results.  DEVELOP THE GROWTH MINDSET!!

- Kindness and Social Connection - Even with strangers, both of these increase our happiness more than we expect.  Studies show we are happier spending money on others than on ourselves.

- Mind Control - Studies show that we are not “in the moment” on average 50 percent of the time.  Neuroscience has found that we have a “default network” in our brain that is active when we are not “in the moment”. This default network is what generates our “mental chatter” that overwhelming tends to be negative and generates thoughts that our not fact based.  Mind control involves recognizing when your brain falls into this mode and challenge the thoughts that your brain is generating.

- Exercise and Sleep

It’s not just a wives’ tale. Getting enough of each of these will increase your happiness.

For what it's worth, here are my takeaways:

- money is not going to make you happy.

- doing work that aligns with you values (signature strengths) will make you happy.

- don't buy stuff thinking it will make you happy.

- invest in experiences

- challenge negative thoughts - "don't believe everything you think."

- adopt the growth mindset in everything you do.

- don't compare yourself to others.

- practice kindness and gratitude

- exercise

- seek challenging situations (mentally) to experience flow

- remember the annoying habits of our minds

These approaches have worked for me!

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