Yale professor promotes other-care over self-care to get happy

What's the secret to happiness? If you think there's not an answer to that question...think again!

Yale professor of psychology and happiness expert, Dr. Laurie Santos, sat down with Yahoo Life to answer that question and share tips for resetting your mindset during times of crisis.

"Treating ourselves doesn't necessarily work for our well-being. We'll get a bigger well-being boost for our buck by trying to turn that self-care into other-care," Santos says.

Santos, who is the creator of the wildly popular class 'The Science of Well Being,' goes on to explain that the act of focusing on other people can wind up making us happier than we often expect.

Video Transcript

DR LAURIE SANTOS: I think the most important thing to recognize during times of crisis is that we have a lot of control about how this situation plays out. We might not be able to control this virus or how it's affecting people, but we can control our own reaction to that virus. [MUSIC PLAYING]

We are facing an unprecedentedly scary pandemic. It makes sense that we are afraid, but one thing to remember is that even our negative emotions are there for something. Emotions actually have functions, and one of the functions of fear is to help us kind of take some action to change things around. We can use fear to motivate other positive behaviors that might be really helpful. If you're worried about an elderly or vulnerable family member, reach out to them. You know, make a connection. If you're worried about what's happening with local businesses, do something to try to help. Make a donation. Whenever I'm feeling a little frantic and scared, this is the time for me to take three really deep breaths.

Biologically speaking, you're helping your body to turn off that panic system. One thing that you can do if you're in a position of being by yourself is really try to reach out and form social connections. Connecting with someone in real time, talking over something like Zoom, or Skype, and so on, that can be almost as good as the face to face connection that we get. Social distancing doesn't have to become social disconnection. We can all get in this zone of thinking that what we need right now is self care, you know, to steal the term from "Parks and Rec." You know, treat yourself.

But what the research shows is that treating ourselves doesn't necessarily work for our well-being. We'll get a bigger well-being boost for our buck by trying to turn that self care into other care. By sort of using our time and even our money to help other people in need. Our own happiness can promote some of the things we really need in this crisis. Positive mood can actually form a small protective effect for your immune system. The act of focusing on other people can wind up making us happier than we often really expect.

This isn't the time to be extra criticizing your husband for how well he does the dishes or how he loads the dishwasher, right? We all need a little flex and a little benefit of the doubt right now, but that can be a really powerful technique for just kind of downgrading the tension that everyone's feeling right now. A second strategy that couples tend to use in crisis is that this tends to be the time that it's great to double down on the stuff that you're good at. Whether that's taking care of the kids, or playing games, or even like their sexual relationship. There's something about your relationship that's good.

So we originally put out a class on the science of well-being back in 2018. It was right after I taught a live class at Yale. And from 2018 up until recently, we had about half a million learners, which was really incredible. But just in the last couple weeks, we have tripled that. We now have over two million learners who are taking the class, which is a little bit surreal. All of us are really struggling with our mental health right now. We know what we need to do to fix our physical health, right? We need to wash our hands and socially distance, but a lot of us are looking for similar evidence based practices to help our mental health.

These are practices like mindfulness meditation, where you're taking time to say, focus on your breath for like three minutes every day. Squeeze a five minute phone call into someone we care about, right, which can promote social connection and maybe help someone out but they're in a vulnerable situation. You don't have to do this perfectly. Any kind of tiny thing you do is progress towards a happier goal.

The secret to happiness is that happiness takes work. When you go through a challenging situation, you often come out on the other side stronger, more resilient with stronger social connections, and often even a greater sense of purpose and meaning in your life. The worst challenges can bring the strongest results on the other side. For me, that's been an important thing to remember as we get through this crisis.