Katy Milkman: Hi, everyone. This is Katy Milkman signing on today from my home in Philadelphia with a very unusual special episode of Choiceology.
All of us at Choiceology wanted to find a way to be helpful to you in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. As we thought about how behavioral science could help you make better decisions in the midst of a pandemic, we quickly put together an episode with insights that we hope you can use right away.
This episode won’t have a story—just an interview with a talented scientist who can offer you useful advice.
I thought for a few minutes about interviewing a public health expert, but if you’re a Choiceology listener, you’re clearly a science lover, and I suspect you already know about the dangers of COVID-19 and the importance of social distancing and hand washing.
Instead, I decided the most useful thing I could bring you was an interview with someone who could help us all deal with the emotional toll of this pandemic.
Dr. Laurie Santos is a professor of psychology at Yale University, and in 2018, she made headlines when she introduced a new course to Yale undergraduates that became the university’s most popular class ever. The topic of the class was happiness—and how to achieve it.
Laurie began by filling Yale’s largest lecture hall with students eager to learn what research has to say about how to lead a more fulfilling life. And since, she’s gone on to develop an online class about the science of well-being that has reached over a million people through Coursera as well as a hit podcast called The Happiness Lab that covers similar ground.
Today, Laurie agreed to join me from her home in New Haven, Connecticut, to talk about how the science of happiness can help us in the current crisis. I’m excited to learn how we can all manage the emotional challenges that accompany this pandemic.
Katy Milkman: Laurie, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
Laurie Santos: Thanks so much. I mean, this is important stuff to be talking about today.
Katy Milkman: I actually wanted to start by asking if you could tell me a little bit about what originally inspired you to create a course on the science of happiness. I know it was a somewhat unusual career move for an expert on canines and primates.
Laurie Santos: Yeah, it was a little strange. About four years ago, I took on a new role as a head of college on campus. So Yale’s one of these strange schools like Hogwarts, where it has its Gryffindor and Slytherin, these weird colleges within a college. I became head of Silliman College, which is one of the residential colleges on campus, and it was in that role that I started really being in the trenches with college students. I was living with them; my house is in the middle of their dorm. I ate with them in the dining hall and hung out with them in the coffee shop.
And it was then that I really started to see this so-called mental health crisis that I kind of heard about on the news, but I hadn’t really seen up close and personal. I mean I was dealing with students who are suicidal. Students who are just incredibly depressed or often just really, really anxious and just kind of stressed out about the future all the time. And it just made me sad. I mean, this was my community of students who I was really close with. And so the class started as an attempt to give them some actionable tips for how they could do something about this. And so I slapped this class together like a new professor does, thinking, “Oh, 50 students or so will take it” because it’s kind of this new class in the Psychology Department. And was completely blindsided by the fact that over a thousand students at Yale wanted to take it. We had to figure out how to teach the class in a concert hall because that was the only spot on campus where all the students fit. And it was all a little surreal to realize how much students were excited about learning this content of what they could do to feel happier.
Katy Milkman: On that note, I actually wanted to just start by asking you a little bit about what our listeners should know if they’re trying to figure out how to improve their own emotional well-being at this very scary and uncertain time. What insights from that class do you think are most important to the current crisis?
Laurie Santos: Yeah, well, lots of things. I mean, I think the first most important insight is just that the science gives us interventions we can do to improve our well-being in any time, but especially in a time that’s as stressful as what we’re going through in COVID-19. I mean, I don’t know about you, Katy, but I’m watching my anxiety levels shoot through the roof. I’m dealing with lots of uncertainty. I’m constantly trying to figure out if my chest is tight because I’ve developed symptoms of COVID-19, or if I’m just incredibly anxious and feeling stressed right now. So far it’s been the latter, which is good. I think so many of us are just kind of realizing that unless we do something, our mental health is going to really suffer. And I feel that can be really frustrating because we know exactly the things we’re supposed to be doing right now to help our physical health. Right. We wash our hands, stay six feet from everybody, shelter-in-place kind of thing.
But I don’t think the CDC and the government and all these folks are giving us strong things we can do to protect our mental health right now. And I think that’s why droves of people are coming to this course now. They want actionable tips that they can do to make things better. And so I think one good thing is that the science really shows us there are actionable tips you can do. They’re simple interventions that all of us can be doing right now to feel better, but they take some intention, and they take some work. Just like washing your hands a little bit more than you normally would or washing them more carefully or for longer than you normally would. I think that science gives us tips about what we can do to improve our well-being, but you have to put some work into them, and it could feel foreign when you start these new habits.
But the biggest thing I think that the science suggests is that we have to be taking care of our social connections right now, and we need to be really intentional about them. And I think that’s for two reasons. One is we have to worry about our immune function. And we know if there’s one thing scientifically that completely tanks immune function, it’s feeling lonely and feeling socially isolated. But the one thing we have to do to protect our physical health right now is to socially distance. It’s not to go do what we’d normally do when things feel threatening and scary, which is go to the pub with our friends or go to our mom’s house and get a hug. What we have to do is just shelter in place and kind of be by ourselves.
So I think being socially connected right now means being very intentional about it. It means using the technologies we have from phone to FaceTime to Zoom to actually get those informal interactions that we’re all missing right now. And that can look like checking in on your elderly parents once a night. It can look like calling friends more often than you would normally, but it can also look like doing the fun things we do socially together just over these technologies. Which has been really fun for me. I’ve reached out to a number of friends I haven’t seen in a while. I did a spa night with my college roommates where we all did mud masks on Zoom. I’ve been getting dinner with friends across different time zones. I did a dinner with a friend in Seattle who I hadn’t seen in a long time.
And even just silly things that you’d never do socially over technology before, like share a yoga class online with a friend at the same time. We wouldn’t do that normally, but right now we need to be doing those things to have the same social connection we normally would. So advice I gave to my podcast folks is think about the social connections you had a month ago before all this started, and figure out how you can build exactly those same things in, not more of those things in, with these technologies.
Katy Milkman: My research team is doing virtual water cooler meetings at noon every day to sort of try to simulate that experience. And Angela Duckworth and I were just talking, and she told me that they’re having family dinners with a guest every night propped on the table. A family member who can’t be with them, like an uncle or an aunt or a grandparent. So I love all the ideas you had, and I’m curious about the various ways that your listeners and our listeners are coming up with creative solutions to this.
Laurie Santos: I love that you use the water cooler example because I think those are the things we need to replicate, right? We know how to formally have a conference call over Zoom. We do that for work all the time. What we don’t know how to replicate well yet is the informal things. Like Joe was dropping by the house, and it’s like, “Oh, stay for dinner.” That kind of simple thing we don’t know how to replicate, or I’m walking by your office and I just want to chit-chat for five minutes. We need to find ways to do those intentionally over these technologies too. And I think that’s going to make or break our feelings of social connection.
But the second thing I wanted to mention is I’m actually hopeful that this COVID-19 crisis and the ways we’re using technology right now might form new habits that end up helping us even when this whole crisis is over. Because that’s another thing to remember is that it feels like this is going to go on forever, but in fact, coronavirus is going to go away. The curve will be flattened, and we’ll go back to normal life.
But I’m hopeful that some of these social things we’re doing now, I can do later when all this is over. I hadn’t seen my college roommates all in the same room in years, right. But now because of COVID-19, I’m having this spa night with them and catching up with them and seeing their kids over Zoom. I kind of want to do that when things go back to normal. That would help my normal social connection and to help me feel less lonely in the normative kind of typical day. I think we’d never do that before because it kind of just felt so weird to call somebody up and have a Zoom spa night. But now that we’re kind of breaking the barrier to do these things, I think we can keep doing them in the future too.
Katy Milkman: Yeah, that’s a really optimistic note, and I guess one of the things I’ve been thinking about is these wonderful moments we’ve seen captured on social media where all of Italy comes out onto their balconies and everyone’s clapping or singing together to celebrate healthcare workers. And these kinds of moments, how can we find more of those after the crisis would be helpful as well, I think.
Laurie Santos: Yeah, exactly. I mean, we should be thanking our healthcare workers all the time, right. We should be coming together as communities all the time, and as you know from all your work on habits, once we start doing this stuff—once it becomes part of our behavioral repertoire—we’ll be able to do that more often once this is over too.
Katy Milkman: I love all these suggestions about how we can maintain our social ties. I know there are some other things we can do too, outside of maintaining social ties, to maintain our well-being. One thought that I had was that a lot of our mutual friends in the scientific community have been advocating for something called “the three gratituds” exercise. In normal times, this is something that can be helpful, and I thought maybe it would be helpful if you could talk our listeners through how that works and why it might be valuable to try now.
Laurie Santos: Yeah, I think this idea is so critical right now, where we can just get in the mode of, “Woe is me. Everything is terrible.” Complaining about everything from staying inside to what we have in our pantry. The small things to the really big awful things like people’s family members are dying, right. This could be a time when we really got in “Everything is awful” mode. But what research shows is that doesn’t help us as much as we think, and that we really can benefit from taking an approach that involves being a little bit more grateful.
So counting our blessings, even right now when it feels like there aren’t that many blessings to be counted. There’s lots of work suggesting that the simple act of scribbling down three to five things you’re grateful for can significantly bump up your mood. In some studies as quickly as within a couple of weeks. And so this is an exercise that all of us can be doing. It’s completely free. It takes five to ten minutes a day. Where just at the end of your day, just scribbled down a few things that you’re grateful for right now.
For me, I’ve been trying to do this sort of informally myself, and the list is a little bit crazy. It’s like, I have the tea that I really liked in the back of my cupboard, and I found it. Neither me nor my husband are sick, and I can still hug him right now, which is something I want to savor now because who knows how long that’s going to last, right.
Again, those seem like silly things, and they’re against a backdrop of a lot of bad stuff. But just remembering that I have these enormous blessings does two things. One is it makes me feel grateful, which can boost my well-being in the moment. But the second thing is it causes me to savor stuff that I otherwise might not have noticed. Like, oh, I have some tea that I really like. Those moments you appreciate can cause you to savor the things that you really care about now and can appreciate them, even though some of them are really fragile.
Katy Milkman: So we’re talking a lot about things that are bringing us hope about after this crisis. I also want to talk about what’s giving you hope in the way people are behaving during the crisis. Are there things that you’re seeing about this crisis that are bringing out good in people and that you think will have benefits on society immediately?
Laurie Santos: Yeah, and that too is a thing that I’ve seen, but it also takes work. If you’re not putting intention in and you just go on your Facebook newsfeed or go on Google News, it doesn’t look like the world is a happy place. It’s a very “Woe is me” time right now. But if you dig a little deeper, and you look for where there are people doing amazing things, as I think it was Mr. Rogers said, “Go look for the heroes,” that was one of his quotes during tragedy. If you look for the heroes, there are heroes there, and there are heroes that are doing amazing things. One of the things I’ve been doing is … on Twitter there’s this wonderful hashtag called #COVIDkindness. And whenever I find myself panic scrolling—I’ve been on Twitter looking at the awful stuff—I’m like, “Let me do the search for #COVIDkindness.” And whenever you do that, you just see these wonderful stories of people who are doing things in their community to help vulnerable individuals or healthcare workers that are just being incredibly brave to help the community. Just wonderful stories of human kindness and compassion that just pop to the fore. And when you see those, you realize that all of the panic buying and the toilet paper stealing, that’s not actually the norm. What does happen when people are in crisis is that people come together in these incredibly beautiful ways, but you have to be a little intentional to notice that.
Katy Milkman: I’ve been trying to do the same thing to look and see where people are doing these generous acts, and I’ve been totally blown away. One thing that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve read about many of the generous acts that we’re seeing is that not only are they helping other people, but they’re actually probably helping the people who are doing them. So for those of us who are trying to figure out how to maintain well-being at this time, one of the things I’ve been thinking is we should all be trying to find a way to contribute in a small way from home. Maybe the way we can contribute is just by staying home, but finding a purpose and finding a way to be generous has benefits. Could you talk a little bit about the research on pro-social behavior and how that affects well-being?
Laurie Santos: Yeah, there’s so much work suggesting that if we want to be happier, we need to be other-oriented rather than self-focused. And I think this goes against the standard cultural line right now. When we think of like, “Oh, we need to treat ourselves” or self-care during the pandemic. What the research suggests is that that doesn’t work as well as other care during the pandemic. Tons of lovely work by folks like Mike Norton and Liz Dunn show that the simple act of doing something nice for others—whether spending money on others or spending your time on other people—can boost your well-being more than if you spent that money or time on yourself. And again, that violates our intuitions about what we need, but it’s what the research suggests.
And I think right now that becomes all the more important. I think one of the frustrations people are feeling about staying inside is that they see so many people in need. There are so many vulnerable people. There are so many sick people who need help. And you say, “Well, what can I do to help?” And people say, “Just stay home, do nothing, just stay home,” which violates our agency. We want to take active steps to be helpful. But then when you look at what people are doing, you realize that so many of us can do really simple things right now. And I think it’s particularly useful right now, not just because we all need this bump in well-being that can come from pro-social behavior, but also because we all have these windfalls that allow us to do that more easily.
So many of us are experiencing a bit of a time windfall right now. Some of us aren’t working as much, some of us even who are still working at our normal jobs don’t have the normal commute time that we spend. We can use that time windfall to help—whether that’s calling and advocating for people in need or doing chores and stuff for people in need, whether that’s going on social media and writing gratitude letters for the healthcare workers—we can use that time in specific ways to help others. Some of us are even experiencing what we don’t expect, but which is a financial windfall, and I’ve seen this in myself. It’s small and so we might not notice it, but those cups of coffee that I’m not buying at my coffee shop every morning.
That’s three bucks a day that I’m saving that I could be using to do something nice for other people. Whether that’s, again, buying groceries for someone in need or buying a gift card to a local restaurant that needs the support right now. We can be using those little mini-financial windfalls too to be helping other people during this time. And it helps the folks that are really in need, but it also helps us. It’s like this kind of wonderful win-win situation that doing nice stuff for others right now is going to boost our well-being in a time when we really, really need it.
Katy Milkman: Right. And I think that’s one of the most fascinating findings from research on happiness of late is how we get this virtuous cycle where giving helps the giver and the recipient. And it feels really important right now. I’ve also been thinking about how we find meaning in these moments, and I think looking for ways that we can be purposely helpful is probably going to help us all find meaning in this madness.
Laurie Santos: Exactly. And I think that is a scary part of this is that it feels so uncertain. Many of us are facing our own mortality or the close mortality of the people we care about, and that can launch us into this deep search for meaning. And I think the act of realizing that our purpose in this crisis is to do whatever we can to help other people and to make other people’s lives better in this yucky time, that can do a lot to curb that existential anxiety, which I think can be really, really powerful.
Katy Milkman: OK. I want to pivot from the existential to the super practical and talk a little bit about a couple of other things that people might want to focus on and think about doing just to make themselves feel better on a daily basis. We talked a little bit about the “three blessings” or the “three gratitudes” exercise. I want to talk about physical exercise as well. Where does that fit into maintaining well-being, and how are you finding ways to do it while you’re social distancing?
Laurie Santos: Yeah. I think one scary thing about this crisis is that the normal things that we do for our well-being, like our daily cardio or our daily yoga practice, it’s hard to maintain that habit in this new situation. Mostly just because we’re in a totally new situation, and we’re all in our houses—we might not be able to get to our gyms or our yoga studios—and so we need to be very intentional about making sure the normal things we did in our daily lives to promote well-being, like exercise, that we still seem to fit those in. And exercise is a really, really critical one. We know exercise is super important for our physical health. It’s another thing that contributes to a healthy immune function, which we all need right now to protect ourselves from this virus, but it completely contributes to a healthy mental health as well.
There are studies suggesting that a half-hour of cardio a day is as effective as a prescription of Zoloft for improving your depression symptoms, and exercise also can have long-standing effects on our well-being. A half-hour of cardio on Monday morning—there’s research that suggests that the endorphin well-being boost you get from that can last till Tuesday at 2:00 p.m.. So cardio one day can boost your well-being for days in advance. And so I think we need to find ways to prioritize it, but that means hacking our new habits to figure out how to fit it in. And one of the tips that I’ve been giving my listeners of the podcast actually comes, Katy, from your work, which is on all this work on fresh starts. So one of the bad things about this crisis is that we all are stuck in this new situation of being inside our house, but for many of us, that’s a really unprecedented situation.
And what we know is that we can use those new situations and these new temporal boundaries to set up fresh habits. And so this is something that I’ve been trying to do where I’m like, “OK, this is a new time. I’m not working in the mornings. I’m not having my normal meetings. That means I can do some cardio in the morning. That means mornings are for cardio right now.” And so almost like you might treat a new year as a new moment, as a new time horizon, as a good new start, I’m using social isolation as that. It’s like, “Well, now I’m sheltering in place, new situation, let me set up these new habits.” I think we also have to get really intentional about how we do that exercise, especially if you’re a person who’s gone to the gym a lot.
I think you just need to get creative. And one of the creative ways to do that, I think, is to harness the combination of exercise, which bumps up your well-being, and being social, which bumps up your well-being, and to try to find ways to do exercise via these technologies with friends. And so I’ve done this a lot with different yoga classes. There are tons of different studios around the country that are posting free classes that you can take right now. You can actually learn from some of the best yogis in the country for free because people are doing these wonderful nice things where they’re sharing this stuff. But don’t just do that yourself on your yoga mat, do that with a friend over zoom—book a class together and meet with a friend in a different time zone who can work out with you. And I think that allows you both to get your workout in, but it also can let you have that social connection time that we’re all craving right now.
Katy Milkman: It’s also a nice commitment device by the way, to throw out another thing we’ve actually talked about on this show, and maybe you’ve talked about on yours too. By committing with someone else to do something, it ensures you’ll actually follow through at a higher rate. So if you tell your friend you’ll meet them at this class online, it’s like telling someone you’ll meet them at the gym because if you don’t show up, then you’re a jerk.
Laurie Santos: Exactly. You’d never go to an online yoga class with your mom before this crisis, but now this is this new way that we can connect with the people we care about who we may not see as much. And hopefully that can be a thing that sticks into the future. Hopefully this fresh start of this crisis—if you can harness it to do better habits—whether that be exercise or these new forms of social connection or even things we haven’t talked about yet, like meditation or breath work, hopefully those habits will stick beyond the time that we’re stuck in our houses.
Katy Milkman: Well, I’m glad you went there because actually the next thing I wanted to ask you about was meditation and what you think that can do for people at this time and in general. It’s something we hear about all the time, and I always wonder, is it just over-hyped, or can meditation really be helpful? And how does it relate to mindfulness, and how can we use both at this moment to boost our well-being?
Laurie Santos: Yeah, I think this stuff is so critical right now, both meditation and then all just different attempts to kind of chill out our sympathetic nervous system. So fast biology lesson: One of the reasons we’re all feeling so hyped up and anxious right now is the coronavirus is the kind of threat like a tiger lurking in the bushes that’s going to set our sympathetic nervous system going a little bit crazy. This is the fight-or-flight system. It’s the system that says, “Oh my God, shut off everything else about the way the body works so that we can run away really quickly from this threat.” And it was built to run away for threats that were really temporary, like a tiger that was about to jump out. You run away and you’re good. The problem with coronavirus is that it’s chronically on—possibly it’s going to be a threat that we’re all facing for months and months and months.
It’s really wigging our sympathetic nervous systems out, for lack of a better way to phrase it. We’re not meant to turn these systems on, but the constant threat is making us feel anxious. It’s causing our bodies to be flooded with stress hormones, and that has a number of really awful physical consequences. First, it’s really bad for our immune system. So again at this time that we need our immune function to be working at its optimal level, we’re flooding our bodies with hormones that are ... It’s making that not the case. The second thing is, it’s awful for our digestion. It’s awful for our sexual health and functioning. It’s just not good to be turning this system on for a long time. The good news is that the body has a stop-gap, which is the parasympathetic nervous system. That’s the rest-and-digest system. Normally you would turn that on by shutting off the threat, which we can’t do right now.
But the great news is that the body gives us an awesome way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and that’s actually through our breath. If you ever notice when you have a horrible threat—if you’ve been attacked by a tiger or even if you’re like running a marathon or running on a treadmill—when you’re breathing, in the time when your body’s activating all its muscles, you tend to breathe really shallowly and through your chest. This is the kind of thing that people experience in, say, panic attacks too. But the parasympathetic nervous system is activated not by shallow chest breathing, but by this deep sort of belly breathing, these deep breaths that we take where we take the air in through our stomach and then let it out really slowly. The awesome news is that this is a way that science suggests we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system, just through our breath.
And so just taking time to do like two to three minutes of deep belly breathing—and this isn’t even meditation per se; it’s just kind of getting your breath right—can give your parasympathetic nervous system a moment to kind of jump in and react, which is so hugely helpful because we need something right now to shut off our sympathetic nervous system.
This is a spot where the ancient wisdom was just spot on. The simple act of taking time to focus on your breath means a couple of things. One is that you’re kind of training your brain to focus on something. You’re training your brain to focus in some sense on what you want. And so when your mind might go to ruminating about statistics about COVID or what’s happening with your elderly grandparents, all of these things that you might not be able to control at that time that kind of sucks and is going to activate your sympathetic nervous system. But the simple act of focusing on your breath means you’re kind of, like a muscle, retraining your mind to go to the stuff that you want it to, and every moment that you spend focusing on your breath or a mantra is one that you’re not freaking out about COVID statistics right now.
It can have these incredible effects. Scientifically speaking, there’s evidence suggesting that the simple act of meditating a few minutes a day can increase your concentration. It can increase your focus. It can decrease things like craving and things like your addictive tendencies. It can be really helpful for sort of promoting the healthy behaviors you need to get over addictions and things like that, but it can really regulate your emotions. It can really help with things like depression and anxiety. Again, I think in part because you’re kind of training your mind not to ruminate on the bad stuff, but to focus on the good stuff.
Katy Milkman: That’s really helpful. And for those like me who are a little bit new to the world of meditation, do you have any advice on great tools we can use to get up to speed? Would you just Google “meditation,” or do you think there are some offerings out there that are better than others?
Laurie Santos: Yeah, there are lots of different ones. I’ll be honest—I use Insight Timer, which is just a free meditation app. There’s lots of stuff on there. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s not so good. If you look at beginner meditations—or especially beginner mindfulness-based stress reduction, which is one of the most secular and scientifically based versions of meditation—those tend to be really good. Other folks really like Calm, an app, or Headspace, but honestly even if you just Google “beginner mindfulness-based meditation,” you can get started.
Another thing that I often tell people who are new to it is to not focus on the amount of time. I think sometimes you think, “Oh my God, I had to meditate for 20 minutes,” and so on. Start with a minute. Dan Harris, who is a big new proponent of meditation, he wrote a book called Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. He’s a big proponent of “Just do it for a minute,” because we all have a minute where you can just sit there. You’d be surprised that just sitting and following your breath for a minute can be really powerful.
I also think it’s useful to think about the particular kinds of meditation, because there are different sort of flavors of meditation that you can try out, whether you’re focused on your breath ... In some meditation cases, you’re focused on gratitude, so you’re actually kind of using that meditation time to count your blessings in some sense. But a really powerful one that can be particularly helpful right now is a form of meditation known as loving kindness, or meta-meditation, which sounds so cheesy and syrupy sweet, and so bear with me if you’re the kind of person who’s not into this stuff naturally.
But what loving kindness meditation is, is it’s the act of trying to control your compassion muscles. Basically, during the meditation, you sort of think about people in your life, and you sort of wish them well. You’ll often use phrases like, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free from harm,” things like that. Practitioners of this practice often report that in the act of thinking those thoughts, they kind of feel these warm, compassionate feelings in their chest. And the research suggests that practicing these things can be incredibly powerful. One piece of research suggests that loving kindness meditation can really help with burnout, and the way this is thought to work is that burnout is when you over-feel people’s pain too much. Think of these healthcare workers right now who are dealing with these awful situations, seeing people in suffering, watching young people die. It’s awful and it could really burn you out if you feel that emotion too much.
Practicing compassion through these techniques allows you to experience the care that you want to give for other people without necessarily experiencing their pain. So it’s a little different than empathy and feeling people’s pain. You’re kind of feeling motivated to help them. And what the research suggests is that these practices can allow you to engage with the suffering of other people in a way that doesn’t mess you up. One study by Tania Singer and her colleagues showed that if you give subjects these kind of nasty videos of people suffering, but you have them do this practice of loving kindness meditation, they experience those videos not with negative emotions like, “Ah, I feel sad, and I feel angry about this situation.” They actually experienced those videos with more positive emotions and in particularly more affiliative or caregiving emotions. So in other words, you see human suffering and rather than wanting to run away from it, you want to do something about it and help.
I think in this time where we need to deal with the suffering of other people and not fall apart, but also in a time when we need to focus our energies on more pro-social actions, this particular kind of meditation can be really powerful.
Katy Milkman: One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about, and you mentioned earlier, is how much time we’re all spending on social media and the news and how hard it is to rip ourselves away from that. For me, one of the biggest challenges actually is that at night, right before bed, I get on my phone, I start reading all the latest statistics. It doesn’t seem like that’s probably the best thing to do. So I’m wondering if you would suggest other routines—in particular, how can we rip ourselves away from these statistics? When is it most harmful, in fact, to be looking at them, and what other routines should we have if we want to make sure that we sleep well, for instance?
Laurie Santos: Yeah, so I think the social media one is a big one. Many of us are in a new situation or feeling anxious. We’re feeling a little bored. And in our normal life, many of us have a habit that we do when we’re feeling that way, which is we quickly go on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter and do a quick check. The problem is that while those quick checks might’ve worked and kind of bumped up our dopamine in the past, right now they’re not filled with happy cat videos or baby pictures. It’s filled with these scary coronavirus statistics that are going to spike our anxiety. One of the things I’ve been trying to do is when I do those things—in other words, when I do the quick Twitter check—I try to be really mindful and pay attention to how it’s feeling in my body.
Like, did that help, or did that kind of make me feel worse? And inevitably, whenever I’ve done that check lately, I’ve been like, “This was a really dumb idea. Why did I just spike my anxiety unnecessarily again, right before bed, right when I was going to bed?” I’ve kind of just put a moratorium on any social media after around 6:00 p.m. I’ve made a little spot in my room where I put my phone, and I keep it really far away. And the things I do before bed now—usually I’d read on my Kindle or something—I’ve only brought out physical books ahead of time, so that even if I’m planning to just read on my Kindle, I don’t have the urge to kind of do the quick social media check. And that’s been so helpful for my anxiety levels, particularly before I sleep.
Because another thing that spiking your sympathetic nervous system does is it makes it really hard to go to bed. It makes it really hard to rest and relax. So that’s been really powerful. Another thing has been to try to realize what I’m trying to get out of learning all those statistics. I think it’s incredibly important to be informed, and some amount of anxiety about what’s going on is important because we have to plan and act on it. But I’ve been trying to figure out what’s the optimal level right now? What else am I going to learn today from these new statistics that’s going to really help me? How many times a day do I actually have to check in to be informed rather than to be totally freaked out?
What I’ve realized is that one half-hour check in the morning is probably good for the day. Anything else is going to be superfluous. And so that’s been really powerful to realize I don’t have to do it, and also to realize that doing that is an opportunity cost on other stuff that could really be helping me. When I get the urge to go on social media now to do a quick check, I’ve been trying to harness that into a new behavior—which as you know, to replace habits, it’s helpful to have the other new behavior you go to. So I’ve been trying, instead of going on social media, to say, “Oh, this is a time when I should text a friend. Who should I text?” Oh, I’ll text my dad, or I’ll text a friend who’s like up the street, and so it’s still like going to my phone and doing something when I have that moment and momentary anxious feeling that I have this cue that I want to act on, but instead of acting on it in a way that’s going to bump up my anxiety, hopefully it’s acting on it in a way that will help with social connection right now.
Katy Milkman: I love that habit replacement. That’s a fantastic one. Use that cue of a social media craving and instead text a friend or make a donation or find a way you can help someone. That’s helpful.
Laurie Santos: Exactly. Same with going to bed too. I think if I didn’t have the other cue of a physical book that I was excited to read, even if I put my phone somewhere, I would just get up and go look at my phone, right? Like by having this other thing that I’m looking forward to, that’s an alternative behavior that I can just slot in, it’s been really powerful.
Katy Milkman: That’s great. So we have to be really disciplined about replacements. On the note of sleep, you mentioned your sleep routine—which is fabulous, and I’m going to emulate—are there any other things we should be thinking about doing to ensure that we’re able to sleep well or as well as possible at this very stressful time? What does the research say about how we can ensure we get the sleep we need for our immune systems and our emotional well-being?
Laurie Santos: Well, I think one thing is to just realize how critical sleep is for our mental health right now. The data on sleep and mental health are shocking, like that you basically can spike your mood and your emotions to basically almost be at a clinical level where you need treatment simply by getting like three to four hours a night of sleep for a week or so. There are some studies suggesting this, right. So finding ways to prioritize sleep right now—it’s really critical, and I think you hit the nail on the head. We just have to be really intentional about it. We have to form new habits.
The good news is we’re in this crazy new situation where we can start to form those new habits. We’re in the house in a different way than we were before, which allows us to ... We’re not going out, say, at night, to go get drinks with friends or doing what we would normally do. And I think that allows us a novel situation where we can set up these new habits.
Katy Milkman: The last thing I was thinking about is these stressors that are very real and aren’t just in the media—but things like losing a job or being afraid that you are going to be out of a job, or knowing someone who’s sick and being very worried about them—when we have these very real concerns that we can’t ignore like social media, which we really could live without. What advice do you have on how we can handle that?
Laurie Santos: I guess there are two pieces of advice. One is if you’re dealing with that situation happening to someone else, someone you care about, right. This is happening with me in my own life. I’m finding out that students in my college are presumed COVID, and they’re really, really sick right now. And this is one of the worst things about this crisis is I can’t do what I would normally do, which is like show up at their door, give soup, wish them well. I think we have these thwarted moments of wanting to help where we can’t do it. And what I’ve been trying to do is to harness those thwarted altruism moments to a different kind of altruism, right. Like every time I get an email from a sick student, I’m like, let me donate some money to a cause that’s really good right now. Or let me call an elderly neighbor and check in on them. So you kind of take the altruistic urge that you have to help the person in need who you might not be able to help directly and sort of channel that into something else.
I think if you’re facing these problems yourself—you’ve personally lost a job or you’ve personally started to feel sick—I think the key there is to do the kinds of things that we know can be really powerful for promoting resilience. And a lot of them have to do with realizing that this situation, as awful as it is, is temporary, and it’s the kind of thing where we know that people who’ve gone through really awful life circumstances and have come out the other side often report that it was ultimately a good experience.
Katy Milkman: OK. So it’ll be hard in the moment when you’re dealing with a crisis to see that. But it sounds like the key advice is, yes, this may be the low point in your life, and we don’t want to take anything away from that, but research shows that you will come out of it and that six months later, a lot of people are able to be back just as happy as they were before. So know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and look for opportunities to grow.
Laurie Santos: Yeah. And you can speed that light up by kind of taking this future-oriented processing yourself. So if you’re experiencing something awful, describe how you’re going to deal with that setback a year from now. So if you’ve lost your job, sit down and be like, “All right, a-year-from-now me, what am I thinking?” Actually, I got through it. … Things are going to be OK. It can kind of just get you to have a more meta view of what’s going on, and you can realize that it’s in the moment things that seem really awful, in the scheme of things, are often going to be OK in some time.
Katy Milkman: Laurie, I know we’re about out of time and I just wanted to ask if you have any final words of wisdom or any final things you think we should cover so that our listeners can get through this very difficult time. You’ve given so much great advice, but is there any last word that you want to share?
Laurie Santos: I think, I guess the last word is two words, but the last two words would be just self-compassion. Like it really is an awful time. There’s a reason that we’re calling this crisis unprecedented. There’s a reason that it is—we’re dealing with a deadly virus that’s incredibly scary and incredibly uncertainty provoking. And I think one thing to realize is it’s OK to feel crappy. It’s OK to not be working. It’s OK to give yourself and your family members a little bit more self-compassion and a little bit more of a benefit of the doubt than you usually would. But part of that giving yourself the benefit of the doubt is to realize that science gives you intentional things that you can do to feel better. So, yeah, feel crappy and lick your wounds, but as soon as you have the space, try some of these things out that we’ve been talking about because all the research suggests they can help a lot.
Katy Milkman: Thank you, Laurie. This was so great. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Laurie Santos: No problem. This was fun.
Katy Milkman: Laurie Santos is a professor of psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab, a terrific podcast about the science of happiness. I have links to her podcast and online course on well-being in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
Laurie talked about the very real emotional impact of economic stress and how people can attempt to cope with it.
Schwab has additional resources to help you make sense of the impact to financial markets at schwab.com/volatility, including FAQs and strategies for long-term investors and people nearing or in retirement. I put a link in the show notes.
I’m Dr. Katy Milkman, and you’ve been listening to a special episode of Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. I hope today’s show has brought you at least a small ray of sunshine at a dark time.
We’ll be back with more typical Choiceology programming next week. In the meantime, please take care.
Speaker 3: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.