Coursera: Yale’s “Science of Well-Being”

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Dr. Laurie Santos, Yale U.

Here we are again, learning from a MOOC (massive, open, online course). This time, I read an article by the NYTimes regarding Laurie Santo’s massively popular Yale course for undergraduates called Psychology and the Good Life. It was apparently, the most popular course at Yale, ever. So, it was with great pleasure I noted that Dr. Santos was adapting it to an online course via Coursera called The Science of Well-Being, and I was immediately in-line to sign up for the free course.

Over 6 weeks, Dr. Santos takes us through the science, and the practical tips needed to identify “mis-wanting” or, wanting things that do NOT make us happy (eg, higher salary, bigger house, engaging in social media, wanting solitude). She also outlines and compares ancient traditions of meditation and compassion with modern science and functional MRI studies where we can see where blood flow goes to which regions of the brain. Having heard of some of this research, I was really happy (!) to have Dr. Santos pull this science all together into a cohesive narrative.

I won’t ruin it for you; you HAVE to take this course. She goes over the big habits that improve happiness, among them: gratitude, compassion, exercise, sleep. I will however, give you the trick that Dr. Santos teaches, originally from Gabrielle Oettingen at NYU, called WOOP: wish, outcome, obstacle, plan. Wish means, to spend time thinking about what what you REALLY want, some habit that if you could change to make your life better, what would that be, and figure out how to say it in 3-5 words. For me, maybe that’s Sleep More. Outcome means, to envision all the great things that you imagine will accrue when you achieve this goal, and to summarize it in a few words. Maybe this is: I will be rested, happier and more creative. Obstacle means, to envision the SPECIFIC road blocks that you can foresee to meeting your goal. Plan means, to create SPECIFIC ways to overcome the obstacles.

Here’s the insight that BLEW my mind. Are you familiar with the book Thinking Fast and Slow? Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky discuss System 1 (the automatic, gut-feeling, rapid, doesn’t-take-much-brainpower, lazy system that is always working in your mind) and System 2 (the effortful, rational, give-me-a-minute-and-I’ll-figure-this-out, this-is-who-I-really-am part of your mind). Despite our self-perception that we are always using System 2 to be rational human beings, it is clear that MOST of the time, we are lazy and use System 1. This is why new year’s resolutions so often fail, System 1 takes over and thinks “Oh, I’m tired right now, what’s the harm in starting my resolution TOMORROW. I feel like some ice cream.” System 2 goes and sits in the back seat, waiting for another day.

Turns out, if you think of OBSTACLE and PLAN very very specifically, you can speak directly to System 1!!! Yes, you heard that right. Lazy System 1 actually listens to very specific instructions, even when generalized resolutions are completely ignored.

FOR EXAMPLE: Don’t say “I’m going to get more sleep.” System 1 laughs at this. DO say: OBSTACLE: “I want to go to sleep at 11pm every night, but I always get more energy that time of night.” PLAN: “I’m going to set an alarm at 10:30pm every night, to stop whatever I’m doing, and go read a book for 30 minutes, and go to sleep at 11pm.”

Dr. Oettingen’s research indicates that student grades improve a full grade, and that all sorts of participants improve their lives when setting WOOP goals, with effects persisting for at least 10 weeks after initial goal setting.

CMIO’s take? Sign me up for WOOP! Will you join me?

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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