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Spending $5 On This Will Provide You With Instant Happiness, Says Science

Why generosity is powerfully linked to happiness in your brain.

If an online lecture should go viral in the last year, it only makes sense that it be a course about the psychology of happiness. The Yale happiness course—officially known as "Psyc 157: Psychology and the Good Life"—has become a phenomenon ever since it became the university's most popular class a few years ago. Last March, right around the time the coronavirus panic was sending everyone scurrying indoors and Googling how to create makeshift face masks, the hugely popular class became a free offering online via Coursera. To date, the online version of the 10-week class has had more than 3.3 million students.

"We octupled the number of people taking the class," Laurie Santos, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist and psychology professor at Yale who taught the course, recently told The New York Times, describing its surge in popularity in 2020. "Everyone knows what they need to do to protect their physical health: Wash your hands, and social distance, and wear a mask. People were struggling with what to do to protect their mental health."

The Yale course teaches not only the science of happiness but also actionable and practical ways that you can take steps to be happier in your everyday life. (More on some of those below.) One student of the class, who spoke to the NY Times, noted that one of the course's smaller lessons "stuck with her," and we couldn't help but note that it's something so small and simple that any of us can do to feel happier.

The Yale class's curriculum apparently references one study published in the journal Science that polled more than 600 Americans about how happy they would feel if they received $5 to spend on themselves compared to how happy they would feel if they received $5 and were directed to spend it on someone else. The study notes that the participants largely said that they would be happier if they could pocket the money for themselves. However, the study found that—once put to the test—the participants "who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves."

The Yale happiness student applied this lesson to her own life and gifted a dress to her sister that she had bought for herself. "I'm still feeling that happiness months later," she said to the Times.

Now, that one study isn't the only research touting the paradoxically self-fulfilling benefits of generosity. According to a 2017 study published in the journal Nature Communications, scientists using MRI scans were able to study the brain patterns of those who committed generous acts. "Our data suggest that a commitment to generous behavior can increase happiness and thereby provide a neural mechanism that links commitment-induced generosity to happiness," the authors write.

So if you're looking for an instant—and potentially sustained—boost of happiness, consider going with generosity before you enter into retail therapy for yourself. And for just a few of the lessons that the Yale happiness course teaches, read on, because we've included just a few of its more actionable and interesting takeaways right here. And for more ways to be happier—and healthier—in your everyday life, make sure you're aware of The One Major Side Effect of Walking More Every Day, According to Science.

Your genetics matter when it comes to happiness

Mother in pink lace dress holding her 1 week old little baby

The Yale happiness course references the book The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, which observed the happiness levels of identical twins. The author ultimately found that genes are responsible for 50% of our happiness levels. Meanwhile, ten percent of our happiness levels depend on external circumstances that we have no control over, and 40% of our happiness levels derive from things we can directly control. So if you're hard on yourself for not being so happy, know that your genes are playing an outsize role.

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It's not wise to compare yourself to others

Portrait of a worried mature woman having problems with her finances

In her course, Santos references a former study that discovered that salary levels don't make people happy or unhappy, but their salary levels when compared to their coworkers' elicited feelings of unhappiness. If you start comparing yourself to others, it's a recipe for unhappiness.

Take time to be more grateful

Happy woman sitting on a couch

Santos instructs all of her students to take a few minutes every evening to write down the things they're grateful for. After all, countless studies have shown that thankful people are also healthier ones. For proof, just check out these 20 Science-Backed Benefits of Gratitude.

Yes, exercise more

woman happy and sweaty after workout

"Just exercising three times a week, for 30 minutes a day can give you as much happiness bang for your buck as taking an SSRI or taking something like Zoloft," Santos once told her students. And for more ways you can feel better instantly, make sure you're aware of The One Thought You Should Think About When You're Stressed, According to a New Study.

William Mayle
William Mayle is a UK-based writer who specializes in science, health, fitness, and other lifestyle topics. Read more about William