Happiness Check-In: Laurie Santos and Screen Time Tips (including Zoom)



Professor Laurie Santos’ “Psychology and the Good Life” is the most popular course at Yale University. Laurie came up with the curriculum because she was concerned that a generation of kids –  the students she met with every day – were supremely capable but not particularly happy; overachievers who were stressed, tired, and unfulfilled.  The popular course drills down into data about how our mind works and how to reframe our personal notion of happiness. Santos turned out to be teaching something that everyone, not just college kids, needed to learn and she catapulted to national fame.

Laurie’s class moved to the Coursera Platform under a new title –  “The Science of Well-Being” — and over 3.3M folks have already taken the course. It was particularly popular during the pandemic and remains relevant as we head into more months of lockdown. You can watch three videos for free without signing up (which costs $49), and another way to preview the topic is to watch Laurie speaking at the 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival.

I heard Laurie speak about well being and screen time recently. Because everyone’s use of devices ramped up dramatically during quarantine, there is concern about how this is impacting our lives – and especially how it is impacting our children. Laurie had some fresh ways to address this burgeoning issue, and I particularly like this simple mindfulness hack, which she credits to Catherine Price, author of the 2018 book “How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30 Day Plan to Take Back Your Life.”


When you grab for the phone, ask yourself:

Why am I here?

Why now?

What else?


In conversation today, Laurie shared her belief that once the pandemic is over, we’ll be so happy to be with friends and family again that we will naturally begin to choose a less device-dependent life. We will think of our phones as tools, and not get as lost in our screens.

That’s a very hopeful prediction – and would be a fabulous silver lining outcome from this enduring pandemic experience.

If you want to reframe your relationship with technology, and you’d like to help your kids do the same, here are a quick overview of Laurie’s advice around screen time.

  1. MINDFULNESS:  Note when you are picking up the phone and why you’re doing it. Are you looking for something particular or are you just bored? Pay attention to how you feel after just scrolling mindlessly and try to put more intention around why you turn to your phone as a default activity.
  2. ROLE MODELING: Kids learn by watching and they’re definitely watching your behavior. Be sure to practice what you are preaching when it comes to modeling screen management.
  3. RELATIONSHIPS: Being connected to those around us is vitally important to happiness, but pandemic ennui may have dulled the quality of our relationships.  Are you ignoring those around you? Are you letting a text notification take you away from someone you are talking with? How does that feel?
  4. SLEEP: Are you scrolling instead of sleeping? Sleep is vital component of mental health, and key to keeping our immune systems strong during Covid-19.
  5. OPPORTUNITY COST: One of the least explored topics around screen time is the cost of giving all our attention to devices. If you believe our attention to be the most valuable resource in life – decisions about how to spend your time are key to well-being. What else could you be doing instead of scrolling? You may have conquered sourdough baking, but we are still home for the foreseeable future. Bringing awareness to what else you could be doing with your time is perhaps the most important question of all.

UPDATE: Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction lab came out with an interesting study about zoom recently. HIs analogy is apt when thinking about why we feel so awkward staring down the computer all day. Think of being on a zoom call like being in an elevator; the close proximity to others is too much, and we tend to look away or look down. Getting through a day like this is madness – it’s a much higher cognitive load than in our normal daily interactions. That’s why you feel so lousy.

Here are his tips – and here is Stanford’s article on the research.

  1. Hide your own self view (right click) and avoid worrying about how your own face operates and appears.
  2. Minimize the window to the tiniest part of your screen so you can focus on what is being said and contribute more naturally.
  3. And remember – “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” – think about whether the meeting can be a phone call instead of a zoom! If you can speak instead of zoom, you can move around and relax your body… and focus on the conversation at hand.

Good luck!