Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever and What We Can Learn from It

A few years ago, psychology professor, Laurie Santos, proposed a new elective class at Yale University. She believed it would be a helpful and relevant course for students. No one had any idea how popular it would become.

Are you ready to hear the subject?

It’s a class on happiness. She tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in a twice-a-week class. “Students want to change, to be happier themselves and to change the culture on campus,” Dr. Santos explained.

Just how popular is the course?

About one in every four Yale students is taking the course. It’s much larger than anyone expected. The school had to find a larger hall to host the class. In response, Santos says she’s seeing better habits, students showing more gratitude, expanding their social connections, procrastinating less and, she believes, they are “seeding” the campus culture with positive change.

Why Are Students Drawn to “Psychology and the Good Life?”

No doubt, some students have enrolled in the course assuming it to be an easy PSYCH credit. Santos, however, believes it is the hardest class at Yale, since students have to hold themselves accountable to a daily lifestyle, not just write a paper or read a book. So, something must be attracting them in such large numbers.

Perhaps the students can tell us that answer.

Today’s students are either stressed out from self-imposed pressure to perform, or from the world they now live in—a world filled with thousands of social media posts streaming in each day, many of the posts exposing them to the frightening realities of a world full of terrorism, divisive politics, domestic violence, student debt and friends with better lives. “In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,” said Alannah Maynez, 19, a freshman taking the course. “The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions—both positive and negative—so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”

Several other students (sophomores through seniors) all suggested they’ve never had someone talk to them about how to be genuinely happy. It’s like a secret, and someone is finally addressing the issue. Santos says, “Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way ten or so years ago, that our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery or getting a good grade, are totally wrong.”

What and Why We Need to Change

I’ve believed for years, that merely learning to read, write and do arithmetic is insufficient in today’s culture. While I do think they’re important—too many schools are downloading this curriculum to stressed out students who can’t fully digest the curriculum, due to the pressure they feel. Social Emotional Learning has to play a role in today’s education:

  • Life skills
  • Moral intelligence
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Leadership

Aristotle once said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

Dr. Santos’ course focuses both on positive psychology—the characteristics that allow humans to flourish—and behavioral change, or how to live by those lessons in real life. Students must take quizzes, complete a midterm exam and, as their final assessment, conduct what Dr. Santos calls a “Hack Yo’Self Project,” a personal self-improvement project.

It’s just that with this course, they actually believe the assignments are relevant. So, what if we modified our current routines? Consider adding the following:

1. Researched-based conversations about how to be happy—including ideas on gratitude, serving others and pursuing a meaningful purpose.

2. Determine how hours on social media foster loneliness and jealousy. Then, determine together what limits students will give themselves.

3. Have students take on projects where they add value to someone or some group who cannot do anything in return. Then, discuss it.

4. Spend more time in face-to-face connections (rather than on a screen). This has consistently proven to raise happiness levels in people.

5. Discuss the concept of happiness. Talk about how happiness is elusive if we pursue it, but how it sneaks up on us when we choose to focus on others.

I recognize that making young people happy may not be in your job description as an educator, coach, employer or parent. But equipping students to think rightly about it will not only engage them, but it may just equip them to be better people.

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Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever and What We Can Learn from It