Students at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut have a lot going for them. For some students at the Ivy League college, they may also have some things going against them. Specifically against their mental and physical health. What they have going on in their lives may include self-imposed high-level stress that often affects their sleep, health, emotions and outlook on life.
Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos saw many of her students struggling with tension, anxiety and a lack of joy. Her mother had been a high school guidance counselor and Santos knew some of the healthiest and best things in life show up when we slow down.
In an interview in the Boston Globe Santos said when she saw the pressure some students inflict on themselves, “I wanted to yell at them: ‘God, chill out!’”
Santos decided to help these anxiety-ridden students find ways to help themselves “chill out.” She created a class for them, one that is now the most popular in the history of the 317-year-old school. The course, Psyc 157, is titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” but everyone at Yale calls it “the happiness class.” When the course was unveiled this semester 1,200 students enrolled.That’s nearly a quarter of Yale’s undergraduates.
First she had to have students rethink “happiness.” If they could understand that true, long-term happiness doesn’t come from external achievements like good grades, although good grades are fine, but there has to be internal satisfaction and positive relationships in order to find peaceful, personal happiness.
One of Santos’ most popular assignments was when she turned the idea of “time famine” upside down and gave students a lesson in “time affluence.” Santos cancelled class and students were only to use their unexpected free time creatively. No work. No studying. No hours on cell phones. They were to find something fun to do with another person, or a few people. Santos found some students overwhelmed that the merry-go-round of life’s busy-ness suddenly stopped. “Two students started crying,” said Santos. Some went to museums and on other excursions with “new friends.” A second gift of time was a snowstorm that cancelled classes for a second day. “We know from psychology that the top key to happiness has to do with intentional social interactions,” Santos said. “Very happy people spend time with other people.”
Many people are searching for a path to personal happiness and Yale isn’t the only, or the first, college to offer some wisdom to students. Harvard offered a way forward toward happiness in the course “Positive Psychology” taught by professor Tal Ben-Shahar. By 2006 it had become the most popular course on the Harvard campus. Like the leading voice on “positive psychology” Martin Seligman, Professor Ben-Shahar looked not at what’s wrong with people or life, but what makes people “flourish.”
So whether you’re a student, a parent, a retired person, a busy working person, or any other point in your life, these suggestions from Professor Ben-Shahar might just nudge you forward on the path to a happier life.
Baker, Billy, “At Yale, You Can Take a Course on Being Happy. And Many Students Are,” Boston Globe, April 26, 2018