Episode 156: They Teach Happiness at Yale

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This is the fourth episode in our new series of things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally. Today, we are taking a look inside the ivy-covered walls of Yale University, but I think you will be very surprised about why we are taking that look. I know that many of you parents listening today have kids who have their hearts set on attending Yale or one of the other Ivy League universities or one of the other highly selective universities next fall. And I know that many of them won’t get to do that–not because they weren’t qualified to do it, but because too many other equally qualified kids also wanted to do it. But the perceived greatness of Yale’s academic program is not what we are going to look at today. Instead, we are going to look at just one Yale course, which happens to be Yale’s single most popular course ever offered?that is, the most popular course in Yale’s 316 years, and it’s being offered right now.

1. Happiness Is a Course?

In a provocative New York Times article in late January, David Schimer tells the story of PSYC 157 Psychology and the Good Life, a course that currently enrolls about 1,200 students, or almost one-quarter of Yale undergraduates. And this is not a required freshman seminar, as so many colleges have. Here is what Mr. Schimer says:

The course, taught by Prof. Laurie Santos, 42, a psychology professor and the head of one of Yale’s residential colleges, tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in twice-weekly lectures.

“Students want to change, to be happier themselves, and to change the culture here on campus,” Dr. Santos said in an interview.

“With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits, things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.” (quoted from the article)

What? A kinder, gentler Yale? A course about how to be happy? It sounds crazy, at first, but maybe she is onto something. The article continues:

Dr. Santos speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.” A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time at the school. (quoted from the article)

Wow. That is concerning to all of us, but especially to parents of Yale hopefuls or parents of kids who want to go to another 25 universities that are just as selective and just as challenging. And with the news we hear every day on our televisions, the mental health of students of all ages is increasingly a worry for all of us.

So, what is in this course (for which parents are paying a hefty Yale tuition price tag)? What is in this course that some students see as “a relaxed lecture with few requirements” (quoted from the article)? Here is what Mr. Schimer reports:

The course focuses both on positive psychology–the characteristics that allow humans to flourish, according to Dr. Santos–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?.

But while others might see easy credits, Dr. Santos refers to her course as the “hardest class at Yale”: To see real change in their life habits, students have to hold themselves accountable each day, she said.

She hopes that the social pressures associated with taking a lecture with friends will push students to work hard without provoking anxiety about grades. Dr. Santos has encouraged all students to enroll in the course on a pass-fail basis, tying into her argument that the things Yale undergraduates often connect with life satisfaction–a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job–don’t increase happiness at all.

“Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago, that our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade–are totally wrong,” Dr. Santos said?.

“We have this moment where we can make a difference in Yale’s culture, where students feel like they are part of a movement and fighting the good fight,” she said. (quoted from the article)

Well, that is an interesting take on happiness, and I have to wonder what the parents of those students are thinking. While no one wants to see kids overstressed to the point of mental health crises and while I know for a fact that many of those kids had way-too-intense high school years as they tried to get themselves prepared for Ivy League college applications, I am wondering why high grades and great internships and well-paying jobs can’t actually increase happiness. Certainly, not by themselves; but not at all?

Of course, taking off some of the pressure for high grades at Yale (or any other college) is fine by me. You will recall that we have talked about alternative grading practices at colleges as recently as five episodes ago in Episode 151. All of those alternative grading practices–some of which are used by very selective colleges–seem like a reasonable accommodation to kids who have worked too hard for too long and perhaps have lost sight of the value of learning apart from the value of getting a high grade. For some kids, the constant anxiety about getting high grades can thankfully end in college; but, for those who plan on graduate school or medical school or law school, I am afraid that they will be under the gun for another four years. Can Dr. Santos’s course help them with that? I would hope so.

2. Yale’s Response

While admitting how incredibly popular PSYC 157 has turned out to be, the Yale administration has had an interesting reaction. Here is what will happen next year at Yale, as Mr. Schimer writes:

Offering such a large class has come with challenges, from assembling lecture halls to hiring the 24 teaching fellows required. Because the psychology department lacked the resources to staff it fully, the fellows had to be drawn from places like Yale’s School of Public Health and law school. And with so many undergraduates enrolled in a single lecture, Yale’s hundreds of other classes–particularly those that conflict with Dr. Santos’s–may have seen decreased enrollment?.

Dr. Santos said she does not plan to offer the course again. Dr. [Woo-Kyoung] Ahn [director of undergraduate studies in psychology]?said, “Large courses can be amazing every once in a while, but it wouldn’t be fair to other courses and departments to take all of their students away.”

She added, “It causes conflict, and we can’t afford to offer this every year in terms of teaching fellows and resources.” (quoted from the article)

So, it was great while it lasted–or at least while other professors didn’t get too annoyed about the decrease in enrollment in their less-popular courses or administrators didn’t have to figure out the logistics of offering it. So, just how important is the mental health of the students or didn’t the professors and administrators think that the course was meeting that goal? I am sure that we will never know the answer to that question.

3. Your Response

In case you want to take a closer look at Dr. Santos’s idea or in case you want your kid to do so, “a multipart seminar-style series on the course material–filmed last year in her home and titled “The Science of Well-Being”–will soon be available for free on Coursera, an online education platform” (quoted from the article).

But, more to the point, please do keep in mind the mental health of your kid–both now in that last critical year or two of high school and then when he or she heads off for college, as so many of your kids will do this fall. Take a glance back at Episode 137, which focused on the importance of college support services for kids (like more than half of undergraduates at Yale) who need and seek mental health counseling while in college.

As we said in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, information about support services on a college campus is one thing prospective applicants and their parents might want to consider–especially if your kid identifies with students of color, first-generation-to-college students, LGBTQ students, or students with learning disabilities. And now, I would add, especially if your kid is going to a highly selective university, filled with bright, hardworking, overstressed, and likely anxious students.

As Randy Newman’s theme song for the great television show Monk says, “It’s a jungle out there.”

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