None of us knew what to expect. I followed hundreds and hundreds of students as they poured into Yale University’s 844-seat Battell Chapel, finally finding a seat on a packed pew next to my friends. The crowd around us murmured to each other in excitement, craned their necks to find their friends, and marvelled at the sheer number of people there. You might think we’d gathered for a celebrity speaker, but we were there for Psychology And The Good Life, the newest course by rock-star professor Laurie Santos. Her ambitious goal: to use psychology to teach the secret to happiness.
Adored by students, Professor Santos peppers her lectures with enthusiasm, memes, and a not-so-secret celebrity crush on Drake. Her regular lecture, Sex, Evolution, And Human Nature, regularly draws a crowd of several hundred, and she’s been previously named one of Popular Science’s Brilliant 10 Young Minds as well as Leading Campus Celebrity by TIME. Moreover, Professor Santos brings practical experience to the course: as the head of one of Yale’s residential colleges, she has witnessed first-hand how unhappiness cripples students. After witnessing multiple suicides in the past four years, she prepared Good Life as an antidote to the pervasive sense of inadequacy and extreme stress that was sweeping Yale’s student body.
I decided to take the class thinking only that it might be a fun way to finish off my psychology major; I wasn’t looking for a magical elixir that might grant me happiness. However, once Professor Santos began detailing the glut of problems that detract from students’ happiness,I began to see parallels with my own life: a frequent sleep deficit, a fixation with social media, and a love of material goods, among others. That’s when I decided to buy in. Throughout the course, we explored how scientists measure happiness (short answer: they just ask), misconceptions about what creates happiness and how these emerge, what actually leads to happiness, and finally, how to utilise this knowledge to build a happier lifestyle.
Along the way, Professor Santos condensed her lessons into short ‘PsychProTips’, easily digestible tidbits of advice for how to live a better life. There were 60 tips over the course of the semester, ranging from the obvious (#21: Just get some damn sleep), to the encouraging (#15: Literally just talk to people), to the unfortunate (#9: Stop watching TV and you’ll stop wanting stuff), and the counter-intuitive (#13: Give a bunch of your money/stuff away). As word spread, the lecture exploded in size. Hundreds more enrolled, resulting in a final tally of over 1,200, making it the largest course in the history of the university. The class overflowed its initial classroom and began simulcasting into several other large lecture halls. Eventually, the course transferred locations permanently, and became the first to be taught in Yale’s massive Woolsey Hall.
Despite mass appeal, the lectures did not shy away from surprising and shocking the crowd, particularly when they focused on how profoundly humans misattribute what will make them happy. “Grades don’t matter” hits especially hard for Yale students, who typically spend their entire lives prioritising academics above all else. Learning that money matters only to a point, provides a sobering realisation at a university in which almost 30 per cent of graduates enter careers in finance or consulting. If grades, money, or even marriage, can’t make us happy, then what can? The class lightened in the later weeks of the semester, when those answers emerged. Some were simple, if hard to actually accomplish: daily exercise, meditation, and staying off social media, while others were far more complex, such as discovering and avoiding which environments evoke unwanted emotional responses. However, Professor Santos refused to merely teach these topics. She argued that the only way to learn a happier lifestyle was to experience it.
From that philosophy emerged the most unique and memorable aspect of the course: rewirements, which are like requirements but…different. Each week, every student implemented a certain lesson from the course in their own lives, from sleeping more to keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ to savouring a beautiful spring day. Not only did these rewirements ensure that we understood the potency of these happiness techniques, but they also led to surprisingly powerful experiences. I made a spontaneous social connection talking to a veteran on a train to New York, tearfully expressed to a close friend just how much they meant to me, and even tried my hand at stand-up comedy.
The rewirements, however, also proved to be the most challenging aspect of the course. Attendance dwindled as the pressures of the semester settled in. With the grind of school and classes wearing me down, I occasionally found myself neglecting these assignments in favour of other schoolwork. Tasks like exercising for 30 minutes a day, or even others that pushed us in new and uncomfortable directions that would break our daily routine, began to feel too hard.
Many students abandoned them altogether. Yet, despite my mid-semester lull, I struggled through them, propelled only by my curiosity about whether they would work. By the final weeks of the course, I found myself shocked with the results. I had begun to savour each day more and more. Random acts of kindness and expressing gratitude left me with a warm glow that lingered for days at a time, and my commitment to breaking out of my comfort zone and embracing my strengths brought a sense of excitement. My mood lifted, bit by bit, as the class encouraged me to interact with the world.
So, was Psychology And The Good Life successful in teaching us the secret to happiness? For those who could not internalise its lessons, or see the class as more than a means to an easy A, perhaps not. Fortunately, they comprised the minority. For everyone else, including myself, who dug in their heels and committed to its rigours, we found at the very least, a kernel of happiness to hold on to. For us, then, it was an undeniable success.