USA Education First Look

Yale students find anxiety relief in popular happiness course

One in 4 Yale University students are enrolled in the same course this spring: 'Psychology and the Good Life.' Homework assignments for the popular class, include showing gratitude, performing acts of kindness, and developing social connections.

Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Yale's most popular class in its more than 300-year history is 'Psychology and the Good Life.'
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/File
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  • Angela Moore
    Thomson Reuters Foundation

The search for life's sweetest but most elusive treasure – happiness – brings nearly 1,200 Yale University undergraduates twice a week into an enormous hall on the Connecticut school's campus for its most popular class ever.

"Psychology and the Good Life" is such a hit that one in four undergraduate students at the Ivy League university is enrolled in the spring semester course, said Laurie Santos, the psychology professor who teaches the class. It is the largest class enrollment size in the history of Yale, founded in 1701.

Dr. Santos says students find the course appealing because they hope that science can help them find blissful relief from anxiety.

"Students report being more depressed than they have ever been in history at college, more anxious," she said.

Social science has generated many new insights into what makes people happy, Santos said.

"[Students] really want to learn those insights in an empirical, science-driven way," she said.

The third-oldest university in the United States, Yale boasts many famous alumni, including former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, and actors Paul Newman and Meryl Streep.

Santos said socialization, exercise, meditation, and plenty of sleep. While society often implies money and possessions are the goals in the game of life, the route to happiness heads in a different direction, she said.

"Very happy people spend time with others, they prioritize time with their friends, time with their family, they even take time to talk to the barista," Santos said.

She points to the psychological phenomenon of "mis-wanting," which leads people to pursue the wrong goals in life.

"We work really hard to get a great salary or to buy this huge house," she said. "Those things are not going to make us as happy as we think."

Homework assignments for the class, also known as Psyc 157, include showing more gratitude, performing acts of kindness, and bumping up social connections.

Due to overwhelming demand, the course is now being offered free to the public, through Coursera.org.

On campus, the class is already paying off for Yale senior Rebekah Siliezar, who described her previous mindset.

"What's most pressing on our minds is grades, it's the next job, it's a potential salary after graduation," said Ms. Siliezar, whose family lives in suburban Chicago. Now, she said, "I really try to focus on the present moment and the people around me." 

This article was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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