Class on Happiness Makes History at Yale University
Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend a lecture at Yale University called, “Happiness and/or The Good Life”. This special event was inspired by the tremendous popularity of Professor Laurie Santos’ class, “Psychology and the Good Life”. This semester, 1270 students signed up to take her new class–over 25% of the student body–making it the most popular class ever in Yale’s 316-year history.
When The New York Times ran an article in January about Professor Santos’ class, it quickly went viral. Clearly the search for “The Good Life” struck a chord with people far beyond the college campus.
Happiness and/or the Good Life featured three esteemed professors: Professor Santos, Professor Jennifer Herdt (Divinity and Religious Studies), and Professor Shelly Kagan (Philosophy). Here’s what they had to say:
Professor Laurie Santos
In her popular class, Professor Santos first has students explore what helps them answer the question, “What makes a good life?” The students learn that often “their brain lies to them” and leads them to pursue things that won’t bring happiness at all, like money, status, and even good grades. Santos reports that while her students nod in agreement with the first two, they “have a hard time swallowing” the idea that grades are not a route to happiness.Skills
Next Professor Santos teaches students the tools and skills necessary for emotional regulation, i.e., how to “hack their emotions”. She calls these the “class re-wirements”. Here are the habits she suggests–with some elaboration based on my own professional experience.
Don’t just make a list of things for which you are grateful, really dig into the feeling of gratitude. Being grateful for people, rather than things or situations, is ultimately more rewarding.
Start a mindful meditation practice. This helps build mindfulness throughout your day.
Get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. Practice the habit of good sleep hygene.
4. Build Social Connection
No, not social media–this refers to building your sense of community. Find your tribe.
5. Help Others
Practice random acts of kindness. Volunteer for a favorite cause.
6. Time affluence
Professor Santos defines this as “free time for a nice piece of self-care”. In order to demonstrate this, she cancelled class one day, met her students at the door, and told them all to do something that they wouldn’t normally do.
Students responded by crying, hugging her, and later sending her emails saying they would never forget that experience. After just one hour.
This “re-wirement” shows us that time affluence may be one of the things we have most lost sight of. Certainly this seems to be true for Yale students, but I would posit that this attitude is endemic in our society.
These six skills seem basic– obvious, even. But Professor Santos reports that, “These band-aidy solutions have actually had far-reaching implications”. Students already report decreased anxiety and feeling more personal and social connection.
The final third of the class is all about how to make these habits “stick”. Without lasting behavior change the increased happiness will be only temporary. This section of the course is just beginning, so Professor Santos did not reveal the strategies she will be teaching.
Professor Santos states that she believes this class would be equally popular if offered by the philosophy department, or from a faith-based perspective. Where the social sciences have the advantage, Santos says, is in being able to facilitate behavioral change–the key to these “band-aids” becoming lasting life habits.
In the end, Professor Santos tells us, what makes a “good life” is a “rich mixture of emotions”, not just happiness alone.
Professor Jennifer Herdt
Professor Herdt elaborated on Santos’ viewpoint by saying that we need to “stop pursuing happiness and reach for ‘the good life’”.
She warns us that there are 3 problems with pursuing happiness directly:
1. Different things make different people happy.
Also, different things make even the same person happy at different times. This makes it impossible for anyone to isolate the specific things that are guaranteed to bring happiness. (and as Prof. Santos explained earlier, the things we think will make us happy are often not the right ones at all!)
2. The meaning of happiness is ‘slippery’.
In fact, Professor Herdt tells us, the word happiness comes from the Norse “hap”, which means “luck”–thus we have” happenstance” and “perhaps”.
Professor Herdt continues, “We argue over the meaning of ‘true happiness’ in a way we don’t argue over the meaning of ‘true pleasure’.”
3. The direct pursuit of happiness is self-defeating.
“It is ultimately un-satisfying; there is a meaning-deficit.”
Herdt reminds us of Socrates, who says not “How should I be happy?” but “How should I live?”
In fact, hedonic happiness is one of the results of a life well-lived. We don’t need to sacrifice happiness, we just need to trust that it will follow when we pursue a meaningful life.
Herdt concludes by telling us, “You’ve made a good start if you can see that a life devoted to the pursuit of happiness is not a life worth living”.
Professor Shelly Kagan
Professor Kagan talks about the relationship between a “good life” and an “ethical life”. He believes that happiness may or may not be a by-product of a life well-lived, and that happiness is not the important metric by which we should judge our lives.
Rather, a successful life is an ethical life, one made up of the important intrinsic elements of love, respect, achievement, friendship, knowledge, self-understanding, and morality.
Kagan got the audience engaged in a bit of a debate when he asked a hypothetical question about a man who had died thinking that he had these important elements of a life worth living–love, respect, and achievement. Sometime after his death, it was found that these elements were all false–namely his achievements were based on false premises, his friends and family did not actually love and respect him as he had believed. The question posed was, “Had this man lived a life worth living, or not?” Professor Kagan noted that our group was divided about 80% No, 20% Yes, which was what he typically saw in response to this question.
The huge popularity of Professor Santos’ class “Psychology of the Good Life” shows us that there is a tremendous need for this issue to be addressed on college campuses today. Over 25,000 people are already enrolled in the online course that opened this month. This would lead us to believe that college campuses are not the only place where these questions need to be asked, and these skills need to be taught.
Stress and anxiety are rampant in our society, and the skills and tools taught in Prof. Santos’ class can go a long way toward helping us learn to regulate our emotions. In the end, however, perhaps lasting well-being can only come from examining our values and choosing to live a life that best expresses them.
Some of the best advice about a life well-lived comes from the late, inestimable, Stephen Hawking, who says,
“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”