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!’”
The ‘Happiness Course’ at Yale
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.”
The Harvard Happiness Course
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.
6 Tips for Happiness
- Give yourself permission to be human. Accept emotions such as fear, sadness, or anxiety as natural. That can help overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness.
- Find activities that make you happy. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. If you can’t do this all the time, and that’s understandable, find ways to enjoy “happiness boosters,” moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning.
- Keep a happy state of mind. Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well being is determined by what we choose to focus on, the full or the empty part of the glass, and by our interpretation of external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity?
- Simplify. Most of us are generally too busy, trying to squeeze more and more activities into less and less time. We compromise our happiness by trying to do too much. Give yourself breathing room and savor life’s moments.
- Remember the mind-body connection. What we do, or don’t do, with our bodies influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.
- Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, like family and friends, a smile from a stranger, the song of a bird or a beautiful flower.
Baker, Billy, “At Yale, You Can Take a Course on Being Happy. And Many Students Are,” Boston Globe, April 26, 2018