It takes a lot of hard work to get into places like Yale and Stanford. But once students make it to the Ivy League, many find that while they’re ready to tackle Shakespeare and comparative political systems, they’re lost when it comes to building emotionally rich, and balanced lives.
To that end, a growing number of top universities are offering courses that aim to put students on the happiness track. A week after Yale opened registration for its debut course “Psychology and the Good Life” this January, a quarter of the undergraduate population—more than 1,180 students—had signed up, making it the most popular course ever at the university. Meanwhile, one in six undergraduates at Stanford take a course that teaches students to apply design thinking to the “wicked problem” of creating fulfilling lives and careers. And at McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec, students have flocked to “Lessons of Community and Compassion,” a course on social connectedness and belonging—precisely the things they may have sacrificed to get into one of Canada’s top institutions.
“I think students are looking for meaning,” Peter Salovey, president of Yale, told Quartz at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Salovey, an early pioneer in research on emotional intelligence, says that while students today are more sophisticated and worldly than previous generations, they seem to be much less resilient. Their sense of vulnerability is driving them to search for purpose, in academic courses and beyond.
Laurie Santos, the psychology professor teaching the Yale class, says the message behind her course—helping students figure out what it means to live happier, more satisfying lives, and teaching them scientifically-tested strategies to achieve that goal—resonates with kids who are only now realizing the toll that academic rigor has taken on their sleep, mental health, and sense of social connectedness.
“Our intuitions about what to do to be happy are wrong.” “Our intuitions about what to do to be happy are wrong,” she says. We think we want to achieve high-powered positions or make a lot of money, even if that means sacrificing the things that make us balanced and sane—human connection, exercise, rest, and activities that allow us to recharge. “This is a great moment when we have rigorous research on positive psychology—what makes us happy, but also on behavioral change,” says Santos. Her course covers practical topics ranging from the psychological benefits of charitable giving to how to pick a meaningful career. And because science shows that grade-seeking can undermine happiness, she encourages the students to take the course pass-fail.
Mental health issues among young adults are on the rise at universities around the world. “I was really surprised at the levels of anxiety and depression students face,” Santos says. A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health services during their time on campus. A 2009 survey of 80,121 students, conducted by the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment, showed that 39% of college students felt hopeless during the school year, and 25% felt so depressed they found it hard to function. Nearly half (47%) reported feeling overwhelming anxiety, and 84% said they felt generally overwhelmed by all they have to do.
Teaching students how to be happier isn’t just about helping them as individuals—it can also be about helping them be better citizens. In the course “Lessons of Community and Compassion: Overcoming Social Isolation and Building Social Connectedness through Policy and Program Development,” McGill University professor of practice Kim Samuel introduces students to some of the most socially isolated people on the planet—refugees and migrants, indigenous communities, families struggling with food insecurity; the displaced, disabled, and disconnected. One of the goals of her course, she says, is to teach students what it feels like to have a sense of safety and community in their own lives, so that they can help build connectedness in more disadvantaged populations. “All students have experienced some degree of social isolation in their lives,” she says, “and that recognition is the royal road to reciprocity.”
“We’re adding the ‘life’ component explicitly back to the college experience.” Many of her students say it’s a life-altering experience. Jeremy Monk, who took Samuel’s course and is now a graduate student at Columbia University, says, “I think a lot of us down the road, when we look back on where we started … this is going to be the place that we started, and where our ideas started to blossom, and where we really were given the chance to feel like we can make a difference and we are the leaders of change.”
Stanford’s “Designing Your Life” course, meanwhile, is taught by Bill Burnett, head of Stanford’s design program, and Dave Evans, who led the design of Apple’s first mouse and co-founded the gaming company Electronic Arts before becoming a lecturer in the design program.
Evans says everyone is trying to answer the question posed by poet Mary Oliver: “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” “None of us got the manual explaining how to figure out the answer,” he adds. Soon-to-be graduates are facing that question with immediacy, and under pressure. “They’ve been wonderfully trained to get into and attend schools for 22 years—but not how to live in the world and to determine what “a life” means to them,” Evans says. He notes that being good at school is not the same thing as being good at life.
The Stanford courses have been such a success that the university’s Life Design Lab, co-founded by Evans and Burnett, now helps other colleges and universities to develop their own versions of the program. Evans says similar courses are now being taught at Northwestern, University of Vermont, Dartmouth, University of Michigan and MIT. “We’re adding the ‘life’ component explicitly back to the college experience,” Evans says. “It’s attractive because the need is great, the priority is high, and there’s little offered to help.”
The pursuit of happiness is, of course, hardly a new development. “Plato was talking about this,” Santo says. Scores of people have bought best-selling books on achieving happiness, from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project to Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. And as the New York Times notes, courses on positive psychology are a popular draw for college students; 900 students enrolled in a Harvard lecture titled Positive Psychology in 2006.
What’s new is the growing body of scientific research on what actually makes people happy—and a sense from universities that today’s undergraduates are particularly in need of guidance.
Parents hold some responsibility for students’ lack of resilience, says Salovey. Parents’ laser-sharp, lifelong focus on getting their kids into top universities means that students are terrified of messing up. “It’s a kind of parenting that’s focused on college admissions and mitigating risks. We have to help students develop their own voice, to pick themselves up after failure.”
“We have to help students develop their own voice, to pick themselves up after failure.” There’s another advantage to offering classes on happiness: They underscore that mental health and emotional balance aren’t things that young people can afford to keep putting off. According to Sonja Lyuboirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and author of the The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, 40% of our happiness is conscious, intentional, and under our control. “It takes the work you have to put in to be a great violinist, it takes work every day,” Santos says. Happiness is never a lost cause, but the science does suggests that becoming a happy person is not a quick fix. Taking a college course on the subject may be the best short cut there is.
Santos will only teach one semester of the Yale course. But a five-part seminar-style series, “The Science of Well-Being,” will be available in March, for free, on the online education site Coursera.
So far, Santos has taught five sessions of “Psychology and the Good Life.” She says the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “They are taking these ideas to heart in a way I did not expect,” she says. Alumni are already writing her to request a copy of the syllabus, as are kindergarten teachers and PTA heads. It’s not just young people who need help with happiness, she notes: “This is a human problem.”