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The pursuit of happiness: Yale professor teaches students how to live a better life

Yale professor teaches class on how to be happier. Source: shutterstock.com

A professor at Yale has started a class on happiness after noticing the negative effects that constant academic pressure is having on students.

Professor Laurie Santos is running the “Psychology and the Good Life” course for the first time to help free students from the success-oriented culture at Yale.

She noticed that students were sacrificing wellbeing and happiness for high grades and a prestigious career and thought this has led to “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale,” reported The New York Times.

The course reportedly focuses on positive psychology — the characteristics that allow humans to flourish, according to Dr. Santos — and behavioral change, which encourages students to embrace the lessons into their everyday lives.

Students must take quizzes, complete a midterm exam, and, as their final assessment, conduct what Dr. Santos calls a “Hack Yo’Self Project”, a personal self-improvement project.

Within three days, a record 1,200 students – about a quarter of the entire student body – signed up for the class.

According to Dr. Santos, Yale students are interested in the class because they likely had to deprioritize their happiness during high school in order to gain admission to the school.

“In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,” Alannah Maynez, 19, a freshman taking the course told The New York Times.

“The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions — both positive and negative — so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”

Dr. Santos thinks the popularity of the course shows that Yale students are ready to make a change.

“Students want to change, to be happier themselves, and to change the culture here on campus,” Dr. Santos said to The New York Times

“With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits, things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.”

While other classes at Yale promote scoring top grades, Dr Santos encourages students to take the class on a pass/fail basis.

She also hopes that with such a large number of students enrolled, social pressure between friends will drive students to complete assignments and make a genuine change in their lives.

“I wouldn’t have known about the course if not for word of mouth, but it’s low-pressure, and maybe I’ll learn a few tricks to having a less stressful life,” said Riley Richmond, 22, a senior who enrolled in the class with several of his friends.

But, anyone who thinks they’re getting an easy ride has another coming, Dr Santos says. She says her course is ‘the hardest class at Yale’ because instead of only testing intellectual rigor, it requires genuine engagement and a changing of learned habits.

“Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago, that our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade — are totally wrong,” Dr. Santos said.

Dr Santos added, however, that she will not be running the class again, as there are logistical issues that come with teaching such a large number of students such as finding a lecture hall big enough, and it means there is decreased enrollment in similar or conflicting courses which isn’t fair on those academics.

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