We recently learned about a ‘Happiness Course‘ offered at Yale University. Started by professor of psychology Laurie Santos and technically called “Psychology and the Good Life,” the twice-weekly lecture series has received widespread press because of its incredible popularity: 1,200 students have enrolled, making it the largest class in Yale’s 317-year history by a wide margin. A free version of the Happy Class on Coursera saw participation from more than 91,000 people spanning 168 countries within two months of its launch. Obviously, this has struck a chord.
The course covers research on the field of positive psychology, which links certain daily practices with general happiness, such as getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and practicing gratitude. Santos then asks the students to partake in these practices themselves. For instance, one week the assignment was to get three nights sleep of at least seven hours. Alongside these assignments, students take quizzes, mid-term exams, and submit a final personal self-improvement project called the “Hack Yo-Self Project.” One class, which Santos called “an immersion” was simply canceled, and students were tasked with doing nothing. The Washington Post provides some insight:
“Laurie Santos greeted her Yale University students with slips of paper that explained: No class today. It was mid-semester, with exams and papers looming, everyone exhausted and stressed. There was one rule: They couldn’t use the hour and a quarter of unexpected free time to study. They had to just enjoy it. Nine students hugged her. Two burst into tears….. Leonardo Sanchez-Noya, a senior who had skipped lunch that day because he had been studying, was delighted to have the time to eat a hamburger, and to play Frisbee. All over campus, he said, you could see people relaxing. More people were outside, more people were smiling.”
We have to take a moment to note that if success in college (and life) was based upon being exceptionally good at sleeping more than seven hours, skipping class, eating hamburgers, and playing frisbee, we easily could have been Valedictorian.
Admittedly, it is hard for us to view Psychology and the Good Life as anything but an overly-emo, totally impractical course for which to pay $50,000 in annual tuition, but after diving deeper, it does seem that Santos wasn’t looking to create the gut course of all gut courses (don’t worry Rocks for Jocks, you still reign supreme). Rather, the course was based on her observations as dean of one of Yale’s Residential Colleges where she saw many stressed, generally unhappy students, which Santos attributes to the fact that “in high school, they [the students] had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits.”
To provide some insight into how incredibly wound up these kids (and their parents) are, when Santos joked about giving everybody a ‘D’ to show how grades are not really that important to happiness, she was “flooded with calls from freaked-out students and parents.” Unfortunately, the reality extends beyond anecdotes. At Yale specifically, a 2013 internal report found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their attendance. As one freshman noted to The New York Times, “in reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb.” These findings mirror broader national surveys, which report a concerning number of college students feeling overwhelming anxiety and hopelessness.
While we are saddened by the fact that so many high-achievers are emotionally burdened by the stresses of life, we applaud Santos’ willingness to take action to solve a problem and hope her course will embed some joy into both the collegiate and post-collegiate experiences of her students. As business owners, we also acknowledge that eventually we will be hiring these kids and their peers into our companies, and thus will be inheriting the difficulties Santos observes on today’s college campuses. Accordingly, it is important for us to build companies that are able to encourage hard work while also promoting mental and physical well-being. We are proud to say that many of our companies are well ahead of the curve in this area (including one that is experimenting with allowing employees to clock in for a work out) but recognize that workforce engagement and development must be a constant focus. No matter what product or service we offer customers, our companies are ultimately in the people business and must act accordingly.