“All rightie! Let’s get started.”
It was my first class of Yale’s Spring 2018 semester, and to get anyone’s attention I had to shout.
“I’m a little bit surprised to see so many of you here,” my voice cracked a little with nerves. “But… that’s great!”
I’d designed my new class, Psych 157, to attract students’ attention. I knew I needed a name that would “pop” out of the course catalog. And, boy, did it pop.
“Welcome everybody to ‘Psychology and The Good Life’.”
I was talking to a packed church hall. Packed. Nearly a thousand students showed up on that first day alone. More than any class in Yale’s 300-year history. To accommodate everyone we eventually had to move the students to a concert hall.
I was slightly terrified, but mostly really pleased that so many students showed up. I knew there was a need for a class exploring what science teaches us about how to improve our happiness and wellbeing. I just didn’t quite realize that so many Yale students were ready to listen.
Happiness wasn’t my speciality before I taught this class. The main focus of my work was on how dogs and non-human primates think. I probably would have been content to confine myself to running fun studies with pet dogs and cute monkeys… had I not decided to live on campus with my students.
Yalies often compare their dorms to Hogwarts. Just like Harry Potter’s school is divided up into houses like Gryffindor and Slytherin, Yale has colleges. I’d signed up to be the Head of Silliman College. It’s as big as an entire city block – with a dining hall, café, gym and even a cinema. And in 2017, I took up residence alongside more than 400 students.
I suddenly found myself face to face with a mental health crisis. Too many of the young people in my care - kids who I sat beside at dinner or chatted with in the courtyard – were fearful and anxious in ways that I’d never experienced as an undergrad. They were lonely, sleepless and stressed. They were worried about their grades, terrified about saying something wrong on social media, and from what I saw struggling on just about every other front.
I had to do something. And that’s how ‘Psychology and The Good Life’ was born.
A lot of approaches to wellness get a bad rap – “hippy-dippy crap” is how one prospective student summed up his expectations. But Psych 157 explored only those happiness insights that are backed up by solid scientific data. I designed the class to make my students understand why they were feeling anxious, sad and stressed... but also to give them effective tools to increase their happiness.
When I started the class, I genuinely couldn’t be sure if sharing this knowledge would actually address the problems I was seeing. But new research (which I’ll discuss in my next article) suggests the benefits are real.
I’ve come to realize that it’s not just my students who need these tips. All of us can and should heed the insights science offers us about increasing out happiness.
I want to use this newsletter to share the latest thinking on the science of wellbeing with you. Some of what I write about will be the central themes of my class, but other newsletters will be inspired by happiness lessons we can learn from topical events, new books or even chance conversations I’ve had with a friend, colleague or stranger.
I also want to hear your suggestions for topics you’d like to see discussed (though please don’t ask for personalized advice or share any stories that might not be suitable for such a public forum).
I’ve come to learn first hand that the best any of us can do is listen to the science and try to take baby steps in the right direction.
Here’s to the journey together! Thanks for being a part of it!
If YOU have a question about change - maybe about how to make positive changes in your life or how to deal with the unwanted changes life throws at us - leave it in the comments section below.