3 lessons in happiness from Yale’s most popular class in 317 years

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3 lessons in happiness from Yale’s most popular class in 317 years

You’ve probably heard of the hardest—and most popular—course in Yale University‘s 317-year history. The course, titled Psychology and the Good Life, and its record-breaking enrollment size has made headlines in the New York Times, Quartz, and the Boston Globe.  

The wildly popular course aims to teach students the secrets of happiness through a combination of positive psychology and behavioral change. Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale, developed the course to counteract an epidemic of unhappiness on college campuses, writes Adam Sternbergh for New York Magazine.

“College students are much more overwhelmed, much more stressed, much more anxious, and much more depressed than they’ve ever been. I think we really have a crisis writ large at colleges in how students are doing in terms of self-care and mental health,” Santos told Sternbergh.

“The thing that makes this course different is that we also focus on what I call ‘behavior change’—the science of how you move your behavior around,” says Santos. “How do you actually change your habits and use your situation to your advantage?”

You can take Santos’ course for free on Coursera, but you may not have the requisite 14 hours to complete it. So Sternbergh took Santos’ happiness course and condensed each of its 21 lectures into a few insights. Here are the three happiness lessons he walked away with. 

Lesson 1: Change your habits, not your circumstances

In Santos’ second lecture, she discusses the work of Sonja Lyubomirksy, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. Lyubomirksy argues that happiness is determined by three aspects: your genes; your circumstances; and your thoughts, actions, and attitudes.

We tend to assume that circumstances (like salary or job title) play the biggest role in our happiness, but research suggests our thoughts and actions actually have the largest effect on our happiness. (Lyubomirksy points out that her theory only works if your basic needs are already met. For example, a refugee’s circumstances will play a larger role in his or her happiness.)

Our incorrect assumptions lead us to underestimate the influence our behavior has on our well-being, writes Sternbergh. “What we believe would make a huge difference in our lives actually, according to scientific research, makes only a small difference, while we overlook the true sources of personal happiness and well-being,” writes Lyubomirksy. Researchers have found that common sources of happiness include time spent with family and friends, gratitude, and physical activity.

Lesson 2: Spend your time wisely

Santos devotes a significant chunk of her course on “time affluence” to prompt students to reevaluate their priorities in life. In this section, Santos draws on the research of Ashley Whillans and Elizabeth Dunn, who both study how people value time versus money and how these attitudes affect happiness.

According to Whillans and Dunn, a critical difference between money and time is that money is elastic, meaning you can earn more or less of it, while time is inelastic. You begin each day of your life with the same number of minutes and hours, writes Sternbergh. In this framework, an hour of your time is more valuable than a dollar—yet we tend to behave as if the opposite is true, he notes.

People who value time more than money tend to report a higher overall happiness than those who do the opposite, according to research from Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard University, and Dunn, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

“All my research says that the best way people can be happier is to spend $40 on a time-saving service. Instead of fighting with your spouse over who should do the laundry, hire a laundry service. Forgo that time fighting to make a meal together or go for a walk with the person you love,” Whillans told New York Magazine. You don’t need extraordinary experiences to be happy, but you should try to “spend moments in happier ways on a daily basis,” advises Whillans.

Lesson 3: Recognize what happiness feels like

While the first section of Santos’ course debunks our notions about happiness, the final section discusses everyday strategies to improve your well-being, writes Sternbergh. Exercises include keeping a gratitude journal for a week and getting seven hours of sleep for three days in a row.

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These exercises hinge on the idea that happiness isn’t something you can achieve but rather something you make for yourself, writes Sternbergh. Dan Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, is a proponent of this concept of “synthetic happiness,” or manufacturing your own happiness.

According to Gilbert’s research, most people experience happiness as a stable emotion, not in peaks and valleys. “A lot of people think of happiness as a very, very exciting emotion. They expect it to be this constant state of ecstasy—as opposed to equanimity, which is a more sustainable and attainable form of happiness, almost like a quiet joy,” Hedy Kobey, an assistant psychology professor at Yale, told Heaney. Happiness “doesn’t look like winning the lottery. It looks much more like sitting quietly and noticing that your life is actually wonderful,” says Kobey.

Santos’ course is not for the fainthearted. “I didn’t realize how challenging it would be to better myself,” one student says. “I’m glad the class was difficult—it made me work harder to get more sleep, meditate, and practice gratitude more.” During the final lecture, Santos admitted that the happiness exercises were a challenge for her, too.

For Sternbergh, Santos’ incredibly popular happiness course pushed him to think about happiness in new ways. And more importantly, the course offers plenty of tools to continue improving your happiness well after the class is over, he adds (Sternbergh, New York Magazine, 5/28/18; Canadian Press, 7/26/17). 

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