This semester, every Tuesday and Thursday at 1 p.m., about a quarter of Yale’s student population flocks to Woolsey Hall—the university’s concert hall and only space on campus big enough to accommodate a course roster of 1,182 students—to learn how to be happy. Over the course of an hour and 15 minutes, psychology professor Laurie Santos tries to teach her students how to lead more satisfying lives through activities like “rewirement” assignments—exercises like savoring a beautiful day or making a new social connection that are aimed at making students happier, healthier, and more resilient—and, in place of a final exam, a “Hack Yo’Self” self-improvement project. The foundations of the class, called “Psychology and the Good Life,” can be found in a subdiscipline called positive psychology, which, according to the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, holds “that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”
Santos’ class is reportedly the most popular in Yale’s 316-year-long history. But positive psychology classes are known to draw large audiences at elite institutions—for example, a 2006 positive psych class at Harvard had more than 900 students enrolled—and for good reason. The rise of these “Happiness 101” classes coincides with plummeting acceptance rates at highly selective colleges and the subsequent crisis of “college-admissions mania.” To get into universities like Yale and Harvard, students had to subject themselves to a mind-numbing, anxiety-stoking rat race of resume padding, test prep, and endless “hobbies.” And that’s if you’re already rich enough to afford any of those things: The struggle to get into the Ivy League or similar top-tier institution as a low-income student is nothing short of Sisyphean. There are stories upon stories of the increasing pressure felt by college-bound high schoolers, and there’s evidence that the never-ending stress is causing an anxiety crisis among America’s teenagers.
Santos told the New York Times that she suspects her course is so popular because Yale students “had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school.” A Yale student put it more bluntly, claiming that enrollment in classes like these are “a cry for help.”
I can relate. Two years ago, on the brink of a mental break, I found myself meditating in a lecture hall. It was winter quarter of my junior year at Northwestern University, and I had just returned from Paris, where I studied abroad during the 2015 terrorist attacks. One of my classmates and I lived less than fifteen minutes from a restaurant where gunmen killed 15 people, a place we had eaten at a few weeks beforehand. Our Northwestern professors handled the attacks poorly, telling us that there was a smaller chance of living in a city affected by a terrorist attack than dying in a plane crash and then refusing to change the course requirement of a final 30-page paper. I almost didn’t return to campus the next term, but when I did, I enrolled in a class called Buddhist Psychology that required ten-minutes of mediation before every class and at least an hour every week outside of class. At the time, the wait-time for an intake appointment at mental health services was notoriously long—a problem that isn’t isolated to Northwestern. The class was a poor substitute for therapy, but it was a substitute that kept me afloat.
It’s not surprising that the anxiety of high school doesn’t disappear once you get the admissions letter, or that it’s compounded by the pressure of getting a job or notoriously competitive campus environments where students don’t necessarily feel like they’re being taken seriously. Almost 50 percent of students surveyed by the American College Health Association in 2016 reported feeling that things were hopeless—and almost 37 percent reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” during the previous 12 months. Clearly, colleges must make their mental health services more robust; but in the meantime, classes like Santos’ are filling a huge need—just ask the 24 teaching fellows hired to help manage her massively attended course.