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How to teach happiness

Laurie Santos’s controversial class on “the good life” is Yale University’s most popular course ever. But can you really learn how to feel better?

What would it take for you to feel better? A pay rise, perhaps? Or a total career change? Maybe your desires are more modest: you’d just like to tone up and lose some weight for the summer. You wish you had a bigger house, a better car, a brand-new wardrobe. Or is the problem really that you’re single? Could the emptiness in your life be filled by finding the right partner?

At the beginning of Yale University’s blockbuster course on the science of happiness, the psychologist Laurie Santos projects a PowerPoint slide headed “WARNING!!!” in big red letters. “You are about to learn that everything you thought was important for being happy isn’t,” the text continues.

Santos has spent much of her career trying to understand humans’ “kooky” minds. She studies the cognitive processes of primates and dogs to chart humans’ distinct combination of brilliance and stupidity; our unrivalled intelligence and our tendency to make the same mistakes, over and over again. More recently, however, she’s broadened her focus. Alarmed at the soaring rates of depression and anxiety among her students, she designed an experimental new course on how to be happy. Along the way, students would learn psychology, but this course wasn’t just intended to be educational. It was designed to be life-changing.

The course, “Psychology and the Good Life”, began in January, and within weeks a quarter of Yale undergraduates had enrolled. It became the most popular course in the university’s 300-year history. Soon after, she decided to offer a free online version, available to anyone. That began on 30 April and by 2 May, 90,000 people had enrolled (I’m one of them). Almost overnight, the 43-year-old professor and head of Silliman College, one of Yale’s 14 residential colleges, became a regular guest on American TV shows and a campus celebrity.

In April, I went to watch Santos’s penultimate lecture of the semester from a wooden pew in Yale’s Battell Chapel. She stood in the apse, under a high half-dome painted in red, green and gold leaf, sandwiched between a large flat screen and the pulpit. Santos was wearing a patterned jersey dress, and her long, brown, curly hair, parted at the centre, lent her a hippyish vibe. She spoke rapidly and punctuated her presentation with celebrity memes and jokes. After a particularly “crazy” finding – did you know that it’s possible to overdose on a placebo? – she would pull up a photograph of a leaping kitten overlaid with the word “believe”.

The theme of the lecture was that belief can be self-fulfilling: a first step to changing your life is changing your mindset. The lesson lingered. A week later, when I received negative feedback on a piece I’d written, I reminded myself to cultivate a “growth mindset” and treat the criticism as an opportunity to improve. Then I explained all this to a friend, who said he thought I sounded like I’d joined a cult.

Santos has that effect on people. Olivia Roth, a 19-year-old computer science and theatre major, told me her housemate returned from the first lecture in tears because she had felt so understood. Intrigued, Roth signed up too, and immediately after her first class she called her mother to say, “This is changing everything I thought I knew about what’s going to make me happy. I don’t need to have the six-figure salary, or a husband and kids!”

I met Roth together with Maeve Forti, a second-year studying sociology, on Silliman College’s quad. It was a warm, cloudless day and small clusters of students had gathered with their books and laptops in the shade. Forti and Roth discussed the course “rewirements” – practical changes students are encouraged to make to boost their well-being – with evangelical zeal. Both had deleted social media apps from their phones. Roth was exercising regularly and keeping a gratitude journal, Forti was meditating daily. Even students who didn’t attend the lectures were affected. Rianna Turner, a musicology major from Texas, reported with bemusement that most of her friends were sobbing after Santos’s final lecture. “Mindfulness is like a catch phrase that’s going around,” Turner said. On Yale Facebook pages, the course inspired several memes, including comparisons between Santos’s audience and presidential inauguration crowds.

The popularity of the course is revealing of the mental health crisis on university campuses. A 2017 study of 63,500 students in the US found that 39 per cent had felt “so depressed it was difficult to function” in the past year, and one in ten said they had “seriously considered” suicide. Research by the think tank IPPR suggests a similar trend in the UK, where the number of students dropping out of university because of mental health problems and the number of campus suicides have both reached record levels.

In highly selective universities such as Yale, the pressure on students can be particularly intense. In 2014, former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz published a best-selling critique of America’s elite universities entitled Excellent Sheep. The sheep are his ultra-high-achieving former students, who have been groomed from birth to beat the competition for an Ivy League place, but whose narrow focus on achievement has limited their sense of purpose and contributed to “toxic levels of fear, anxiety and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation”. Many of these students, unsure of what they really want but primed to seek out professional success, will sleepwalk into jobs in finance or consulting.

Yet the mental health crisis extends far beyond universities. Across the Western world rates of anxiety and depression are the highest on record and in the US there has been a 400-fold increase in prescriptions for antidepressants over the past two decades. It’s easy to understand the appeal of Santos’s class, with its promise that science can make anyone happier.

Taken to extremes, though, the idea that happiness is an acquired skill can be dangerous. It can burden unhappy people with responsibility for their own well-being, while letting the institutions and cultures that perpetuate unhappiness off the hook. Teaching happiness is therefore a sensitive enterprise – and perhaps an odd one.

“In general, it’s misguided and actually quite funny that schools seem to be offering more and more classes to instil things that you can’t actually instil in a class,” Deresiewicz told me, pointing to the similar trend for creativity and leadership lessons. But in the absence of a total overhaul of our education system, could happiness classes be the best tool we’ve got?

 Satisfied customers: Professor Santos teaches her happiness course to a packed hall at Yale. Credit:Yale Press Office

At the end of her first online lecture, Santos says “you might have thought the professor teaching this course is like this smiley, happy person and I go through life around all these Yale students who are sad and I’m going to make you guys as happy as I am. But that’s not true.” Her voice trails off a little, so you might not catch her final words: “If anything, it’s like I’m sad.” When people discuss their mental health, they tend to do so in sanitised, clinical terms, so the word sad has power.

A few days after I watched the lecture, I visited Santos at her home in Silliman College. She films most of her online lectures there, sitting in an old-fashioned floral armchair, but this time she relaxed into a sofa. I told her that I’d felt moved when she described herself as “sad”. She cooed “aw” and laughed to deflect the mood, but she acknowledged that the course was “partly a personal project”. “It was realising my students were unhappy and seeing seeds of their unhappiness in my own life and wanting to change it around,” she said.

Santos grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Her father was a computer programmer and her mother a high school guidance counsellor. She went to Harvard, the only Ivy League school she applied for, and the university that offered her the most generous financial aid. At Harvard in the Nineties, people “weren’t stressed like they are now” and they weren’t “treating their education so instrumentally”, she said. Santos initially wanted to study law – “I think I just didn’t know what law was,” she joked –  but she was quickly drawn to psychology. “I was captivated with how the mind works and this puzzle of figuring it all out,” she told me. She stayed at Harvard for her PhD and began researching primate psychology.

In the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis, Santos wanted to understand whether monkeys shared the cognitive biases that cause humans to make flawed financial decisions. She taught the capuchins in her lab at Yale how to use money, in the form of tokens they could trade for food at a monkey marketplace staffed by her students. It turns out that monkeys, like humans, tend to think in relative rather than absolute terms and are loss averse – they are much more disappointed to lose one token than they are happy to gain one token.

These two cognitive biases distort how individuals appraise risk and can lead to poor economic decision-making. In a TED talk that has been viewed more than a million times online, Santos argues that our financial errors are embedded in “our evolutionary history”. We can’t just fix the problem by tinkering with financial institutions, we need to change ourselves. As humans “we’re so good at overcoming our biological limitations… but we [first] have to recognise those limitations”, she says.

Santos’s happiness course seems to be motivated by the same optimism in the transformative power of self-knowledge. She believes the more we are able to understand our “evolutionarily very strange minds”, the better we’ll be at dealing with them. But she resists drawing too many parallels between her academic research and the happiness programme, which required her to take a “crash course” in positive psychology.

One of the pioneers of positive psychology is Martin Seligman, who observed that while psychology had made huge strides in identifying and treating mental illness, it had paid less attention to how these insights could be applied to those who aren’t sick. He wanted to develop a science of the good life, and to study what makes life fulfilling. Santos’s class differs from the standard positive psychology course because of the practical component, which draws on the science of behavioural change to encourage students to develop new habits that could boost their mood permanently.

Early in the course, Santos discusses the work of psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, who suggests about 50 per cent of happiness is genetically fixed. Around 40 per cent is within our control – a product of our beliefs and attitude – and the remaining 10 per cent is determined by life circumstances.

This perspective leads to some counter-intuitive conclusions. One 1978 study compared the happiness levels of recent lottery winners with those of people who had recently been paralysed in an accident and found that both events had done little to change how people rated their own happiness. In fact, the two groups’ happiness scores were remarkably similar. “If you left this room and were immediately hit by a car and were paraplegic for the rest of your time at Yale, you have the intuition it would ruin your time at Yale but it’s actually just not true,” Santos says in one of her online lectures. The science of happiness can sound totally bonkers – but then again, what do I know? One of Santos’s lessons is that our intuitions are a very poor guide to what will make us happy.

It’s common for self-help to combine a radical analysis with mundane solutions, and Santos’s course is no exception. Having presented students with psychological studies to convince them that good grades, high-paying jobs, perfect partners and model looks won’t make them happy, she suggests that the right mindset and habits will. They are encouraged to keep a gratitude journal, to exercise regularly, to make time for their friends, to practise random acts of kindness, to sleep more and to try meditation. The course’s popularity isn’t due to the originality of the advice, but rather how it’s packaged – the scientific studies she cites are interesting, and Santos is engaging and empathetic.

As might be expected, Santos’s grades-don’t-matter philosophy has also provoked controversy. One Yale student created a meme suggesting that Santos was planning to give all her students Ds to prove that grades don’t affect happiness. Santos thought the meme was funny, so she included it in her next presentation. Almost immediately, deans at the university began receiving complaints from parents. Santos had to issue an announcement clarifying that she had been joking and adding, “but it did make my point that you are all obsessed with grades”. “I think parents are really scared of this message,” Santos told me.

She seemed tickled by the “very curmudgeonly opinion articles” written by Yale student columnists who argued that the course was a form of liberal conspiracy. One column I read criticised Santos’s failure to “discuss well-documented personality differences between the sexes” or the “deleterious effects of hook-up culture”, resulting in a “narrative highly congenial to the liberal mind”.

“I think the content of the course is really apolitical, you could take it in any direction,” Santos said. But theories of the good life are necessarily political. Santos’s emphasis on individual happiness and well-being positions her as an antidote to Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist whose anti-happiness self-help book 12 Rules for Life has made him a hero for the alt-right.

Well-being courses can also be co-opted easily for political ends, whether by companies who realise that unhappy workers hurt their bottom line, or politicians hoping to divert public attention. It cannot be purely coincidental, for instance, that in 2011, months after the coalition government announced its first round of swingeing spending cuts, it also commissioned the UK’s first ever well-being survey, intended to offer a “more complete view of the nation’s progress than economic measures… alone”. The message seemed to be that welfare cuts and economic recession needn’t hurt individual happiness. Santos concedes that sometimes the motivations behind well-being programmes can be “icky”, but if they genuinely do make people happier that’s “a really good goal”.

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Santos’s Yale course finished in late April, and she’s not sure when she will offer it again. Her online course finished in July. She said the “anecdotal feedback” she had received suggested the students were feeling happier. “I actually have noticed real improvements,” Forti, one of her students, told me. “It’s not like the course has taken me from zero to 100, but it was acknowledged at the beginning that you can’t drastically change your life… it’s essentially going to be a lifelong journey.”

Laurie Santos says she’s happier too. It’s been hard for her to fit in the yoga and meditation sessions that she recommends, but the course has left her feeling deeply fulfilled. “I like to compare it to when parents have children, and their moment-to-moment happiness isn’t great, because they’re dealing with vomit and poopy diapers and these things, but the actual life satisfaction they’re getting is much better,” she said.

She is establishing a Good Life centre at Silliman College, which should open in the autumn. There will be a café, and space for yoga, meditation and peer-to-peer counselling. She has been approached by teachers around the country who want to start something similar. She told me she hopes people will start attending to their well-being in the same way that they take care to eat a healthy diet or get enough exercise. She wants us all to start addressing how individual happiness is influenced by the cultures and institutions around us: our schools, our offices, our family lives. She talked, in her final lecture, of building a cultural movement. This is just the beginning.

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer based in the US

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special