Happiness and Man at Yale

Students on the campus of Yale University in 2009. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Welcome to PSYC 157: ‘Psychology and the Good Life.’

The most popular class at Yale is also being described as the most difficult class at Yale. Yet its professor is lax about checking to see whether assignments have been carried out and encourages students to take it on a pass/fail basis.

Welcome to Happiness 101.

Some 1,200 Yale students, or one-quarter of the student body, are taking Professor Laurie Santos’s class, actually called PSYC 157, or “Psychology and the Good Life.” It’s not only the most popular course today but the most popular one in the 316-year history of Yale College. Santos’s purpose is to provide an antidote to what appears to be an epidemic of stress-related psychic unease on today’s campus, and she has counterparts at other colleges. The course is “a cry for help,” one Yale student said. By all accounts, the frenzy of competition among high-achieving young people is more intense than ever before: From middle school, if not earlier, kids are desperate to beat their peers on the next leg of the rat race. First it’s getting into a top-ranked college, then it’s acing the tests and scoring the internships that lead to either a fabulous first job or admission to a name-brand graduate or professional school.

Students appear to be more stressed out than before: More than half of Yale undergraduates were found to have sought mental-health counseling in a 2013 survey. A national survey four years earlier had discovered that 84 percent felt generally overwhelmed and a quarter were so depressed they said it was difficult to function. This has happened even as universities have been eager to coddle students by, for instance, grading them ever more leniently. “In many departments now, there are in effect only three grades used: A, A-minus, and B-plus,” a Yale report found in 2013. (In WFB’s day, only about the top 10 percent were given A or A-minus marks.) Coursework has changed dramatically also: Students can get away with reading less and watching television more. (Offerings this semester include “Scandinavian Film and TV,” “Trauma in American Film and TV,” and “Hollywood in the Digital Age.”)

Presumably the ultimate purpose of passing through all these sorting mechanisms is a good life — happiness. But researchers such as Santos have found that there is little correlation between people’s happiness and their ability to succeed in cutthroat competitions. It’s as if Yale undergraduates are obsessively following every step on an insanely complicated treasure map, only to end by digging up a chest full of Pokémon cards and Thomas Kinkade prints. If the college years should teach young people anything, it’s the enduring truth that we are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy.

Just in the past decade or so, Santos told the New York Times, the burgeoning field of happiness research has revealed that “our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade — are totally wrong.” If you went to Yale, or a place like it, you probably know people who obsessively steered themselves toward top-flight law schools, got jobs at top-flight law firms — and then discovered that they didn’t want to be lawyers. But by then they were stuck with levels of debt that could only be repaid via a lawyer-level salary. Oops. (Seriously, I once worked in a law firm. All the lawyers hated their lives. Don’t be a lawyer.)

The class is a throwback to a forgotten ideal.

Data-obsessed students will be interested to learn that there is a steadily accumulating mound of evidence that, for instance, feeling deeply connected with other people via close, meaningful friendships is more important than salary when it comes to well-being, and that acts of charity are better for you than snagging a coveted fellowship.

Santos’s understanding of what the university is for is delightfully out of step with our times. A student from the residential college she heads told the Yale Daily News, “Sometimes, if a really cool dog is on the lawn, Head Santos will email us about it, and we can all go pet it. That happened once, and it was, honestly, the softest dog I’d ever touched in my life, and even though I was feeling fine before, I felt like a million times better after.”

The Santos class is a throwback to a forgotten ideal. Yale and similar institutions of higher learning were not established to provide credentials that might ratchet up the potential lifetime incomes and status of sweaty grade-grubbers. They emphasized faith (Yale was founded by Congregational ministers) and the humanities for the purpose of turning their students into thoughtful, learned, well-rounded, community-minded adults. If what used to be called a joyous gratitude for the sense of the sublime in man is now recast as what Santos calls her “Hack Yo’Self Project,” so be it.

— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.


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