That’s what my friend, Sophie Latham ’21, told me from across the dinner table after we learned of the number of people shopping “Psychology and the Good Life.” The course peaked at 1,272 shoppers on Jan. 18, according to the Course Demand Statistics, solidifying it as the largest class in the history of Yale College. The last class that was almost as popular as PSYC 157 was Psychology and the Law, a course offered in the 1990s by University President Peter Salovey.
When a course reaches such great numbers that it needs to be held in Battell Chapel and be simulcast in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall — a building with a lecture hall nearly as big as its name — questions can be raised as to why the enrollment is so large. Approximately one in four Yale College students are enrolled in “Psychology and the Good Life,” a statistic that suggests a trend toward “positive psychology.”
Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life worth living, and PSYC 157 involves putting these studies into practice by encouraging students to incorporate them into their daily lives.
“The main goal of the course is for students to learn the science of happiness and to put that science into practice,” Silliman’s Head of College Laurie Santos, who is also the instructor of PSYC 157, said. “Much of the course involves understanding our own misconceptions about what makes us happy and why our mind gives us those misconceptions. We then review the data about what really does make us happier, and we use ‘rewirements’ — little exercises to rewire our habits — to put these new goals into practice.”
The International Positive Psychology Association describes the field as an “exciting new field of inquiry” in the two decades since the field’s official inception in 1998. Since then, several studies that support the efficacy of positive psychology have received attention.
One widely referenced example is that of a University of Kentucky study conducted in 2000 about happiness, longevity and nuns. The researchers studied linguistic patterns in autobiographies written by women who participated in the Nun Study, a longitudinal study of aging and Alzheimer’s disease that began approximately 100 years ago. This allowed the researchers to control for lifestyle and substance use among the women, as well as access detailed accounts of their lives and physiological health. This way, the researchers could focus on the relative happiness of the nuns, based on their language patterns, and compare those findings to the nuns’ life spans. The study found a very strong association between “positive emotional content in autobiographies written in early adulthood and longevity six decades later.” Studies like this one, which reinforce correlations between psychological health and physical health, might be responsible for the surge of interest over the last couple of decades, which is now evident among the Yale community. Professor Woo-Kyoung Ahn, director of undergraduate studies at the Department of Psychology, said she had received requests from students to add a course in positive psychology to the department’s offerings.
However, describing the increase in the study of positive psychology as “steady” could be hyperbolic. Although The New York Times published that by 2007, over 200 colleges and graduate schools across the United States offered courses in positive psychology, IPPA reports that there are currently only two graduate programs in positive psychology in the country. One is at Claremont Graduate University in California, and another is at the University of Pennsylvania. IPPA only lists 11 total graduate programs, seven of which are in Europe. This suggests that although there has been a demand for an undergraduate course in positive psychology, PSYC 157 has created a hub for more than just popular demand.
One pattern among students is a shared admiration for Santos. Ahn also pointed to the popularity of Santos’ instruction, which can be realized by not only by watching her lectures but also listening to the milling of people following them. I forgot to count the number of times I’ve heard some variation of “I have a woman crush on Professor Laurie Santos.”
Lily Dodd ’21 said she enrolled in PSYC 157 partially because she found out that her head of college was the instructor.
“Sometimes, if a really cool dog is on the lawn, Head Santos will email us about it, and we can all go pet it,” Dodd ’21 said. “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. I thought if Head Santos knew how to make us Silliman kids feel happier all the time, she’d also know how to teach us to make ourselves feel better.”
Santos doesn’t just bestow “puppy love” on her Silliman students, however. Dealing with students on a day-to-day basis and seeing their struggles were what convinced her that this class would be a positive addition to the academic framework of the university.
“I get very protective of my Sillimanders, and I hate seeing them so stressed,” Santos said. “I hate that Yale has a culture where it’s not OK to take a break, a culture that’s obsessed with doing too much and missing out on what’s important. I wanted to develop a way to teach students about how to make things better, to get them to think about what really matters in college before it’s too late.”
This may be another reason PSYC 157 has reached such a high level of popularity: It’s a cry for help. Of course, one can expect a community of highly driven students to create, at the very least, a quasi-stressful environment for themselves. Regardless of the steady stream of positive reinforcement and multitude of resources available, it’s easy for people’s unhealthy habits to feed into each other and create toxic energy, an echo-chamber of “I’m taking X many credits” or “I have Y many pages to read” or “I’m staying in Bass until it closes tonight and tomorrow and every night this week, and did I mention I’m taking Z many credits?”
“I noticed in the PSYC 157 syllabus that one of our weekly tasks is to get at least seven hours of sleep, three nights a week, for one week,” Dodd said. “This alone said a lot to me about the rigors of Yale, because if I get seven hours of sleep one night, I consider it a bad night. I’m really more of an eight, nine, or 10 hours of sleep kind of girl.”
There is also an important distinction between school culture and cultures fostered by the school. Many elements of student life that can be deemed toxic or draining were created not by institutional engineering but rather students’ competitive attitudes. Although drive can manifest in many ways, and interpersonal competition in collegiate life manifests itself differently than that in high school, it is fair game to claim that many Yale students have high expectations for themselves. This does not insinuate that Yale fosters interpersonal competition just for fun and giggles.
When asked to provide an opinion on school culture, some faculty members were cautious in their responses. I couldn’t help but feel that they were reluctant to criticize Yale’s culture. However, I don’t think that providing a critique of something means that one is not still grateful for it. One can seek personal improvement without disliking oneself. One can take steps to foster a happier school culture without insinuating that there is something inherently wrong with the university. After all, according to exit survey results, Yale students are typically satisfied with their college experiences, and although Yale was not deemed the happiest college in the country in the 2018 Princeton Review — it was Vanderbilt University — the college was also not deemed the unhappiest. (That coveted title goes to the United States Coast Guard Academy.
And anyway, since one in four Yale undergraduates are currently enrolled in PSYC 157, it’s possible that Yale could become a much happier campus by the end of spring semester.
“I think being able to see that an entire giant concert hall full of people are struggling alongside you is huge,” Dodd said. “It’s easy to think that everyone at Yale is getting 4.0s, loving their extracurriculars and feeling happier than you are. But Psych and the Good Life proves that is an illusion, and we’re all a little insecure and scared and uncertain. Or, at least, one in four of us is. And then if we all actually do what we’re supposed to do, we might get closer to turning the illusion into a reality, which would of course be amazing.”
Due to the enormity of the course’s current enrollment and Santos’ other main undergraduate class, “Sex, Evolution, and Human Nature,” there is no estimate for when, or if, the course will be offered again. However, the lessons and habits taught in the course have the potential to be dispersed from person to person, student to student.
“I was excited about sending out a whole cohort of Yalies armed with these new strategies, but I had no idea the cohort would be so big. Now I think we really can have a butterfly effect,” Santos said. “With that number of students learning the right techniques, I think we really can change the culture. I think we really can turn this place into a college that’s healthier and happier.”
Rianna Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org .