How her college class “Psychology and the Good Life” became the most popular Yale class of all time.
Laurie Santos had been a professor for over 16 years, but it wasn’t until she became one of the heads of a college at Yale University that she saw what college students’ lives were really like.
“I started seeing how miserable all college students were,” said Santos. “The levels of depression, the levels of even things like suicidal ideation and trying to fast forward their lives … they were missing it.”
Instead of becoming discouraged, Santos decided to do something. She got to work developing a course that would teach the psychology behind happiness and how to put practices into place to improve the quality of their lives.
“I figured, you know, 30 or 40 kids would take it,” Santos said. “I was completely shocked when around 1200 students at Yale wanted to take it.” With one in four Yale students enrolled, there wasn’t a classroom large enough on campus to hold the class.
Santos’ class has become the most popular class at Yale of all time. She was recently featured on Jay Shetty’s On Purpose podcast and shared some amazing insights.
Happiness is a Practice
Santos’ course teaches the science behind the study of happiness, but it’s not just quizzes and tests. She gives specific practices as assignments each week so the students can not just know about happiness but begin to purposefully experience it for themselves.
Some of the practices students were assigned included yoga, meditation, exercise, and getting more sleep.
“Science tells us all these practices matter a lot,” explained Santos. “We'd prescribe those to students who had to do them.”
As 1200 students at a time began to put these practices to use in their lives, they became a huge support system providing accountability for each other as they went through the course.
“I didn't expect it to go crazy, but there's a real hunger for this stuff. People feel like they're not flourishing enough and they really want some answers.”
Our Minds Can Deceive Us
One of the first things Santos teaches students in her course is that they can’t always depend on their minds to give them accurate information.
“Our minds are kind of sucky,” she said. “They lie to us a lot of the time. It’s a weird thing to realize that your mind might be giving you intuitions that are incorrect. It causes us to seek out stuff that we think is going to make us really happy, and it doesn't work in the way we think.”
Understanding this concept is key for students as they begin to make choices about how to invest their time and energy. We automatically seek out things we think will make us happy, but scientific data suggests our minds don’t always know best.
For example, college students believe getting perfect grades will lead to the perfect job and the perfect life, bringing more happiness and overall satisfaction. Science proves just the opposite.
“As your grades go up, you're more and more likely to be less happy,” Santos said. “It's not what we think, it's what the data suggests. So we're going about it all wrong.” The same has been scientifically proven true for other areas of life, including increased income and possessions.
Social Connection is Vital
Santos believes lack of social connections is a major contributor to the struggle college students today find themselves in.
“Students are just overwhelmed by all their commitments,” she said. “They don't necessarily have a strong friend group because they haven't taken time to develop that. They're just kind of too busy, and they seem to be really lonely and just kind of trying to get through.”
According to science, happy people have lots of social connections. Individuals who focus solely on achievements don’t take the time for relationships and end up feeling isolated and alone. Achieving goals loses its shine when there’s no one to share and celebrate with.
Consider Opportunity Costs
Santos believes people put too much on the line to meet goals.
“You're not taking time to just be and be present,” she explains. “You're focused on this external reward that even once you get it is going to go away. You're not focused at all on the journey. And it’s all at the cost of ignoring all the good stuff that really does matter.” For Santos’ students, it means they miss out on the social aspect of being in college.
“The biggest challenge I see today and at moments in my own life, which I'm very aware of as well, is that you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely,” agreed Jay Shetty.
Getting Social Connection Wrong
“I think we mess up social connection all the time,” Santos said. “Real social connection is about talking to like people live in the flesh or at least people in real time. It's not about being around lots of people. It's deeply connecting with other folks.”
Scientific research suggests it’s the deep, meaningful conversations where people get vulnerable that really increase a person’s well being.
Unfortunately, Santos believes this is becoming more and more rare. This really hit home to her one day as she walked through the cafeteria at Yale and saw students sitting side by side while on their phones talking about nothing more than what was on Netflix last night.
Santos admits striking up a conversation with a stranger isn’t always easy, even for someone like her who knows what the scientific benefits are to her well-being. She does it anyway, and she encourages her students to put away their phones and have a conversation with a stranger too.
Jay Shetty’s Challenge to Listeners
Jay Shetty was so taken by Laurie’s insights on social connection that he issued a challenge to all of his podcast listeners right there and then. And he extends the same challenge to each reader as well.
“Take your headphones out, stop what you’re doing, and talk to somebody for five minutes,” said Jay Shetty.
Leave Room For Time Affluence
Santos also believes we’re busy to the point of time bankrupt in our society. She encourages her students to practice time affluence, which she describes as a person’s perception of the time they have.
Free time is essential to mental health. The more we protect our time for ourselves, the happier we are, but it takes a conscious effort.
“We can take time to be present,” said Santos. “We can take time for serendipity. Research suggests that people who prioritize getting a little bit more of that time affluence are more happy.”
Laurie encourages her students to change their perceptions around their time by changing their language. Instead of “busy”, she uses “productive”, and it’s made a huge difference in her mindset.
Santos also encourages her students to create connection by taking a practical approach to gratitude.
“The challenge is to take 10-15 minutes and write a letter thanking somebody you haven't thanked yet,” explained Santos. “The research suggests that the letter will make the person who receives it incredibly happy, and will boost up their purpose and meaning in life in ways they don't expect.”
And the recipient isn’t the only one to benefit from a gratitude letter.
“What's more amazing is what will happen to you,” said Santos. “The research by positive psychologist Martin Seligman and colleagues suggest that it not only bumps up your happiness, but it's a happiness bump that can last for over a month!”
Hear more by Jay Shetty and Laurie Santos
Laurie Santos not only impacts people in her class, she’s taking it beyond Yale with her new podcast, The Happiness Lab. I’m excited to be an upcoming guest, and I encourage you to tune it.