In 2015 unahppy Yale students demonstrate against 'racial insensitivity' on campus.
Undergraduates at Yale University have flocked to a new course this year in unprecedented numbers. Not Sexual Harassment Studies, nor Down With Evil Monuments Studies, or even Jordan Peterson Studies. No, it's Psyc 157, Psychology and the Good Life. You could call it Happiness 101.
In twice-weekly lectures students can learn how to lead a happier, more satisfying life, reports the New York Times. This involves positive psychology –instruction on the characteristics that allow human beings to flourish – and behavioural change, or how to live by those lessons in real life. Students must take quizzes, complete a mid-term exam and, as their final assessment, conduct a personal improvement project.
How seriously the nearly 1200 students enrolled will take the behaviour change bit remains to be seen, but their interest in “the good life” is encouraging. In its classical sense the phrase means “a virtuous life”, and Laurie Santos, the professor teaching the course, told The Times that she hoped to see students developing good habits such as “more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections” which would also bring change in the school’s culture.
These are the things, by the way, that studies, a number of them involving students, have shown can boost happiness.
The culture of Yale, which began as a divinity school three centuries ago, has come in for vigorous criticism in recent times. In his famous 1951 book, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom, William F. Buckley Jr savaged the university for its liberal ideology and hostility to religion. Things apparently had got even worse by 2013 when Nathan Harden’s Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad came out. The university became the subject of a federal investigation for allegedly creating a hostile environment for women.
The trends indicated in those titles (“Sex Week” for instance) have not, it turns out, made Yale students very happy. In 2015 a bunch of them became hysterical about Halloween outfits deemed culturally offensive, forcing housemasters Nicholas and Erika Christakis to resign.
A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time there.
Dr Santos puts this down to students having to “deprioritise their happiness [in high school] to gain admission” to the Ivy League school, thus falling into harmful life habits. A student suggests that her peers are “tired of numbing their emotions – both positive and negative – so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”
Those doing Psyc 157 do not have to accomplish very much. Weekly “rewirement” assignments, like performing acts of kindness and forming new social connections, are not monitored and students won’t receive grades; they either pass or fail. That’s because positive psychology researchers have found that “the things Yale undergraduates often connect with life satisfaction – a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job – do not increase happiness at all,” reports The Times.
Santos hopes the social pressure of taking a lecture with friends will push the students to work hard at improving themselves, if only for the sake of their own happiness. But doesn’t this leave too much to chance? Developing good habits is not easy, and something more than peer pressure would be necessary for young adults to fight the good fight. Mentors, for example, who would meet with students on a one-to-one basis to encourage them.
Is it impossible to do this for 1200 students? What about the whole 5000 undergraduates? Yale has 4,400 faculty members. Would it be too much to ask them to mentor a few students each? Are they up to it? Perhaps these questions are naïve, but ideally someone should be doing a bit of “positive psychology” with each student. It is obvious from all the reports about the trouble some of these adolescents get into at ghastly “frat parties” and the numbers having recourse to mental health services that they are not good at looking after themselves, or each other.
Dr Santos is not offering her course again, although she is putting it online as the Science of Well-Being. The logistics and staff requirements (24 teaching fellows) of such a large class create imbalances and conflicts. And some taking it no doubt see it only as an easy option that might, as one student put it, teach them “a few tricks to having a less stressful life”.
The “good life” is more than simply “a less stressful life” of course, and it takes more than a few tricks. But the experiment seems to have shown a broad interest among students in discovering other paths to “happiness” than getting drunk, hooking up and protesting about real or imagined social injustices.
And it is certainly a better direction for the university to pursue than liberal brainwashing or sex week.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.