Yale course is all about get­ting an A in life

Wildly pop­u­lar psy­chol­ogy class teaches sim­ple les­son: Play more, worry less

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SUSAN SVRLUGA

new haven, conn. — Laurie San­tos greeted her Yale Univer­sity stu­dents with slips of pa­per that ex­plained: No class today.

It was mid-se­mes­ter, with ex­ams and pa­pers loom­ing, ev­ery­one ex­hausted and stressed. There was one rule: They couldn’t use the hour and a quar­ter of un­ex­pected free time to study. They had to just en­joy it.

Nine stu­dents hugged her. Two burst into tears.

San­tos, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy, had planned to give a lec­ture about what re­searchers have learned about how im­por­tant time is to hap­pi­ness. But she had cre­ated a sin­gu­lar class, on the psy­chol­ogy of liv­ing a joy­ful, mean­ing­ful life. And she wanted the les­sons to stick. All se­mes­ter, she ex­plained why we think the way we do. Then, she chal­lenged stu­dents to use that knowl­edge to change their own lives.

So can­cel­ing class was not just a break, it was an im­mer­sion. And it was a provo­ca­tion: She was ask­ing them to stop wor­ry­ing about grades, even if only for an hour.

A se­nior went to the Yale Univer­sity Art Gallery for the first time in her four years in New Haven. A group of stu­dents went to a record­ing stu­dio on cam­pus and jammed out a new song.

Leonardo Sanchez-Noya, a se­nior who had skipped lunch that day be­cause he had been study-

ing, was de­lighted to have the time to eat a ham­burger, and to play Fris­bee. All over cam­pus, he said, you could see peo­ple re­lax­ing. More peo­ple were out­side, more peo­ple were smil­ing.

That’s be­cause some 1,200 stu­dents were si­mul­ta­ne­ously tak­ing San­tos’s “Psy­chol­ogy and the Good Life” class.

It’s the largest class, by far, in Yale’s 317-year his­tory.

On that spring af­ter­noon, nearly a quar­ter of the un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent body was en­joy­ing an un­ex­pected break at the same time. No, not just en­joy­ing it — re­ally lov­ing the gift they had been given. Skyler Robinson, a sopho­more, had for a mo­ment been con­fused by all the pos­si­bil­i­ties it opened up. He felt very, very happy. Then, he took a nap.

“That nap,” he said, “was fan­tas­tic.”

San­tos de­signed this class af­ter she re­al­ized, as the head of a res­i­den­tial col­lege at Yale, that many stu­dents were stressed out and un­happy, grind­ing through long days that seemed to her far more crush­ing and joy­less than her own col­lege years. Her per­cep­tion was backed up by sta­tis­tics, in­clud­ing a na­tional sur­vey that found nearly half of col­lege stu­dents re­ported over­whelm­ing anx­i­ety and feel­ing hope­less. San­tos thought she could share re­cent find­ings from psy­chol­ogy to in­form the choices stu­dents make, to help them en­joy life more.

“I worry so much how they’re going to look back on it,” she said — the stone arch­ways and bril­liant sci­en­tists, the Pi­cas­sos and Mon­dri­ans and stained glass glow­ing in the art gallery, the sym­phonies and par­ties and friend­ships and theater and ev­ery­thing that’s beau­ti­ful about Yale and col­lege life. “They feel they’re in this crazy rat race, they’re work­ing so hard they can’t take a sin­gle hour off — that’s aw­ful.”

The idea be­hind the class is de­cep­tively sim­ple, and many of the les­sons — such as grat­i­tude, help­ing oth­ers, get­ting enough sleep — are fa­mil­iar.

It’s the ap­pli­ca­tion that’s dif­fi­cult, a point San­tos made re­peat­edly: Our brains of­ten lead us to bad choices, and even when we re­al­ize the choices are bad, it’s hard to break habits.

All se­mes­ter, hun­dreds of stu­dents tried to re­wire them­selves — to ex­er­cise more, to thank their moth­ers, to care less about the fi­nal grade and more about the ideas.

Did that lead to skep­ti­cism, snark and de­ri­sion? Yes, lots.

But in ways small and large, silly and heart­break­ingly earnest, sim­ple and pro­found, this class changed the con­ver­sa­tion at Yale. It sur­faced in late-night talks in dorms, it was dis­sected in news­pa­per col­umns, it popped up, again and again, in memes.

“A lot of peo­ple are wak­ing up, re­al­iz­ing that we’re strug­gling,” said Robinson, who plans to go to the Navy’s Nu­clear Power School and be­come a sub­ma­rine of­fi­cer.

There’s no longer the same stigma around mental-health is­sues, he said. “Now, so many peo­ple are ad­mit­ting they want to lead hap­pier lives.”

In a way, the class is the very essence of a lib­eral-arts ed­u­ca­tion: learn­ing, ex­plo­ration, in­sight into one­self and the world. But many stu­dents de­scribed it as en­tirely un­like any class they had ever taken — nothing to do with aca­demics, and ev­ery­thing to do with life.

The im­pact is not lim­ited to Yale. Sto­ries about PSYC157 spread around the world. San­tos cre­ated a pared-down ver­sion of the class and of­fered it to any­one on the on­line ed­u­ca­tion site Cours­era.

Within two months of its launch, more than 91,000 peo­ple, from 168 coun­tries, were tak­ing it.

And so at the end of the se­mes­ter, San­tos asked the stu­dents of this most fa­mous, most in­fa­mous class at Yale (as she de­scribed it): Did it work?

Did one class, full of sim­ple ideas, teach them how to live the good life?

On the night be­fore the last class, sopho­more Maeve Forti set­tled onto the fuzzy blan­ket on her bed, closed her eyes, put her palms on her knees and be­gan to med­i­tate.

The last wave of fi­nals and pa­pers was about to wash over her, and things were al­ready piled up in her room to be packed, be­cause her sum­mer in­tern­ship in Bos­ton be­gan im­me­di­ately af­ter ex­ams ended. De­spite the over­whelm­ing sense of ev­ery­thing she had to do, she cleared a space.

“It’s going to im­prove my mood, it has other great ef­fects, it’s some­thing I should be pri­or­i­tiz­ing,” she said. “But like a lot of other things in the course, it’s very easy to say, ‘I don’t have time.’ ”

No one has time. But in this class, they not only learned about the psy­chol­ogy be­hind the choices they were making, they ac­tively tried to change their be­hav­ior.

San­tos — a funny and en­gag­ing lec­turer, the kind of warm and joy­ful per­son who will alert stu­dents in her res­i­den­tial col­lege if there’s a re­ally soft dog in the court­yard they should get out­side and pat — is able to cut through much of the skep­ti­cism about touchy-feely non­sense with a com­bi­na­tion of hard data, silly photos and a ready laugh.

She taught stu­dents about cog­ni­tive bi­ases.

“We called it the ways in which our minds suck,” Forti said. “Our minds make us think that cer­tain things make us happy, but they don’t.”

It’s hard to live up to the ex­pec­ta­tions they set for them­selves, an­other stu­dent said, and they pile on more stress by con­stantly com­par­ing them­selves with their class­mates.

Then, they had to ap­ply the les­sons. One week, San­tos asked stu­dents to ex­er­cise reg­u­larly. An­other week, to get three nights with seven hours of sleep. Af­ter show­ing them data sug­gest­ing how much moods can im­prove from even a fleet­ing so­cial in­ter­ac­tion, she asked stu­dents to reach out to a stranger.

They wrote letters of grat­i­tude. Forti wrote to her mother; the tears started at, “Dear Mom.”

There was a pal­pa­ble dif­fer­ence on cam­pus, sev­eral stu­dents said, dur­ing the week when they per­formed ran­dom acts of kind­ness.

San­tos said stu­dents were most skep­ti­cal of the idea that good grades aren’t es­sen­tial to hap­pi­ness. (And when she joked she was going to teach them that by giv­ing ev­ery­one a D, she was flooded with calls from freaked­out stu­dents and par­ents.)

Some changes, of course, didn’t stick. As fi­nals ap­proached, Robinson stopped writ­ing in his “grat­i­tude jour­nal.”

But peo­ple worked hard to main­tain some new habits. When Robinson first tried to med­i­tate on a busy day, it made him almost an­gry — he felt it was wast­ing the time. But as days passed, he found it was making him calmer, more in con­trol. And he kept going to the gym.

Forti deleted her so­cial me­dia apps, tempted by Snapchat but ap­pre­ci­at­ing time with friends more.

Lak­shmi Rivera Amin, a firstyear stu­dent, re­al­ized how much she missed play­ing piano. She used to prac­tice an hour or two a day at home, but she had been too busy at Yale. Now, she sets her alarm half an hour ear­lier.

“I feel dif­fer­ent phys­i­cally and men­tally — I don’t feel so weighted down by things,” she said. The big­gest mis­con­cep­tion peo­ple have about the class is that San­tos is of­fer­ing some kind of easy hap­pi­ness fix. “It’s some­thing you have to work on ev­ery day . . . . If I keep us­ing these skills, they’ll, over time, help me de­velop bet­ter habits and be hap­pier.

“I hope they’ll stay with me the rest of my life.”

Half an hour be­fore San­tos’s last class, the quiet memo­rial plaza by the rare-book li­brary and the stately pres­i­dent’s house be­gan to buzz as stu­dents streamed into Woolsey Hall. The Verve’s “Bit­ter Sweet Sym­phony” was play­ing from speak­ers un­der the hall’s soar­ing arched ceil­ing. Sun­light poured through enor­mous win­dows, giv­ing an ex­tra glow to all the gilded sur­faces.

This con­cert hall, with the golden pipes of an organ ris­ing be­hind the stage, was the only space school of­fi­cials could find for such a large class. At the be­gin­ning of the se­mes­ter, San­tos watched the tool that graphed its en­roll­ment change — 100, 200, 500. She wor­ried there wasn’t a big enough class­room, but an ad­min­is­tra­tor said, “We are not going to cap the hap­pi­ness class!”

For a class that em­pha­sizes an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of beauty, and the im­por­tance of com­mu­nity, it has been a per­fect set­ting.

Forti sat in the front row with her eyes closed, med­i­tat­ing.

A crew of two dozen teach­ing fel­lows was dash­ing around, hand­ing out quizzes. San­tos asked those who al­ready had a copy to med­i­tate on their best pos­si­ble selves, in­stead of wor­ry­ing about grades.

San­tos men­tioned their last read­ing as­sign­ments, in­clud­ing Dr. Seuss’s joy­ful clas­sic, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” She re­minded them of how she had started the se­mes­ter by jux­ta­pos­ing the words of the school’s un­of­fi­cial alma mater, “Bright col­lege years/ with plea­sure rife/The short­est, glad­dest years of life,” with bleak na­tional data about col­lege stu­dents’ sub­jec­tive well-be­ing.

She won­dered how to end such a class — what was she sup­posed to do, give them the se­cret to hap­pi­ness? — and joked she would just turn on Kanye West’s “Good Life,” mic drop and give them all Ds.

She made fun of her­self not prac­tic­ing what she was teach­ing them, as she strug­gled with the de­mands of this enor­mous, am­bi­tious new course. She showed them a photo of her­self holed up work­ing on Christ­mas, and an­other of her­self cov­ered in stu­dents’ pa­pers af­ter midterms.

She read them a grat­i­tude let­ter she had writ­ten — to the class, for in­spir­ing her with their will­ing­ness to make changes, and giv­ing her life so much mean­ing this se­mes­ter. “Awwwwww,” hun­dreds of peo­ple said in uni­son.

San­tos told them she was cre­at­ing a cen­ter for the good life at the res­i­den­tial col­lege she leads at Yale, and that peo­ple had al­ready vol­un­teered to help teach stu­dents skills for man­ag­ing stress.

As for the good life, she told them they al­ready know how to live it — they just have to prac­tice, put in the hard work.

So many stu­dents have told her the class changed their lives. “If you’re re­ally grate­ful, show me that,” she told them. “Change the cul­ture.”

“Let’s do this!” she said. (Cue the photo of a kit­ten leap­ing.)

“Good Life” be­gan blast­ing into Woolsey Hall, and more than a thou­sand Yalies stood up, some laugh­ing, some cry­ing, all ap­plaud­ing. Fi­nals were hap­pen­ing, pa­pers were due, in­tern­ships and jobs were im­mi­nent. Later, they would pour out into the sun­shine, hur­ry­ing to other classes or ex­ams or the li­brary, and San­tos would hug her hus­band and prom­ise him a date night. But for now stu­dents stood and clapped and clapped and clapped, beam­ing, drown­ing out even Kanye with their stand­ing ova­tion. As if they had nothing but time.

“I feel dif­fer­ent phys­i­cally and men­tally — I don’t feel so weighted down by things . . . . If I keep us­ing these skills, they’ll, over time, help me de­velop bet­ter habits and be hap­pier. ” Lak­shmi Rivera Amin, first-year stu­dent at Yale

PHOTOS BY STAN GODLEWSKI FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Sopho­more Maeva Forti of Bos­ton, above, one of more than 1,200 stu­dents tak­ing Yale’s “Psy­chol­ogy and the Good Life” course, says she now med­i­tates to help ease the stress of ev­ery­day life. When class was can­celed and stu­dents were told they had to...

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