Yale’s Happiness Class Probes the Question: Is Our Education Promoting Mental Wellbeing?

In Dr. Laurie Santos’ “Psychology and the Good Life” course, also fondly known as the “happiness class”, students are taught lessons on living happier and more significant lives. They are taught to “rewire” their brain through proven methods of retraining our thinking – aptly called “rewirement” projects. This course is part of a seminar-style series called “The Science of Wellbeing”, and is currently the most popular class in Yale’s 317-year history.

Dr. Santos’ assumption is that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to strive for admission into the university. In doing so, they adopted harmful lifestyle habits that have led to what she called, “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.” A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of its undergraduates sought mental healthcare from the university during their time there.

This statistic goes further than just Yale. Mental illnesses have taken a rise since previous eras, with anxiety and depression markedly higher. Notably, studies point to an increase in mental health issues among high school and college students.

“The Science of Wellbeing” boasts a syllabus lined with topics like Kindness & Social Connection and Savoring & Gratitude, and peaks with an assignment requiring students to write a letter to a person from the past. As wonderful as it may sound, it leaves a trail of questions begging to be asked. Can mere measures like increasing social connections, saying thank you or engaging with others really make a difference in our lives? Can it constitute a quantifiable impact to the way lives turn out?

Dr. Santos certainly thinks so. "The data suggest that becoming happier is a lot like learning to play the violin or row crew."

Diving deeper, partaking in forms of arts or sports has been linked to greater mental health and resilience. Psychologists have looked into claims that art can help us become more mindful and healthy, lowering stress levels, aiding in processing emotions and, ultimately, increasing our self-awareness, for instance. On the other hand, involvement in sports boosts concentration, enhances memory, stimulates creativity and develops better problem-solving skills. In short, playing sports helps your brain grow and makes it work better.

Happy, successful lives are attainable. Spinning off the “Growth Mindset” concept, an idea by Stanford University’s Carol Dweck that the ability to learn can be changed with effort, students are able to perceive that failure is not a permanent condition. With the right educational surroundings, they can be nurtured and encouraged to push further.

The President of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, Nick Stoneman, has visions of an educational institution that “challenges its students to discover their leadership skills, to reconnect with their creative side that was so present when they were young, to learn how to collaborate, to act as contributing members of a community and to navigate the waters of adolescence.”

Bringing a unique philosophy of learning that has been molded through 160 years of expertise, the school recognizes the importance of providing growing individuals with space for freedom of expression and development of creativity. Students are inspired to learn through play during the early years, participate in visual arts and performing arts programs, and take advantage of the school’s weCreate® Center, which features innovative studios for robotics, 3D printing, fashion design, engineering, video and music creation, and much more. Leadership skills, character-building, brain development and confidence are also enhanced through various athletics and co-curricular activities. At the core of it all, Shattuck-St. Mary’s School places the development of a child first, emphasizing their holistic learning towards a happy and successful future.

For a detailed look into the course offerings according to student divisions, go to https://www.ssm-fc.org/learning-with-us-overview