Yale University's New Class on Happiness Is the Most Popular Course in Its 316 Year History. Here's What It's About

How unhappy are students at Yale University?

It’s arguably the toughest college in the country to get into–and more than half of its students wind up seeking mental health care while they’re there.

That might not be a coincidence. A Yale professor says that’s likely because if you get into Yale, you probably had to spend years of your life doing things that made you really unhappy.

Striving. Getting good grades. Ensuring that you beat the next person behind you on your high school honors list by a zillionth of a grade point average.

I give sincere credit to students for seeking help when they need it, but the state of affairs amounts to a “crisis,” in the words of Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos.

So she decided to do something about it–introducing a course that I like to call Happiness 101 for short.

Technically, its name is “Psyc 157, Psychology and the Good Life,” covering positive psychology and behavioral change. 

Regardless, the question of (lack of) happiness has made it into a monster hit.

On Day 1, 300 students signed up. Within a week, its enrollment grew to a record-breaking 1,200 students–about 25 percent of the entire undergraduate student body.

“A lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,” Alannah Maynez, 19, a Yale freshman, told the New York Times, adding her fellow students are “tired … of numbing their emotions — both positive and negative — so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”

That isn’t going to be a shock to regular readers of this column, or perhaps to anyone with a high-achieving kid in this first quarter of the 21st century. A continent away, former Stanford’s dean of freshmen made a similar point in her book, “How to Raise an Adult.” 

It seems to hits hardest with the kids we expect the most of. As the Times put it, Yale students are taking the class because 

in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what Dr. Santos calls “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.”

Teaching such a gigantically popular class brought with it logistical challenges–and apparently, jealousy.

First, they had to hire enough teaching fellows at the last minute (24 of them), and find a big enough room on campus.

They live-streamed for half the class during the first few weeks, they finally settled on Woolsey Hall, a 2,650-seat auditorium usually used for things like symphony performances.

Then, Santos had to combat the quick reputation the class gained for being easy–even though she refers to it as “hardest class at Yale.” 

Santos encouraged students to reduce stress by taking it pass/fail, and and doesn’t monitor whether students do homework assignments.

“With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits, things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture,” Santos said.

Only one problem: So many students took Happiness 101 that it left other professors’ classes empty–or at least emptier than they would have been.

And that means the happiness course left other people at Yale feeling unhappy.

“It wouldn’t be fair to other courses and departments to take all of their students away,” Woo-Kyoung Ahn, director of undergraduate studies in psychology at Yale, told the Times. “It causes conflict.”

So if you missed out on Happiness 101, you’ve missed out forever.

They’re not planning to teach it again.