In Good Company

A quarter of a year is three months; a quarter of a dollar is 25 cents; a quarter of an hour is 15 minutes. A quarter of Yale College is “Psychology and the Good Life.”

On Tues., Jan. 16, students of all years filled the pews of Battell Chapel. The next class session, they spilled over into Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall (SSS). Two years of brainstorming and development couldn’t prepare Professor Laurie Santos for the turnout: 1,165 students. This surpassed the previous enrollment record of 1,052 students, held by President Peter Salovey for a class he taught in 1992 entitled “Psychology and the Law.” What makes Santos’ class most intriguing, however, is not just its record attendance — it’s the questions these numbers raise and the answers they demand of Yale and its culture.

According to Yale College Dean Marvin Chun, the class was not even projected to fill the largest classroom on campus — located at Yale Law School — let alone Battell Chapel. By the first week of Shopping Period, however, Battell had reached capacity, SSS was annexed, and the lectures simulcast. The following week, Woolsey Hall experienced its maiden voyage as a classroom. “We predicted the class would be large,” said Chun, “but it blew past all our projections… and then we had to scramble.” Chun continues his support of the course by attempting to procure Woolsey Hall not as a temporary fix, but as a semester-long solution.

from Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens

“This is a movement to devote our time and energies to learning what psychology and the social sciences and humanities and scholarship have to say about what defines a good life,” said Chun. The class begins by introducing common misconceptions about what makes a person happy. From there, it will “review scientifically-validated strategies for harnessing our cognitive biases to live a better and more satisfying life,” as the syllabus states. The goal, though, is to synthesize psychological research and “give it to students in a way that they can apply [to] their own lives,” said Santos. This is also the first Yale class to use an app called “ReWi,” which was developed by Felipe Pires, ES ’19, and funded by the Center for Teaching and Learning.

What draws Yalies of all stripes to this class, especially when “Psychology and the Good Life” isn’t the only class at Yale that attempts to explore questions of life and happiness? “The question of the good life — of what is worth wanting in life — is contested in our day in a way it has not been for centuries,” said Professor Matt Croasmun, head of the Life Worth Living Program. Croasmun also teaches a section of “Life Worth Living,” an elective in the Humanities major that, he says, aims to “equip students for the life-long process of discerning the good life for themselves, seeking after the truth of what makes life most worth living.” The course engages these ideas through the study of various religions and philosophies rather than psychology. It also requires an application in order to “craft seminars that bring together diverse voices and experiences” belonging to students who are “hungry to use the very best of their intellectual energy to address the question of the good life.”

“Psychology and the Good Life” obviously did not require an application. There will be a midterm exam and two research papers in addition to five in-class quizzes, but only a student’s best three quiz scores will count towards the final grade. The second set of requirements are called “rewirements,” which the syllabus describes as “a series of activities and exercises aimed at making you happier, healthier, and more resilient.” An example of a rewirement is a week-long “daily gratitude journal.” Though the rewirements will require “even more time and hard work” than the course requirements, they will not factor into students’ final grades. Students will use the “ReWi” app to log their weekly rewirements. But it doesn’t end there — Santos encourages students not to dwell on grades and even to take the class Credit/D/Fail.

It’s unlikely that all 1,165 students in this class are truly invested in reprogramming the way they think. That doesn’t mean, however, that all of the students are there simply to coast through the semester.

“[The students] want answers to the big questions,” Santos said. Perhaps they find comfort in the “psychological insights” and “scientifically-validated strategies” that the course description promises. “They’re worried, they’re anxious,” said Santos of Yale students, crediting her experience as Silliman’s Head of College as the catalyst for her decision to use her teaching experience to work towards positive campus-wide change. “[Students] know something’s wrong with [Yale’s] culture. They know that this is not the healthiest culture it could be.”

There remains a measure of skepticism surrounding the class, frequently taking the form of memes — our generation’s hallowed mode of expression that can be a telling source of insight into the inner workings of a young population. One meme on the “Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens” Facebook page asserts that the sheer portion of Yale’s undergraduate population taking the course is “a sign that Yale students need more than just a class about managing happiness,” and, similar to what Santos’ own close experience with undergraduates has revealed to her, “it goes to show that there is something insidiously wrong with campus culture.”

from Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens

So what’s the remedy for tired, stressed, maxed-out Yalies? What exactly does a healthy culture at Yale look like? As proposed by the syllabus, healthier culture would likely involve less emphasis on “performance goals” (i.e. grades and achievements), thus allowing for more “learning goals.” Santos would like to see more open discourse between students and faculty regarding one’s purpose and how to live a meaningful life, regardless of what shape that might take for each person.

“Our minds deliver to us the wrong answers all the time,” Santos said, citing simple optical illusions as everyday examples of how our brains trick us into thinking things that are not necessarily true. “Many students have developed unhealthy mentalities or lifestyles from the pressure cooker of Yale,” Becca Rose, SM ’21, said. “I think the high turnout really shows that students care about improving their own happiness and personal wellbeing.” The course offers methods to make students’ lives happier and alleviate the weight of responsibilities most Yale students bear.

Last week, while shopping a class, a professor quipped that Shopping Period seems to wear down on students’ mental health more intensely than anything else. “Psychology and the Good Life” instantly came to mind. The turnout could be regarded as a response to existing problems concerning the intensity of Yale’s atmosphere coupled with lack of accessible mental health care, a persistent issue for many students. But are quick, easy, concrete answers all it takes to positively impact campus culture and improve students’ mental health, or is there something additional that can be done with this common goal in mind? More accessible, better-funded mental health services are a prevalent example, as evinced by both current meme trends as well as constant discussion amongst students.

“With an unexpected relapse in my health, I’ve still spent hundreds of hours on something that is not schoolwork and not extracurricular, that will never appear on my resume. Advocating for the care I need is hard work,” said one student who has struggled with mental illness for years and asked not to be named. It seems particularly unfair that students whose college experience is inherently more taxing than others’ would have to work even harder to find a remedy.

from Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens

While the turnout for “Psychology and the Good Life” may be an indicator of underlying systemic issues, every student has a different reason for taking the course. For some, the class may serve as a reminder to slow down and “[appreciate] the day-to-day,” as Michael Borger, SM ’20, said. “So many of us have poured years into getting into Yale, and now that we’re here, time seems to be fleeting because of classes, extracurriculars, internship hunts, and so on.”

David Glaess, SM ’19, jokingly compared the class to a TED Talk. This comparison could easily be due to the class’s sheer size, considering that TED Conferences “[bring] together up to 1,200…people” according to the website. But perhaps the class’s overall spirit could be equated with TED’s slogan: “ideas worth sharing.”

Glaess also said that people in the class seemed to feel as though “they were part of a movement… something bigger.” For many students, this may well be the case, especially for underclassmen, who have another two or three years during which they can stimulate positive change and make Yale a better place. Santos speculates that, with graduation a mere hundred or so days away, seniors are more likely to use the class as a vehicle for critical thinking about their future careers and the lives they hope to lead outside of college.

“It demonstrates to me what I know about Yale students — that they love learning,” Chun said of the high turnout to the class. “To see Yale students get excited about a course just as they would get excited about a show or about their other activities — to see this level of passion — is very rewarding. That’s one reason why I didn’t want to cap the course.”

Such widespread interest and participation in a class on “the Good Life” exposes not only the difficulties students face because of a rigorous academic culture and systemic shortcomings, but also a degree of hope. There is hope for change, hope for improvement, hope for the future of mental health care at Yale, and hope for students’ success on their academic and personal paths. And, even while some people may have less than profound reasons for occupying a seat in Yale’s grandest auditorium this semester, there is solace in banding together and reminding ourselves that we do not struggle alone. “We are all responsible for each other’s well-being,” as Nika Zarazvand, TD ’20, said. “Let’s support one another.”

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