HAPPY TALK, KEEP TALKIN’ HAPPY TALK!”
Otherwise known as Psyc 157, “Psychology and the Good Life”
You probably read the piece about “positive psychology” in the NY Times a few weeks ago. The course, taught by Laurie Santos, 42, a psychology professor and the head of one of Yale’s residential colleges, decided to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in twice-weekly lectures. Sounds good, right?
The concept caught fire right off the bat. On Jan. 12th, a few days after registration opened, roughly 300 people had signed up and within three days, the figure had more than doubled. After three more days, about 1,200 students or nearly one-fourth of Yale undergraduates, were enrolled. Dr. Santos’ instincts were impeccable.
“Students want to change, to be happier within themselves,” Dr. Santos explained in an interview. “And they want to change the culture on campus.” She speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because in high school, they had to “deprioritize their happiness” to gain admission, and adopt “harmful” life habits that have led to what she called “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.”
I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that a 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of the undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time there. As I look back on my own college years and my graduate work at Yale Drama School (I majored in acting), I still get butterflies and an occasional knot in my stomach…
In fact, Constance Welch, the renowned “Dean of Acting” made me almost stutter when she yelled, “Cut!!” during a rehearsal and shouted, “Blanke!! Take that over again!! And this time let me feel your anger, got it?!”
I was playing “Martha,” the female lead in the play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe.” (I was twenty-one and didn’t really understand what she was so mad about…)
Where was “Positive Psychology” when I needed it?!
“In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy and numb,” said Alannah Makynez, 19, a freshmen taking the course at Yale. “The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions – both positive and negative – so they can focus exclusively on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment”…and the one after that…
The enlightened Dr. Santos hopes that the social pressures associated with taking a lecture with friends will push students to work hard without provoking anxiety about grades. She’s encouraged all students to enroll in the course on a pass-fail basis, (a brilliant idea) tying into her argument that the things Yale undergraduates often connect with life satisfaction: A high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job, surprisingly, don’t actually increase their happiness at all.
“Scientists didn’t realize ten years ago, that our intuitions about what will makes us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade – are totally wrong,” Dr. Santos said.
But a course in “positive psychology?” Well, that’s a different story.
Administrators expected significant enrollment for the class but no one anticipated popularity of this magnitude. “Psychology and the Good Life,” with 1,182 young people enrolled, stands as the single most popular course by far in Yale’s 316-year history.
Hey, what about holding “Positive Psychology” seminars in corporations? Seriously, I can just imagine what a dynamic addition that could be to the typical “updates,” “reviews” and data-driven “report-outs” that are standard corporate fare.
There could also be monthly discussion groups to share techniques for reducing angst, increasing positive reinforcement to colleagues, and brainstorming creative methods based on Positive Psychology to delight both old and new customers.
People in corporations might actually look forward to Mondays!
I’m ready to sign up…
Take a listen to “Happy Talk” from the 1958 film South Pacific.