What Really Makes People Happy?

Our fascination with "happiness" and what it really means

Posted Apr 14, 2018

A few months ago, a new course at Yale opened up for enrollment. But this wasn’t just any class. Instant, unfettered demand for the course made it the most popular in Yale’s entire history. A few days after enrollment opened, the course had enrolled 1200 students, roughly 25% of the entire Yale undergraduate population.

The course that drew so many Yale students focuses on a seemingly simple topic: happiness. The course, taught by psychology professor Laurie Santos, is called Psychology and the Good Life and its goal is to teach students how to live happier, more fulfilled lives. Aside from the usual goals of increasing students’ knowledge about academic topics, the course also seeks to change students’ behaviors to maximize their chances of being “happier.”

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This is not the first course on “happiness” on a university campus. In fact, the topic has become more popular in recent years. This course made headlines because it led people to ask: Are undergraduates so unhappy that they clamor to take a course on “happiness?” What does this instant, overwhelming popularity say about how undergraduates are feeling more generally? In the midst of discussions and headlines about increasing rates of depression and anxiety among adolescents and young adults, it seems only natural that these questions should arise as a result of the unprecedented  enrollment numbers for the new Yale happiness course.

But is teaching “happiness,” if it can be taught, really the right approach to these problems? Positioning “happiness” as the opposite of “stress” and anxiety can be problematic, especially when teens already feel incredible pressure to appear “happy” on social media. Perhaps the answer lies in much less immediately appealing but nonetheless essential concepts such as resilience, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance. While it’s true that courses on happiness may include some of these concepts, the language we use to package them  is still important. If we focus too much on “happiness” per se, many people might end up feeling as if they failed if they are “only” emotionally stable.

Several colleges and universities around the country are in fact focusing quite a lot of energy on teaching students to be more resilient. The observation that high-achieving students in some of the nation’s top college and universities might not have the experience of “failing” or facing serious academic and professional setbacks has given rise to a number of curricular approaches that try to teach students how to cope with “failure.” For example, Smith College has developed a program called “Failing Well,” which includes workshops on impostor syndrome, discussions about perfectionism, and widespread sharing of failures and mistakes by both students and faculty. Similar programs exist at Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard, among others.

But teaching adolescents and young adults “resilience” in single courses in college may not be enough. Resilience needs to be taught starting from a much younger age. It is a skill that must be learned and honed over time. In addition, resilience training on its own is not enough to equip young people with the skills they need to navigate difficult circumstances and emotions in adulthood. They also need skills to handle interpersonal conflict, accept difficult and uncomfortable emotions, and tolerate distress and anxiety.

What’s more, these things can’t be taught in single classes here and there. What’s really needed is an overarching change in school culture, starting from as early as possible, from one that’s nearly exclusively about developing academic minds to one that’s about developing academic minds and emotionally well-equipped individuals. This kind of approach needs to be comprehensive and pervade school culture, with teachers and administrators modeling the necessary skills and behaviors that will help young people deal with serious stressors and setbacks later on. If we took this kind of education as seriously as we take preparing students for the SATs and college admissions, we would likely avoid many of the mental health crises we now see unfolding on college campuses across the country.

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