Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever Teaches How to Live a Happier Life (Here’s What Students Learn)

These are the key habits Yale students learn to develop and you can too.

f11photo/Getty Images
f11photo/Getty Images

News flash–adult life is filled with unhappiness traps and the search for keys to happiness (or even a good happiness hack to help us get by).

It turns out young-adult life isn’t much different.

An incredible one in four students at Yale–1,200 students–take Laurie Santos’s Psych 157, “Psychology and the Good Life.” It’s the single largest class in Yale’s history, a class that requires a whopping 24 teaching fellows to administer, that had to move to a symphony hall to accommodate the class size, and that tanks registration for any course in its time slot. (As a result, the class won’t be taught again, instead moving to an online video course format.)

Its rock-concert-like enrollment speaks volumes about how stressed and unhappy students are these days. A study from the Yale College Council cited that more than half of all Yale undergraduates sought mental health help while at the school. The New York Times captured this quote from one of the class participants:

“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 on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”

You say, “Yeah, but these kids will figure it out when they get to the working world.”


This sentiment also applies perfectly to far too many workplaces. A study by Mental Health America shows that a whopping 71 percent of workers are unhappy and looking for other opportunities.

So what are some of the key habits that Yale students learn to develop in the class and how can you do the same?

1. Show more gratitude.

Research is clear: Developing the ability to express gratitude is one of the most substantial ways to increase your happiness. Gratitude helps you connect to something larger than yourself, enhances relationships, motivates the recipients, and improves overall well-being.

You can cultivate it. Here are two examples:

  • Say thanks out of context. Pull someone into a conference room and tell them why you appreciate them–just because. Of all the leadership tactics I employed in my corporate time, this was consistently the most remembered and appreciated. It stands out because so few do it.
  • Catch someone in the act of doing something good. Reward them for it. One of my favorite leaders was always on the lookout for something (worthy) she could compliment in the moment; it made you want to run through walls because you knew she would notice.

2. Procrastinate less.

Procrastinate is the silent henchman for overwhelm. Studies show we lose 55 productive days a year because of procrastination, 218 minutes a day on average. Avoid these misconceptions:

  • “I work better under pressure.” Research shows the opposite. Stress directly interferes with your brain’s ability to learn and translate ideas into meaningful information and causes more errors.
  • “My willpower will kick in.” Unfortunately, studies show our willpower isn’t as strong as we think and that it can be depleted surprisingly quickly. More times than I’d like to admit I’ve promised myself to stick to an exercise routine. Then I miss two days in a row and bam! Back to the usual. Instead of exercising, I exercise my right not to. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here.
  • “My self-imposed deadlines will keep me on track.” Not likely. Research shows that setting deadlines externally, like with a boss or friends, is a far more effective way to encourage adherence to a deadline. My most productive employees consistently set deadlines with me and asked for help in staying accountable to them.

3. Increase social connections.

Psychologist Maynard Brusman indicates our brains are actually hardwired to connect with others, so being disconnected is fighting Mother Nature herself. And it’s just as important to feel connected to co-workers, as studies show we spend more time with our co-workers than our family (true of 80 percent of people who work 30 to 50 hours a week).

Try these three connectivity tactics at work:

  • Create purposeful bonding experiences. Set up celebrations of team successes or failures or opportunities to work on a tough problem together.
  • Spread positive gossip. Get caught talking about your co-workers–in an upbeat way. One well-respected leader I interviewed even made it a point to reward anyone she caught talking positively about someone else. It helped create a habit of appreciation,
  • Invite their gifts in. Nothing enhances a sense of connectedness and belonging like being asked to share what makes you valuable and special. This was a non-negotiable behavior I expected from my leadership team.

Now, not to say that developing all these habits is easy. Santos calls her course the “hardest class at Yale,” because to see real habit-change, students must hold themselves accountable every day.

So must you.

Class is now in session.

Originally published at www.inc.com

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