Popularity of Happiness Course Shines a Spotlight on Student Mental Health

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Yale University’s most popular course ever may be one of the best indicators of the mental health of incoming and current college students.

Psyc 157, “Psychology and the Good Life,” a twice-weekly lecture that tries to teach students how to live happier lives, enrolled nearly a quarter of the entire student body this semester. It is reportedly the most popular course in Yale’s 316-year-long history.

The course is led by psychology professor Laurie Santos who speculates that the college admission process and the high-pressure campus environment it fosters are behind the class’s popularity. In high school, she said, students had to deprioritize happiness to gain admission to school, leading them to adopt unhealthy and harmful life habits that culminate in “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.”

“Students want to change, to be happier themselves, and to change the culture here on campus,” Santos told The New York Times. “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.”

This isn’t the first time a university has seen a huge interest in a so-called happiness class. In 2006, a similar course at Harvard enrolled more than 900 students.

“In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,” said Alannah Maynez, a freshman in the Yale course told The New York Times. “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.”

A recent survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that anxiety was the top concern of students seeking mental health services on campus.

About 51 percent of college students who visited an on-campus counseling center in 2015-16 reported struggling with anxiety. The other most common concerns were depression (41 percent), relationship issues (34 percent), suicidal ideation (20.5 percent), self-injury (14 percent), and alcohol abuse (10 percent), according to the survey.

Ashley Dobson is NACAC’s communications manager for content and social media. You can reach her at adobson@nacacnet.org.

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