Ideas Life Lessons

How to be Happy — Yale’s Most Popular Class

This year Professor Laurie Santos created Yale’s most popular class of all time. The class is titled Psychology and the Good Life but it’s really a course on how to be happy both in the short and long term. I was excited to hear that Yale was offering the course but even more excited to see that the class is available online. She expanded on the class with her Happiness Lab Podcast. While there’s little I hadn’t heard before, it did a great job of focusing me on what’s important and helped me get into the practice of being happier.

This would have been a great class for me at Yale. Yale is an incredible place with wonderful people and an amazingly vibrant energy. Unfortunately, there’s often too much energy. I would see all these great classes and activities and things to do. And I’d see other people doing them and I’d try to try to do everything — not for my resume but because I didn’t want to miss out on all these great opportunities. Yale is a smorgasbord of activities and ideas and it’s very easy to get lost in the struggle to be awesome.

Most professors teach the subjects that they are experts in but Professor Santos decided to do something different. While she’s a researcher in primate behavior, she wanted to focus on the most important thing that students needed to learn — how to be happy.  She also shares that she wanted to learn these skills herself.

I was jealous that I wasn’t enrolled at Yale today and part of the 25% of the population enrolled in the class. That’s when I realized that the class was available online for free. Note: For $50 Coursera will sell you a certificate in happiness once you complete the course. I’m very tempted to pay the $50 to be certified in happiness.

Professor Santos is a great teacher and has a fresh take on the subject. If you want a full rundown of the course, check out this summary from New York Magazine. I’ve put are a couple of my favorite lessons from the class below.

The GI Joe Fallacy

The standards of what makes people happy haven’t changed in a long time. It’s really about relationships, gratitude, sleep, meditation and exercise. At this point, you might say, “Now that I know this, why do I even need to take this course?” Because the course isn’t about the knowledge of happiness so much as it is the practice of happiness.

This is where the first insight of the course comes into play, what Professor Santos calls The GI Joe Fallacy. In old episodes of the GI Joe cartoon, there would be a public service announcement at the end of the show with a message like “Don’t run into the middle of the street to get your ball.” Each of these segments ends with the words “Knowing is half the battle.” However, as Professor Santos says, “Knowing isn’t half the battle, it’s a tiny fraction of it… You may know that $19.99 is the same as $20, but the first still feels like a much better deal.”

In the same vein, I’ve realized that happiness is not a goal to be achieved but a continual journey. As Zig Ziglar, the famous salesman and motivational speaker,  famously put it, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. But neither does bathing — that’s why we recommend it daily.”

Finding a Great Job

For most of the class, Professor Santos teaches the difference in “What you think will make you happy” vs. “What will actually make you happy.” For jobs, people have a good idea of what they think a great job will be: high paying, prestigious — essentially the kinds of jobs you expect someone from Yale to have. Paul Graham had a similar thought, “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”

But we learn in the class that there isn’t a generic “great job” but there is a “great job for you.” You’ll be happiest in a job where you can be your authentic self. That sounds very general and dreamy but the course recommends a great website that helps you identify your strengths. When you think about it, the skills that define you are a pretty good way of defining your authentic self. According to the survey, my top skills are:

  • Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it.
  • Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally; related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows.
  • Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence: Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.
  • Humor: Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing the light side; making (not necessarily telling) jokes.
  • Love: Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing & caring are reciprocated; being close to people.
  • Curiosity: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering.

Then, if you can find a job that lets you use these skills, you will be happier because you will be expressing your authentic self.(1)I’ve always liked the Seven Stories exercise from the Five O’Clock Club to understand your authentic self and what you love.

Taking the Class on Campus

The students have one big advantage when taking the class on campus —they’re doing it together. They have a community to support each other and push their common goals forward. When you have classmates focused on happiness, you can think about the world differently. You can get together and savor the wonderful moments of being in college. You can take a step back, suck the marrow out of life, and just enjoy the time you have with friends. This feeling of community was expressed wonderfully in the commencement essay by Marina Keegan’s essay The Opposite of Loneliness.

Finally, the students on campus had three hours a week scheduled to focus on happiness. It’s hard to find the time to meditate and exercise when it’s added to everything else in your day. But if it’s part of a class, you can probably find some time. The difference between taking the class on campus and taking it online was especially apparent during the “time affluence” section of the class. Time affluence is the idea of thinking about time as a scarce resource, like money. By focusing on how you use your time, you can be affluent in your time the way some people are affluent in money. In an online class, this is a hard lesson to teach. On campus, Professor Santos had a novel idea. As the New York magazine article wrote:

As for Santos, she came up with a straightforward way of communicating the concept of time affluence to her students. After the midterm, when they arrived on the day of the “special event,” Santos and her teaching assistants handed out flyers at the door of the lecture hall that read “Class is canceled. Go practice time affluence.(2)Randy Pausch of The Last Lecture had a great lecture on time affluence. You have one free hour.” The only proviso was that they were not allowed to fill that hour with work. They had to do something unexpected: Read for pleasure. Take a hike. Meet a friend for coffee. One student was so grateful for this one-hour reprieve in her overpacked schedule that, at the news of this gift, she started to cry.


1 I’ve always liked the Seven Stories exercise from the Five O’Clock Club to understand your authentic self and what you love.
2 Randy Pausch of The Last Lecture had a great lecture on time affluence.