Overflowing Woolsey, interest in ‘Psychology and the Good Life’ goes global

Professor Laurie Santos’ final lecture of the most popular class in Yale history, “Psychology and the Good Life,” was held April 26 at the university’s largest venue, which school officials had to scramble to secure this winter when 1,200 undergraduates enrolled.

The pursuit of happiness, however, proved impossible to contain.

In just the past month since the course was offered online, Santos’ lessons about keys to happiness have been heard by 78,000 people in more than 168 countries around the world — the most popular online course launch in school history. As of April 24, a total of 518 media stories have reported on the Yale psychologist’s exploration of human happiness — which, Santos tells her students, is fueled less by high salaries and grades and more by simple acts of kindness, meditation, gratitude, exercise, and sleep.

I was just looking back from my last lecture, and the class has been talked about in Spanish Portuguese, French, German, Vietnamese, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Thai, Turkish, Persian and, oh, Croatian,” Santos said. “There is a global interest in this conversation which is fantastic.”

Yale students watch Laurie Santos lecture from the balcony of Woolsey Hall.
Students watch Santos lecture from the balcony at Woolsey Hall.

The course has made several students media stars.

Aunts, uncles, and cousins of Camilo Tamayo ’21 in Medellin, Colombia last month gathered around their televisions to watch the Yale first-year discuss the impact of the class on his life on NTN24, his native country’s version of CNN.

My parents in Florida watched too,” said Tamayo, who granted a second television and radio interview as well. “They were thrilled and proud and they wanted to know more about the class. I think there is just a general interest in this topic.”

Many students have appeared in front of national audiences on the “Today Show” and “NBC Nightly News” among others.

Perhaps no one was more surprised about media interest than Santos. As head of Silliman College, she came up with the idea for the class as she became aware of the mental health challenges of a few students living in the college and near-universal stress among the rest. She said she thought perhaps a few hundred students might enroll and that she was not prepared for the coming onslaught.

Laurie Santos lecturing at Woolsey Hall.

I was as blindsided by this as everybody else,” Santos said. “More and more emails just kept rolling in, not only from the press but from educators asking how they can show this to their high school or middle school students or from companies that want to make it available to employees.”

Why the interest?  Even the professor does not have an answer.

 “The class really hit a nerve, and I’m not totally sure why,” Santos said.

 “Everybody feels the culture of stress, people are working too hard, not prioritizing the right things,” Santos said. “I think a lot of people want to look to science for good answers and the class gave people a sense they could find those answers.”

Week after week, she continued to grant interviews to almost everyone who asked, while managing two dozen student teaching assistants, preparing lectures, and running both Silliman and her Canine Cognition lab.

Laurie Santos being interviewed in front of a cherry blossom tree.
Professor Laurie Santos

She noticed that while a desire for happiness was universal, the tools individuals used to get there varied — from ditching social media to writing gratitude journals or, like Tamayo did, reaching out to have lunch with somebody different every day for two weeks.

The student willingness to do the work made me aware of how powerful the class is,” she said.

It is doing the hard work, Santos said, that keeps the good life within grasp.

It sounds cheesy, but the class makes me happy,” she said.

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Media Contact

Bill Hathaway: william.hathaway@yale.edu, 203-432-1322