Well-being for teens: A popular course gets a new spin for a new audience
The most popular course in Yale’s history is being revamped for a high school audience.
Five years after “Psychology and the Good Life” enrolled more than 1,000 Yale students — and its subsequent Coursera equivalent gained international recognition — Professor Laurie Santos is returning with a new online version of her innovative course, this time tailor-made for teenagers.
“The Science of Well-Being for Teens,” which launches on Coursera on Jan. 16, will build on both of Santos’ previous courses, teaching students critical strategies for improving mental health and mindfulness. With this new class, she hopes to adapt the evidence-based strategies from her past teaching to hone in on the specific and significant mental health challenges facing teenagers today like college applications, social relationship stresses, and family conflict.
“There are so many cultural forces pushing young people away from taking care of their mental health,” said Santos, the Chandrika and Ranjan Tandon Professor of Psychology. “There are all these cultural messages that say you have to be perfect when it comes to academics, [that] you have to avoid your negative emotions and be happy all the time, [or that] you have to present yourself in this really specific performative light on social media and so on.”
These societal pressures that Santos describes have led to 37% of U.S. high school students reporting regular mental health struggles over the course of the pandemic, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center. The U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has similarly called for better resources to address the current youth mental health crisis. With this backdrop, Santos hopes her course will be “a bit of an antidote” to the many forces that are making it difficult for young people to take care of their mental health.
“The hope is that we can give students skills to push back in the right direction [and] actually get some strategies to fight back against some of those pressures, whether they be academic pressures or social pressures or cultural pressures,” said Santos.
After teaching the original Yale class and launching the original online equivalent “The Science of Well-Being” on Coursera in 2018, Santos was inundated with requests from parents, teachers, and teenagers themselves asking for content more specific to high schoolers. While Santos did create a “Psychology and the Good Life” curriculum for high school instructors to use, an online version specifically addressing the mental health challenges facing teenagers was always the eventual goal.
With this new course, Santos wants to better speak to the mental health barriers that high schoolers face by moving away from some of the broader content of the original Yale class like improved financial management, career success, and marriage and relationships — topics that Santos admits “feel pretty far away for high school students.”
“We added a lot more of content around developing better self-talk, gaining more self-compassion, talking to yourself in ways that are a more productive, and better dealing with rumination and anxiety,” Santos said.
This newest Coursera class, jointly created with Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, also features a live discussion component, with Santos filming the lectures last summer in front of a live audience of high school students who were on Yale’s campus for summer programs. By structuring her online course like an in-person lecture, Santos hopes to better address potential questions that online students may have.
“[In this new course], we actually have teenagers who are listening to the content and asking their questions,” Santos said. “You, as a teenager, can see that discussion play out live in real time. And I think that that’s really powerful if you can see your peers and how they’re engaging with the material and the kinds of takeaways that they’re getting from it.”
Beyond live discussion, Santos is further embracing the online nature of this new course, adapting the material into TikTok-length shorts that will be released on YouTube as a way to broaden the course’s reach and help a new generation of students better access the course’s critical mindfulness strategies. In what she calls a “bottom-up” approach, Santos hopes that publicly distilling information in short-form videos will allow for teenagers, parents, and educators to independently find the material and engage with it in their own way.
The name recognition and influence of the university itself is also critical for outreach, says Santos.
“So many high school students, just because of the nature of what Yale is and what high school students are thinking about, are paying attention to [the university],” Santos explained. “I think there’s a real power for this content to be coming out from Yale. This is a unique thing that Yale can do.”
For Santos, raising greater awareness and expanding the science of wellbeing to different communities is a critical goal, with teenagers as just a starting point. Coursework tailor-made for parents and specialized content for young children are already in development, according to Santos.
“We all are working on feeling happier and working on helping the people we care about feel happier,” Santos said. “We don’t always know the best ways to do it, and so arming people with these evidence-based strategies can really be helpful for making people feel better and helping them allow the people they love to feel better too.”