Wellbeing and Mental Health

Yale University’s happiness course is now being taught in high schools

Old Campus at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut

Yale's course improved the students ability to weigh-up negative and positive emotions associated with life experiences. Image: REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin

Natalie Marchant
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  • Study at a Beijing high school showed that happiness lessons had positive outcomes among students.
  • In the US, ‘happiness professor’ Laurie Santos’s Psychology and the Good Life course will be rolled out to students in low-income high schools.
  • COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted mental health and wellbeing across the world, with young people particularly affected.

Lessons in happiness and wellbeing led to significant changes in positive attitudes in Chinese high school students, according to a study.

Students aged 15 to 16 at Beijing’s No 19 High School were given a one-semester course in happiness and wellbeing.

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The study reported significant changes in positive attitudes. The course also improved ‘affective balance’ – the ability to weigh-up negative and positive emotions associated with life experiences.

Measuring mental health in young people

Such improvements are to be welcomed in the light of a recent study by Sapien Labs, that recorded plunging levels of mental wellbeing in younger generations.

a chart showing mental health among younger people
A chart shows how mental wellbeing is declining among younger people. Image: Sapien Labs

The study measured mental wellbeing across various age groups in eight English speaking countries, including India, Singapore, the US and South Africa. Researchers developed a tool called the Mental Health Quotient that “measures a range of problems that map to symptom profiles across ten common mental health disorders as well as positive mental attributes to position people on a spectrum of mental wellbeing from Clinical to Thriving.”

The report found that, “a full 44% of respondents aged 18-24 years were Clinical or At risk of a clinical disorder compared to only 6% of those 65 and older. Such a profound difference in mental wellbeing must sound a loud alarm.”

Questioning what really makes us happy

While Beijing’s happiness courses are the latest to respond to those alarms, an earlier reaction to the mental health crisis in students came from one of the top Ivy League universities in the United States.

In 2018, Yale University professor Laurie Santos launched her Psychology and the Good Life course to address the increasing mental health needs of students. The course attracted more than 1,200 undergraduates in the first semester alone.

Speaking at the World Economic Annual Meeting in Davos in 2019, Santos discussed growing mental health concerns in universities, citing figures indicating that about 40% of college students were too depressed to function and 60% were overwhelmingly anxious.

To explain why, Santos said that students and others alike may simply be prioritizing things we think make us happy, such as money, instead of other facets of everyday life such as social interaction. “Simply put we’re seeking out the wrong kind of stuff,” she explained.

“What’s the thing that separates very happy people from not so happy people? The amount of time they spend with people they care about,” she added. “But it’s not just people you care about. It turns out that very short interactions with a stranger can improve our mood more than we expect.”


What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

It’s time to share the happiness

The course Santos designed will now be offered for free to over 550 low-income high school students across the US. Students will receive free college credits upon completion of the syllabus.

The programme – which was developed with the University of Connecticut and the National Education Equity Lab, with support from the Arthur M Blank Foundation – will be offered at more than 40 schools in 17 US cities, including Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York City.

“Our goal is to equip students with scientifically validated strategies for living a more satisfying life, while also creating opportunities for high-striving, low-income students and students of colour to demonstrate college-readiness,” said Santos.

3.4 million enrolled on online happiness course

‘Professor of happiness’ Santos also has a free online version called The Science of Wellbeing on the Coursera online learning platform. More than 3.4 million have enrolled since its launch in 2018.

The course teaches people to engage in a series of challenges to increase their own happiness and build more productive habits. Subjects include misconception about happiness, overcoming your own biases and what you can do to improve your happiness.

A recent study compared Santos’ course to a standard Yale Introduction to Psychology course, also offered on Coursera. Students who completed both found improvement in their sense of wellbeing, but those on the Santos course showed significantly higher wellbeing scores.

COVID-19 negatively impacted mental health

The global mental health crisis has been worsened by COVID-19, with the pandemic having a disproportionate impact on the young. A global survey of 15- to 24-year-olds conducted by the OECD discovered that the effects of the pandemic on mental health was their most challenging concern.

a chat showing mental health concern during the pandemic
Mental health was the top concern of global youth asked about the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: OECD

Efforts to tackle mental health crisis

Policymakers across the world have started implementing mental health awareness initiatives in recent years.

In England, it is now compulsory for schools to offer personal, social, health and economic education as part of the curriculum to enable pupils to develop knowledge, skills and attributes they need to keep themselves healthy, safe and prepared for life and work.

Policymakers and experts in the Canadian province of Quebec put together a toolkit to help manage the effect of COVID-19 in schools, which included solutions to help with grief management, sleep disorders and motivational difficulties.

Meanwhile, Berlin-based Linden Global Learning Support Services offers 1:1 counselling and mental health webinars, for both pupils and teachers, as part of their educational and therapeutic support offering for international students and schools across the world.

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