It seems the topic of happiness—what it is and how to find it—is the current sujet du jour. Earlier this year I noted a newspaper article emanating from my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, where, at Yale University, the psychology department hopes to teach students, half of whom seek mental health counseling, “how to lead a happier, more satisfying life.” They found that “students want to change, to be happier themselves,” according to Laurie Santos, the professor who teaches the course, “Psychology and the Good Life,” which enrolls a quarter of all Yale students. I read about the free, online version of the class, titled “The Science of Well-Being” and, curious, decided to give it a try.
My first realization was that the course’s format, though comprising the usual lectures, homework, quizzes and evaluations, was decidedly different from that of the classes I recalled from the old days of the GI Bill. But while not designed for seniors like me, the course’s “takeaways” can find application in any life, young or old. Students are encouraged to meditate each day, to set aside time to concentrate on the blessings of the present, free of the jumble of anxiety and negativity that come with thoughts of the past and future. Participants are urged to become more aware of the gratitude they feel for the benefits they receive from others. The importance of adequate sleep and daily exercise is stressed. Enjoyable experiences, it’s instructed, should be savored. This non-exhaustive list of exercises, however, though perhaps painfully obvious, are much harder to put into practice. Our modern lives are ones of self-depletion rather than self-restoration. Good mental health requires time and discipline and a certain amount of selfishness.
To my readers I must confess I did not find what I sought from this academic experience. I had grand hopes that I could sit back in my easy chair and someone would effortlessly guide me towards that elusive state of nirvana. Turns out, it’s not a map you need at all, but the ability to recognize the satisfactions of your current vantage point.