A widely popular course at Yale University about the psychology of happiness has been retooled for teens. It teaches them how to better manage stress and feel happier as they navigate their high school years.
The free, six-week course, the Science of Well-Being for Teens, launched Jan. 16 on the online platform Coursera as short TikTok-length videos on the misconceptions about happiness; the behaviors, feelings and thoughts that lead to mental well-being; and how to obtain it. By Monday, more than 13,000 people had enrolled.
“We’re not taking care of our young people today if we’re not giving them strategies to navigate all the complex societal pressures that they face,” said Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University who taught the original happiness course and filmed the online version for teens. “We’re really letting our young people down.”
Responding to a teen mental health crisis
Therapists who treat youths say that they are seeing higher rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, isolation, self-injury and suicidal ideation. There is a critical need, they say, for better resources to help address the problem.
There seems to be “some decreases in health risk behaviors like substance use,” said Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association. “Those are still very concerning, of course, but we’re seeing a little bit more of an increase in what we call internalizing symptoms – some of these kinds of emotional distress types of symptoms.”
More than 37 percent of high school students reported poor mental health during the pandemic, according to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in the year leading up to the pandemic, 44 percent experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness; nearly 20 percent considered suicide; and 9 percent attempted suicide, the survey showed.
Teaching teens how to cope
“I think when people hear about classes about happiness, they think, ‘Oh, it’s another person telling teenagers they need to be happy all the time,'” Santos said.
Santos said negative emotions can be important signals that there may be a problem.
“But we need to know the appropriate ways to listen to them and to react to them,” she said, “so that we can understand the message that things like sadness or anxiety or anger might be sending and then channel them in an appropriate direction.”
The course for teens was born from Santos’s college course Psychology and the Good Life, which turned out to be the university’s largest class with more than 1,200 students enrolled in 2018. The next time it was taught on campus, in 2022, it was capped at 485 students because of the pandemic.
Also in 2018, a version of the course was released on Coursera, where more than 4 million people have enrolled in it. Santos was a co-author on a study that showed that people who took the online course experienced improved well-being.
Some teens enrolled in the online course for adults, Santos said. But she started receiving requests from parents to develop content focused on issues more relevant to younger learners.
Going about happiness in the wrong way
Santos filmed her lectures for her new course before a group of high school students in summer 2022, giving them the opportunity to engage in discussions and ask questions that students watching online may have, too. Here are some of the lessons found in the course:
Rethinking what happiness means: In the first section, Santos explains how the human mind lies to people about what will make them happy – a significant other, money, perfect grades, getting into the best colleges, social media. She says that oftentimes, these things will not make teens as happy as they think and may, in fact, distract from other things that could improve their mental well-being.
“A lot of teenagers are trying to be happy,” she said, “but sometimes they’re going about it the wrong way or putting effort into the wrong things.”
Becoming “other” oriented: The course focuses on things teens can do to feel happier – for example, making social connections, maintaining time affluence (a sense of free time) and being more “other” oriented than selfish, Santos said. She tells teens that one of the most important behaviors that can make them happier is doing nice things for others – volunteering their time, donating their money or other things, or even doing random acts of kindness such as opening a door for someone else.
Learning self-compassion: The course for teens goes beyond her course for college students. It teaches teens ways to change their thought processes to feel happier.
Teens learn, for instance, to tune out their inner critic, which may cause them to feel inferior and lead to self-sabotaging behaviors such as procrastination, and instead think in more self-compassionate ways.
Breaking anxiety cycles: Another section gives them tools to regulate their emotions, such as engaging the senses to break the cycle of anxiety.
“What are five things you can see right now? What are four things you can hear right now? What are three things you can feel right now?” Santos said. “The act of doing these exercises focuses your attention in a different way and can slow down that anxious voice in your head.”
Santos, who also hosts the Happiness Lab podcast, said, “The examples we use for adults can feel kind of far away from teenagers.” She said she developed this course to make teens feel that there are “pieces of advice and strategies that really matter for them in their lives now.”
The videos will be released on YouTube later, Santos said.
Mental health professionals who work with teens say such resources are vital, particularly now.
During a critical time for socialization, teens missed out on parties, homecoming dances and graduation ceremonies because of the pandemic. “The rites of passage for teenage-hood were disrupted,” said Mary Alvord, a psychologist and co-author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens.”
“If we can teach children and teens and adults to try to make changes to things they can control, they feel more empowered,” she said. “If they feel more empowered, they feel more in control of their life. And if they feel more in control of their life, they’re not feeling helpless. Then they don’t tend to be as depressed.”