The most popular course in the history of Yale University is Professor Laurie Santos’ Psychology and the Good Life. Santos’ course has received coverage in the New York Times as enrollment swelled, and made the cover of New York by the semester’s end. It’s even possible to audit the course for free through Coursera, an online education platform.

25th College Reunion

As a Yale graduate who recently celebrated my 25th reunion on campus, I can attest that fostering well-being in such an intense environment is a daunting task. My initial reaction to teaching happiness at Yale? 😂 😂 😂 Those kids are screwed! As with the Buffalo’s perennially disappointing Sabres and Bills’ efforts to win championships, true, sustainable happiness remains elusive for many high-achieving, hyper-focused Yalies. Until Santos’ course, however, it wasn’t something people were talking about. It’s a dialogue that is long overdue.

Yale College Culture

In Yale college culture it can feel taboo to speak publicly in anything but glowing terms about our Bright College Years. Instead students and graduates alike, who check and re-check their privilege, often white-knuckle it and push through hard times by piling on more work and reaching for greater achievements. They likely indicate “everything is fine” and focus on the next academic or professional hoop to jump through.

Santos’ class teaches students about the tenets of positive psychology, and then, as a good therapist would, she finds ways for students to implement changes in behavior.

I’m a fan of positive psychology.

It’s an approach I draw on in my own life as well as in my work as a therapist who treats anxiety, depression, and most people’s innate negativity bias. I decided to use Santos’ basic principles to my 25th Reunion experience. After a quarter century away, could I return to campus and remain happy, or would I fall prey to the negative thinking that had, as a pesky stowaway might, invisibly, yet powerfully, matriculated with my younger self?

Work-Life Balance. I am very fortunate to have the autonomy to set my own hours. When the question of work-life balanced surfaced, many of my classmates had never stopped racing towards greater glory: political office (a public service which is much appreciated), book publication, or earning management consulting bonuses larger than my yearly income. In contrast, I had spent the past two and a half decades honing my free hours in ways that bring me joy: family dinners, concerts, gardening, or birding at Amherst State Park.

Purpose. I graduated without a plan for my future, envious of the budding doctors and lawyers whose life course had apparently been charted in the womb, I took a series of humbling jobs that didn’t test or stretch my abilities. I kept plugging away until I figured out what I liked and eventually found a career as a social worker that I love. I am no longer adrift. Noting that I have found a focus builds strong feelings of connections not only to my individual clients, but also to the larger community of helping professionals with whom I work.

Perspective. I don’t care if you work a job in the service industry or serve as a captain of industry, we are all basically the same. We want to find love, be seen and heard, and feel connected to those around us. It can be so tempting to think that the classmate who hasn’t aged, like at all, or who lives in Europe is so much better off than I am. Instead of falling under the spell of those unhelpful thoughts, I noticed that being on the campus again was fun for a weekend, but the intensity of the experience made me miss my home, my garden, and my cat. I like my life and I wanted to get back to it.

Basic Needs. I made an effort to practice behaviors that were likely to make me happy. According to New York, Santos refers to them as “rewirements” for her course. (Puns are, as I long suspected, also good at promoting happiness). I needed to set some physical and emotional limits for myself, or I’d be totally exhausted. I drank enough water. I got at least 7 hours of sleep per night, which meant I had to forgo the early classmate-led yoga. I accepted that I could not do everything. I missed a range of 9:00 am lectures by current professors, so I could eat breakfast with my family. I gave myself permission not to speak to every single person that I recognized because, as much as I loved chatting with old friends, I could not possibly have a meaningful catch-up with everyone in attendance. In contrast, other attendees might attempt to attend all lectures, even if it requires them to leave a tour of Wright Lab half-way through to catch most of the lecture on the science of good decision making. Next, they would embrace every scavenger hunt, museum tour and wine tasting with the same gusto they were famous for back in the Freshman entryway. The final step would be to post about all of it on social media using the appropriately sanctioned reunion hashtags.

Gratitude. Thank you to the reunion committee and class officers who deflected complaints with grace and tried to make everyone feel welcome. Thank you to my friends who woke up at 3:00 am, sat stalled for hours on Amtrak, or left their small children in care of relatives to attend the reunion. Thank you to the current students who worked the reunion and offered to take photos or answer questions. And a special thanks to my husband and children who fought off boredom, a dizzying array of introductions to people they will likely never see again, and subpar buffet lunches in order to support me.

Do you have a reunion or other big event coming up in the near future that you would like to attend but are struggling with self-doubt or worry? If you need to talk to a professional go ahead and call me. I’m here to help.

Photos of Pencils by Joanna Kosinska

Words of College Reunions by…

Emily K. Becker, LMSW

emily becker

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Trouble feeling joy or connection? Do you feel sad, tired, or even just numb? Would you like to learn new ways to cope with unhelpful thoughts and feelings, and remove the obstacles that stand between you and your goals?

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Emily strongly believes that it’s the strength of the relationship you will create together that generates meaningful change. She will fit the therapeutic model you choose, including cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy, to suit your needs. Emily strives to greet each session with a curious mind, an open heart, and a wish to hear your story.

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