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Want to learn how to live a happy life? There's now a class for that

Nearly a quarter of Yale University undergraduates signed up for a class on how to live a happier life in 2018. Now, a similar course is coming to Duke. 

Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale, drew 1,200 students to register for her course Psychology and the Good Life. 

For the 2019 spring semester, Bridgette Martin Hard, associate of professor of the practice of psychology and neuroscience, was inspired to construct a similar class in the form of a first-year seminar, the Psychology of Student Success.

“We are thinking about how to help students live their best lives,” Hard said. “We try to build a bit more on students’ more immediate needs and how to live their best lives over the rest of the year and in the rest of your time at Duke.” 

Hard taught an introductory psychology class at Stanford University before recently coming to Duke. This academic year marked the tenth year she has instructed an introductory psychology course. Hard, though, wanted more than teaching a beginning lecture in psychology. 

A “long-time fan of first-year seminars,” Hard wanted students to encounter some of the more difficult questions in life that she feels aren't directly answered in any mainstream college courses, such as what psychology can teach us about being a good friend or how to achieve academic success at college. Hard feels a personal connection to the trials and tribulations of her students. 

“I’m a human being, and I’ve been a college student, and I’ve been a college freshman, so I have experienced all of these things we’re talking about in class,” Hard said. “In fact, my first year of college was a really stressful experience. I was very anxious and unsure of myself.” 

After Hard initially drafted the proposal for the course, Rick Hoyle, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of undergraduate studies, contacted senior Sabriyya Pate in April 2018 to enlist her help in formulating the course. 

Pate’s experience as a Duke student informed the framework of class activities. Discussions about belonging and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs incorporated Pate’s understanding of Greek life, selective living groups and independent housing. 

“I can draw experiences from having interacted with the highest level of institutions down to my own experiences when I was a freshman—the things I wish I had known,” Pate said. 

She also advised for the course to have a tenting simulation as another activity aimed at learning time management skills. 

Hard’s course also teaches students how to apply their knowledge of happiness to moments where the feeling may be absent. For instance, the class read research regarding how stress can improve performance, academic and otherwise. Last week, the class explored emotional regulation—how to handle getting bad grades back, getting rejected and so on. 

Positive psychology, the relevant branch of psychology to Hard’s course, was the foundation of the original happiness course at Yale. Hard said that positive psychology underscores the importance of developing well-being in everyone’s lives—not just those whose psychology has gone awry. 

First-year student Malorie Lipstein said she appreciates the variety of content the seminar investigates. 

“I’m happy to do the readings and all the assignments," said first-year Malorie Lipstein. "All of the class discussions are very well-rounded, and people feel comfortable to speak.” 

Hard’s course will be taught again, though Hard will not instruct it herself next year. Hard predicts that the class' size will grow, though she feels a lecture-style instruction would damage the integrity of the individualized discussions. She foresees a slightly larger course with 30 to 40 students, comprised of a mix of lecture and active learning. 

Hard does plan on teaching Psychology of Student Success sometime in the future, and surely many students plan on taking it, even if the course strays off the beaten path. But it’s the unorthodox character of the course that grants it its attractive quality. 

“We get to talk about things students just never get any experience talking about,” Hard said. “I love that.”