Can today’s students, having grown up in this fast-paced, digital world, inundated by content capped at 60 seconds, learn to slow down? At The Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts, Jen Hamilton arranged for her high schoolers to try with the help of “savoring stations,” including sweet treats, rich smelling oils, a bucket of water beads and a lava lamp with green and blue floating goo. As the kids drifted between stops, Hamilton asked them to consider the last time they’d savored a meal. “You ever notice that when you’re on your phone, all of a sudden the food is gone?”
Hamilton is the director of counseling at The Noble and Greenough School, or Nobles, a private high school in suburban Boston, and the students are in a course called “Psychology and the Good Life,” which she co-teaches with Dr. LaTasha Sarpy. The class may sound familiar, given it’s a junior version of one by the same name made famous by professor Laurie Santos—the most popular class in the history of Yale University. The savoring stations were Hamilton and Sarpy’s idea but the rest of their curriculum tracks closely to the lectures Santos designed to teach her Ivy League undergraduates “a set of scientifically-validated strategies for living a more satisfying life.” More recently, teachers like Hamilton and Sarpy have set out to find whether this approach can work for high schoolers, many of whom are a mirror image of the Yale students’ younger selves.
Santos is strongly behind the idea. “When we first developed a course at Yale, it went viral on campus, and when we started getting press attention, I kept hearing from parents and educators who said, ‘This is so great that you have a class for college students, but I wish we could get something for students who [are] younger.’ So even when I first taught the class back in 2018, I was already thinking of ways that we could develop this content for younger learners.”
Nearly 1,200 students gravitated to Santos' class at Yale during its first semester in 2018 for the opportunity to learn what really makes humans happy, as opposed to what they think will make them happy, and how to apply that knowledge to better themselves and their communities. Its popularity is encouraging while also reflecting the unrelenting desire for today’s college students to “feel better.” In 2020-2021, the Healthy Minds Study found more than 60% of college students met criteria for one or more mental health problems—a 50% increase since 2013. Wary of increasing demand for psychological services, experts have emphasized the importance of preventing mental health problems before they come up, rather than only confronting them after the fact. Perhaps, pioneer professors like Santos considered, teaching students how to build healthy habits that stave off larger emotional problems could do just that.
As for the high school setting, Hamilton, too, is on the cutting edge. The seasoned counselor, going on 22 years at Nobles, was one of the first to work with Santos to bring her lessons to high schoolers, who, like their college peers, need significant mental health support. According to the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than four in ten high school students (42%) reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless, while more than one in five (22%) reported considering suicide, and one in ten (10%) attempted suicide. Sixty percent of women and 70% of LGBTQ+ students also reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless. A quarter of women reported making a suicide plan and a quarter of the LGBTQ+ sample reported attempting suicide.
Still, the fate of wellness curricula in high school remains to be sealed. Teaching the material to teens touts the appeal of starting mental health detection and prevention sooner. Plus, the structured nature of high school means these classes stand to have a more comprehensive reach, as opposed to the opt-in basis of many college interventions. Could Santos and Hamilton’s work be a model for secondary schools interested in cultivating wellbeing for students before their next stage of life, whether in college or elsewhere? The question of scalability seems to hinge on not only the outcome of classes like Hamilton’s but the logistical feasibility of finding the resources they require—outside the gates of the nation’s most elite institutions.
In January, 2018, Hamilton learned about “Psychology and the Good Life” with much of the rest of the world—from a feature in The New York Times. The article described the course’s unprecedented influence, surprising even Santos, who began to wonder whether the entire campus wasn’t on the brink of a wellness reformation. “With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits–things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections–we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture,” she told The Times about three weeks after the class made its astounding debut. Then, a promising teaser: Santos revealed she would be releasing a pre-recorded, seminar-style version of the content, called “The Science of Well-Being,” through the online course provider Coursera.
Hamilton was hooked. “I was really intrigued reading the article that a course like this is even being taught,” she said. “So I just kind of kept watching Coursera, watching Coursera, and when it was available, I immediately took it.” After she completed the online offering, released in March, 2018, the Nobles counselor couldn’t stop thinking about the content and, in applying it to her own life, experienced first-hand the “huge difference” she said it can make for personal happiness. When she reached out to Santos to inquire about a version of the material tailored to high schoolers, she never expected to hear back. Santos responded right away, explaining she planned to develop a course for younger learners but hadn’t yet had the chance.
“We actually received a grant to do that at the end of 2019 and we were planning to film that new class in the summer of 2020,” Santos said. “We all know what happened then, unfortunately.” Santos would eventually be able to release “The Science of Well-Being for Teens,” a high school version of her adult course, on Coursera in early 2023.
Hamilton felt the content was too valuable to shelve for future use. With the support of Santos and her team, she set out to preserve the key tenets of their original class, while adding her own flair. An elective for seniors and the occasional juniors, the Nobles class started meeting three times per week in the fall of 2019. Students watch and discuss the Yale lectures in class or watch them for homework and come into class to discuss and engage in practical activities. They focus on a number of scientifically-backed techniques, which Santos calls “rewirements,” to “rewire” their brains and help them feel happier. They receive a dynamic “toolkit” for not only dealing with life’s lows but appreciating its highs, Hamilton said. “It's Psychology and the Good Life—how to enjoy the good life when it's good, instead of just kind of being a zombie and marching through your life without paying attention.”
Despite being designed for a college audience, the bulk of the original material didn’t need to change. High school students, like college students, tend to stress about factors like academics, social life, and the future, Santos said, so their wellness needs end up being aligned. One of the ways the content may be particularly helpful for younger learners, however, is by addressing their tendencies toward self-criticism. “Their thought patterns are filled with rumination and worry,” Santos said. “And so what we've seen is that a lot of the high schoolers who've taken the class that we've talked with say that the part of the class that's really on changing your thought patterns was most beneficial to them. I think this is a set of skills that all high schoolers really need and that they've really appreciated.”
“We focus on this in the college class, but we really wanted to give even more strategies to high school students that they could use in the trenches to really regulate their emotions and change their thought patterns from being more self-critical to more self-compassionate or more sort of scattered and taken up with technology to being a little more present,” she added.
Its ability to target self-critical thinking is also one of the main reasons Hamilton saw a future for the course at Nobles. At the prestigious prep school, where tuition exceeds $60,000 and almost a third of seniors matriculate at the Ivy League, perfectionism abounds. “I think about Nobles kids as being very similar in profile to kids that end up going to Yale,” Hamilton said. “They're very, very high achieving. At times, they don't know how to take their foot off the gas.” Hamilton said she often witnesses her students in a perpetual cycle of working intensely towards a goal, convinced they’ll be happy when they reach it. When the satisfaction ends up being fleeting, they start work toward the next promising thing. “What they've been doing is practicing being miserable.” She tells her students that taking care of their wellbeing doesn’t make them weak but can actually help them perform at their highest level.
It didn’t take long for Hamilton’s course to become popular, much like at Yale. After the first semester, a waitlist to enroll formed for the next one. Many of the students in her current class said they wanted to participate after hearing positive reviews from former students. “When we’re in a pressured situation and we have so much going on, we don’t really get to reflect and think about our mental health,” said Brian, who took the class in the spring of 2023. As a senior, he found the lessons particularly helpful for tackling some of the stressors that come with reaching the end of high school. “In this class, we learn that certain things don’t give you long term happiness, like the car you get or getting into the college of your dreams. I feel like that’s super helpful to learn, especially at this time where kids are getting accepted or not accepted into where they want to go.”
Beyond the content, the class meetings themselves can provide welcome relief to students typically stressed by school activities. “We’re still learning science-y things but in a different way,” another student in the Class of 2023 said of the “break” the class offered her during a demanding senior spring. On the day of the savoring stations, almost no one brought their backpacks into the classroom. They started the session as usual, with meditation, this time set to a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” After some self-conscious giggles, they settled into the song and eventually the rest of the class, chatting and relaxed. Hamilton traveled the room, surveying, but also engaging. She’s the kind of teacher that doesn’t need to try to form connections with students—she just does, one of her former students said. She asked students about the sports they were playing that season and whether they had attended their future colleges’ admitted students day. At times, she opened up about her own life and answered questions about her family.
“Jen Hamilton has been such an ally in this quest to make sure we can help high school students get the right strategies that they can use to get more resilient and feel better,” Santos said. “The program she's been able to develop at Nobles is so comprehensive. It really allows students to not only learn the scientific content that we teach in the class, but to really put it into practice in an excellent way.”
Young people get out of the class what they put in, Hamilton believes. “I say to kids, ‘If you're taking this class because you think it's going to be easy, it could be,’ but it also could be the hardest class you're ever going to take because we're really asking you to change your behavior,’” she said. For their final assignment, called the “Hack Yourself Project,” students choose a different wellness “hack” or habit and apply it to their own life. After tracking the hack’s impact on their happiness through weekly evaluations, they write a final paper on their findings and present it to the class. In Brian’s class, he said almost everyone recorded positive results.
Hamilton will be teaching the material as a required course for all 11th graders at the start of the 2023-2024 school year. In contrast to the senior elective she’s offered thus far, the junior class will meet once per week without homework. She called the opportunity to extend the reach of this content within her own campus “a dream.” Her hope for the future is that other educators investigate the Coursera offering and take it for themselves. “Even if you're not going to teach it at your school, if you take it, you'll probably incorporate a lot of these different techniques into your own life, which will make you a better teacher, first of all, but then you'll also probably want to use a lot of them in the classroom.”
“I think in schools often we think, ‘Oh, this stuff is too soft. We really have to just focus on being rigorous with our academics and help our kids get to the next highest thing that they want to achieve,’” Hamilton said. “But I really think that if a school cares about their students and their students’ achievement, then they have to care about their wellbeing.”
“And if they care about their wellbeing, then they have to be willing to devote some time to it.”