I am not the happiest person. Some have described my comportment as curmudgeonly. Others characterize me as a fatalist or downright pessimistic. So when I read that students in Bruce Hood’s “Science of Happiness” course at the University of Bristol were actually faring better during the pandemic than other college students, I was intrigued. Is it really possible to teach happiness—in virtual classroom sessions, and during a widespread public health crisis, no less?
A moment of optimism seized me. Goodbye, blue Mondays! But Hood, a professor of developmental psychology, swiftly tamped that down. “The concept of achieving unremitting happiness is crazy,” he says. In order to register a positive emotion, you have to know what those less pleasant feelings are like: “You need to experience both sides of the coin.”
Still, a growing body of evidence suggests that while we might not be able to achieve constant euphoria, improving our sense of well-being and satisfaction is possible. And, as Hood and his coauthors report in an article published in February in PLoS One, these interventions can also be delivered to thousands of students online and be just as effective as the in-person classes Hood started teaching in 2019, before the pandemic.
“These courses are having small effects, but significant effects,” says Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale and a coauthor on the study. She is a former student of Hood’s, and she’s the one who came up with the concept for the class. She started teaching her version at Yale in 2018. Called “Psychology and the Good Life,” it’s the most popular class in the school’s history, enrolling more than 1,000 students at a time. Hood decided to try something similar following a disturbing spate of student suicides at Bristol and began offering his version the next year.
These courses don’t teach happiness, per se. Instead, the researchers look at the concept of “positive psychology,” defined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 2000. Rather than treating feelings like depression or anxiety, positive psychology focuses on how to cultivate a sense of satisfaction and purpose in life. Hedonic happiness, which is tied to experiencing pleasurable emotions and sensations, is transitory and ultimately elusive, says Hood. But eudaimonic happiness, which comes from focusing on the value of one’s actions, is more beneficial in the long term. “The approach is to try and direct your attention toward the well-being of others, and that happiness will be the payoff from doing that,” says Hood.
In Hood’s version of the class, which is described in the study, students watched prerecorded lectures that covered different approaches to happiness; the importance of sleep; how journaling, meditation, and exercise can boost well-being; and the negative mental health effects of comparing yourself to others’ seemingly perfect lives on social media. Students also took part in live, online classes to discuss these topics and gathered in smaller, peer-led “happiness hubs,” where they could test out positive psychology techniques. As part of the course, they tried striking up a conversation with a stranger or volunteering. They also recorded their experiences in online journals, writing about why the interventions did or didn’t work for them, and about goals, strengths, and good things that happened to them throughout the week.
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In lectures and class discussions, Hood encourages students to be less afraid of failing and to try new, challenging courses. He also stresses that they should think critically about what they want in life and why. “We tend to live life on autopilot,” says Hood. “Courses like this get you to introspect.”
More than 1,000 students took the 11-week class, and the researchers surveyed them three times: at the semester’s beginning in October 2020, at its end in December, and at the beginning of the next one in February 2021. At each point, students answered questions from the Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale, which asks whether the taker feels useful, connected to others, and optimistic about the future. They also filled out the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Questionnaire and ranked themselves on the Subjective Happiness Scale, which asks the user to rate their happiness and how they perceive their level of happiness compared to others.
The team then compared those results to responses from over 200 students who had signed up for the waiting list but had yet to take the class. They found that, on average, although everyone started out reporting similar levels of happiness, at the end of the class, the students had averaged an increase of nearly a point on a 35-point scale, while the happiness of the wait-listed control group had dropped by about 1.5 points. Students in the class reported fairly constant levels of anxiety before, during, and after the class, but the wait-listed students’ anxiety rose nearly 1.5 points on a 21-point scale over the semester.
The researchers also compared these responses to those of students who took the same class before the pandemic. Although pandemic-era students came into the class with higher levels of anxiety, they also averaged greater improvements in happiness over the control group than occurred in non-pandemic years. The authors suggest this shows that not only is the course effective online, but that it’s useful during an unprecedented global mental health crisis.
Hood and Santos note that the average gains are small but reliable. “We're not radically turning people into the happiest clowns on the street,” says Hood. But he points out that the two of them have taught these courses to thousands of students since 2018, and every time, students report an increase in well-being. “Even though you may not transform somebody into the happiest person in the world, the pursuit of it is still a valuable thing to do,” he says.
Tools like meditation can’t solve clinical depression, but they can still help people, says Santos. “Even in a culture of academic stress, we’re showing that we can make a difference in students’ well-being by teaching them appropriate strategies,” she says. “I think the cool thing about studies like this is it shows that we might be able to share these strategies at scale.” Santos is already offering her class for free through the online teaching platform Coursera. In 2021, she reported similarly successful results among more than 1,200 adult participants.
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Linda Boiler, who researches public mental health at the Trimbos Institute in the Netherlands and was not involved in this study, compares well-being to a vaccine that can protect people when they run into tough situations. “Maybe we shouldn’t aim for ‘happy’ all the time,” she says. “It’s more fruitful to equip people with the skills and the tools to make their minds healthy and to cope with the challenges they meet and the problems that they have.”
Boiler says that because online courses can reach thousands, they can have a big effect on society, even if the effects on individuals are small. “You still can have a public mental health impact because on the whole population, the whole well-being is improved a little bit,” she says. But, she points out, online classes often don’t reach the elderly, who can be prone to isolation, or economically disadvantaged groups who may not have the time or money for school, or people who can’t easily access online platforms.
For those who do sign up, there’s also the problem of maintaining momentum. In Hood’s class, students received course credit. But in the real world, there’s little incentive to keep people engaged. Low course completion is a pervasive problem; some studies suggest under 10 percent of students who enroll in online courses finish them.
To date, enrollment for Santos’s Coursera class tops 3.8 million, but in the paper documenting its effectiveness, she and her colleagues note that thousands of participants couldn’t be included in their results because they didn’t complete the course, didn’t finish the surveys, or rushed through the class so quickly the researchers determined they couldn’t have completed the assignments properly.
It’s also not clear how long the benefits of these classes last. As with eating healthy or exercising, it can be hard to keep up good mental health habits. Boiler says that as people routinize practices like writing down things they’re grateful for, it gets easier to keep going. For most participants, however, Hood suspects that the gains will slowly fade. “I do think that for some people it is life-changing,” he says. “But overall, I would imagine most people will go back to their baselines.”
Introducing these concepts at an earlier age could help, he suggests, as would including them in continuing education courses required for professionals, like doctors, pilots, and lawyers. Santos is already working on a class for middle and high school students.
Hood counts himself among the adults whose lives have been changed by happiness classes. He was, he admits, initially a skeptic. “When I heard about this, I thought, ‘Aw, come on, you’ve got to be kidding me,’” he says. “But it does work.”
Practicing what he teaches has made Hood feel less competitive. He meditates, something he never dreamed of doing before. But, he says, “It's the data which convinced me. The fact that we've done it repeatedly each time with a variety of different cohorts suggests that there is something to this.”
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