Science of Happiness Explored in Online Course



“Coursera” is a platform for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. It offers hundreds of free courses from many top universities in the world, including Yale, Stanford, Princeton and University of Michigan. There are courses in many different subjects. Among them are courses on depression, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, medical neuroscience and meditation.

Coursera courses involve video lectures and repeatable quizzes. Most offer the opportunity to interact online with other participants, sharing questions and discussing covered topics; many include online readings and sometimes a project. Courses typically last 4–10 weeks. Most are at an introductory college level though some require background in the topic. Google Coursera to see a list of courses and how participants rate them.

The Science of Well-Being is a 10-week course taught by Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology and cognitive science. She created the course because she was concerned about the levels of student depression, anxiety and stress she was seeing. This course has become the most popular course at Yale University, and she is committed to sharing it more widely. No readings are required, though possibilities are mentioned for those who wish to dig more deeply.

The course has two goals: (1) teach about the science of happiness, and (2) change habits, which can change your life in a major way. This course reflects Dr. Santos’s synthesis of work in positive psychology and the science of behavior change.

She writes, “My goal was to present these scientific findings in a way that made it clear how this science could be applied in people’s daily lives.” There are several quizzes on the videos and a peer-reviewed assignment designed to help you apply the material you learn and share your experience trying to create a new habit with other participants.

Dr. Santos emphasizes that happiness can be learned. She talks about (1) misconceptions about happiness, (2) why our expectations are so bad, (3) what stuff really increases happiness, (4) strategies to reset our expectations, and (5) putting these strategies into practice. An interesting point is that happiness is not so much a matter of external happenings but rather is a matter of one’s internal state. You may win the lottery and become incredibly wealthy, but this produces only a temporary boost in mood. A year later and you’re no happier than before. Or you may become a paraplegic and go through a time of depression and adjustment, but you return to your former level of happiness.

She identifies evidence-based strategies of personal change that truly make a difference. But knowing the strategies is useless unless you apply them. Therefore, she assigns homework she calls “rewirements.”

Typically she assigns one or two rewirements each week to practice daily and record:

  1. Experience savoring. To savor something you step outside the experience to review and appreciate it. Savoring intensifies and lengthens the positive emotions that come with doing something you love. Pick something each day. Common techniques to enhance savoring are sharing the experience with another person, thinking about how lucky you are to enjoy such an amazing moment, keeping a photo of the activity, and staying in the present moment the entire time.
  2. Keep a daily gratitude journal. Every evening you list five things for which you are grateful, being mindful of the person or thing you’re grateful for.
  3. Practice seven random acts of kindness during the week beyond what you normally do. You might help someone, donate money to a cause you believe in, write a thank-you note, or say something kind to a stranger.
  4. Practice social connection. Studies show that even the simple act of speaking to a stranger on the street can boost our mood more than we expect. Once during the week spend an hour with someone you care about. At the end of the day make note of each social connection and notice how you feel.
  5. Exercise, important but often overlooked.
  6. Sleep, also important but often overlooked.
  7. Meditate, intentionally turning your attention away from distracting thoughts toward a single point of reference (e.g., your breath, bodily sensations, compassion, or a specific thought).
  8. Write a letter of appreciation. Research shows the final rewirement has a huge impact on your happiness and that of another. Write a heartfelt letter of gratitude to someone you care about or a thank-you to someone who has had a big impact on your life but whom you’ve never properly thanked — a letter of at least 300 words. It’s best if you actually visit this person and read the letter aloud, explaining how he or she has touched your life and has been meaningful to you. This is one of the most powerful things you can ever do to increase your own and another person’s happiness. It forges social bonds and really changes lives.

The course material is easy to understand. The real challenge is to put the principles into practice and build new habits. Really, it’s a kind of therapy that applies to everyone: people with mental illness, caregivers of people with mental illness, and the rest of us, whomever we may be.

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