Can happiness really be taught through virtual classroom sessions — even during a pandemic?
Bruce Hood, a professor of developmental psychology, launched his tutorial on “Psychology and the Good Life” a few years ago when the number of suicides among Bristol students rose. The success came as a surprise: it has become the most popular course in the history of the university, with more than a thousand students wishing to attend it today.
These courses alone do not teach happiness, researchers focus more on “positive psychology,” defined in 2000 by psychologist Mihaly Chiksentmihalyi. According to this, they do not treat depression or anxiety, but rather focus on satisfaction and achieving a life purpose. Complete, continual happiness is elusive, Hood says, but satisfaction focused on the results of actions and keeping the well-being of others in mind can truly cause lasting happiness.
Hood’s online lessons during quarantine were as effective as the materials he provided with traditional education. He says the secret to success is that he encourages his students not to pursue persistent, unrealistic happiness, but general satisfaction, and he also stresses the importance of experiencing negative as well as positive emotions.
The course resulted in a study in which Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University, worked with her former teacher, Hood, to record the method used in the class in which he attended the happiness course. Students watched pre-recorded lectures discussing different approaches to happiness. These included the importance of sleep, improved well-being (through meditation, journaling, and sports) and the negative effects of social media. As part of the course, students try to start a conversation with a stranger or volunteer. In the lectures, Hood encouraged students not to be afraid of failure and to try new challenging things that would lead to better self-awareness.
More than 1,000 students participated in the education described in the 11-week study, with researchers measuring their psychological development three times, once at the beginning of the 2020 semester, at the end of the semester, and then in February 2021. The questions were whether he felt useful and connected. With others and optimistic about the future. They also completed a general anxiety questionnaire and rated themselves on the subjective happiness scale, in which they should rate their happiness and satisfaction with others.
Santos and Hood then compared these results to the responses of more than 200 young adults who had not yet attended class. They found that although everyone initially reported a similar level of happiness, at the end of the semester, students in the happiness course had an average increase of nearly one point, while the happiness of the outgroup decreased by 1.5 points. The same result was observed when measuring anxiety.
Since 2018, the courses have been taught to thousands of students, and students have reported an increase in satisfaction each time. But unfortunately not everyone continues, the dropout rate is high, even with students receiving credit in Hood’s class. If someone were to take a happiness course from home (the number of applicants for online happiness course Laurie Santos is over 3.8 million today), there is a good chance they will stop and go back to their old habits. Instead of pursuing constant happiness, it may be enough to master the practices that can make us spiritually healthier and stronger.
(Cover image: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)