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Yale University's Online 'Happiness Course' is Ever So Popular, Two Years Into the Pandemic

'The Science of Well-Being,' a Yale University course made available online, free of cost, has seen an enrollment spike by 3,000% ever since the start of the pandemic. 

Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at the acclaimed, highly-competitive ivy league university, began teaching the 'Science of Well-Being' course after she witnessed the severity of depression, anxiety, and stress her students were facing. Formerly teaching 'Psychology 157: Psychology and the Good Life,' in March 2018 she made the happiness course available online via Coursera. 

The free course saw a 3000 per cent spike in enrollment ever since the beginning of the pandemic. "I do think people wanted to do more to protect their happiness during the pandemic. I think people were getting great evidence-based advice about how to protect their physical health—mask up, socially distance, get a vaccine—but people were struggling with what to do to protect their mental health. The class provided evidence-based advice for improving well-being," Laurie told The Hill

The 10-week course includes science-based examinations of well-being, contrasted with the common misconceptions about happiness. The students learn to develop and implement strategies to increase their well-being and are given 'happiness-boosting challenges' as homework. "In class, people learn about a lot of strategies that help navigate the mental health hit that comes from life during Omicron. For example, you'll hear about ways to boost your social connection even if you can't get together in person," she adds. 

In April 2019, Santos had 22,522 new enrollments. But in April 2020, as the pandemic started to take off, the class saw 860,494 new enrollments—and it only continued to skyrocket. So far, more than 3.7 million people have enrolled in the online class, which is also being taught in-person for the second time this semester. Anyone can audit the course for free and further pay $49 to complete assignments, submit them for a grade, and earn a certificate of completion.

"All of us want to be happier. The problem is that we have a lot of misconceptions about what really will make us happy. We think we need to change our circumstances in major ways, but often simply behavioural and mindset changes can make a big difference in our sense of well-being," Laurie Santos said. "I've personally become a lot happier as a result of teaching the class. It's given me a lot more meaning and purpose, but it also means I need to practice what I preach and make sure I'm putting in the time to focus on my own well-being," she added. 

The course focuses on understanding and letting go of all the superficial notions of happiness, such as the idea that a better job, fancier house, or a new relationship is the next step closer to happiness. Some of the course assignments include deleting social media accounts, daily meditation, keeping a gratitude journal, and investing time with loved ones. Homework assignments include exercise and sleep, engaging in more social connection and random acts of kindness, taking time to savour and experience more gratitude, and mindfulness.

An intervention study by Santos and four other researchers analysing the impact of her class concluded that taking the class allows people to show a significant improvement on a standard happiness scale, exhibiting about a one-point increase on the 10-point. "The present study demonstrated that well-being can be enhanced by taking a large-scale, free online course. These results suggest that individuals who are exposed to academic content on the science of well-being and who engage in evidence-based practices can indeed increase their subjective well-being. It could also impact mental health at large scales, and thus, could become an important tool for public health initiatives aimed at improving population-wide mental health outcomes."