Many Happy Returns

W ell-being, both personal and societal, is on most of our minds of late. So it isn’t surprising that “The Science of Well-Being,” a 10-week online course offered by Yale professor of psychology Laurie Santos, has been popular recently. Just how popular, though, surprised even Santos, who has seen enrollment surge since the start of the pandemic—from 500,000 learners in the course’s first two years to more than 2.2 million total. “I think the increase stems from the fact that people are looking for things to do to protect their mental health during this crisis, and the class provides evidence-based interventions that anyone can use to feel happier,” Santos told me recently by email.

Anyone can take “The Science of Well-Being” on the online platform Coursera for free; participants who want to earn a certificate pay $49. In addition to recorded lectures, readings and assignments called “rewirements,” which students undertake on their own, a discussion forum allows participants to interact, ask questions and debate topics. Santos hosts occasional virtual office hours in which she answers the most “upvoted” questions. She’s also held live “Ask Me Anything” events on Reddit including the latest just yesterday, a day after the second season of her podcast The Happiness Lab launched.

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“The Science of Well-Being” covers just that—scientific findings on the “psychology of happiness.” But unlike theoretical courses, in which students may learn the science without applying it, this one requires action. That’s because, as students learn in Week One of the course, knowing something and doing it are two very different things. Santos’s own research labels this the “G.I. Joe Fallacy,” named for the character G.I. Joe, who ended every episode of a 1980s animated TV show with the saying, “Knowing is half the battle.” “Merely knowing something is not enough to actually change your behavior,” Santos tells students in the first lecture.

Having signed up for the course myself in order to see what it was all about, I was now convinced I needed to try the first week’s “rewirements” in order to get the most benefit. But first, I was instructed to take a couple of surveys. One, known as the PERMA Profiler (measuring Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment), established my baseline happiness so I could check it again at the end of the course and see whether it had improved. Another, from the VIA Institute on Character, helped me identify my “top strengths” out of 24 possibilities. (The lowest ones on my list, I was told, should not be thought of as weaknesses but “rather as strengths that are either underdeveloped, unrealized, not as valued as other strengths, or, at the least, less used…”) Armed with all this information, I printed out a worksheet that would help me track my progress for the week, during which I would attempt to use my top four strengths.

It was tempting to cheat and fill in the day’s circles with things I would have done anyway. After all, this week I was working from my strengths, so it wasn’t hard to come up with actions that matched them. But the assignment asked me to “try to use them in new ways every day.” Put that way, it seemed like a tall order. And what would happen, I wondered, when I was inevitably asked to use the “strengths” at the bottom of my list? (I wondered whether “hope,” at number 23, would have been so low on my list if I’d taken the survey pre-pandemic. “Zest” and “humor” were lingering down in that vicinity as well.)

Still, I resolved to give it a try. For three days, I did all right. I only managed to employ one strength each day, but the exercise did push me to intentionally do things I might otherwise have set aside or not even thought of doing. Then, on the fourth day, I lost my way and squandered the time I’d meant to use on my rewirement wandering through the corridors of Facebook instead. The fifth day wasn’t much better. I’m not sure I can really take credit for exercising my strength of “Love of Learning” by collecting free leeks from a neighbor, planting them and spending 10 minutes looking up information about them in a gardening book, but I wrote this down on my worksheet anyway. On the sixth day I rallied, and the seventh day was arguably my best. By the time I logged back into Coursera to listen to the lectures for Week Two, I knew I had a lot to learn and a lot of work to do.

Santos confesses she’s in the same boat. One of her main motivations for offering the class, originally titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” was a desire to improve her own well-being. “Teaching the class means that I need to practice what I preach,” she says, “so that class has had a big positive impact on my own happiness, too.” For example, she has consciously focused on taking time for gratitude, exercising, sleeping more and being more social.

Some of this may seem like a no-brainer. Who needs scientific research to tell you these things will make you happier? But part of “The Science of Well-Being” examines how bad we can be at predicting what will actually make us happy and just how happy it will make us (and, conversely, how unhappy the things we fear will make us). Even when we do know what will make us feel better, Santos says, we struggle to follow through. Understanding what will make us happy, how much control we have over it and how to exercise that control is a big part of what “The Science of Well-Being” is designed to help students accomplish.

This isn’t just speculation. Santos has been collecting data from Yale students on how well the actions taken in the course improve overall happiness and well-being. Preliminary data suggests about a one-point improvement on a ten-point scale of self-reported measures of happiness, Santos says, “which suggests that [the] class really has an effect if you put in the work.”

As for weathering the current pandemic, Santos says it’s too soon to tell how this experience might affect our overall sense of well-being. “My hope is that this crisis will cause people to appreciate things much more,” she says, “… [and] to notice so many things we were taking for granted before.”

“The Science of Well-Being” by Laurie Santos

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photo, featuring Laurie Santos, provided courtesy of Yale University.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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