Can Happiness Courses Really Make You Happier?

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When Krysta signed up for the UC Berkeley course The Science of Happiness, she didn’t know what to expect. The closest thing she’d done before was a personal development boot camp that had a bit of positive psychology thrown in. But after grappling with a fundamental disagreement in her marriage, she says the course was influential in her decision to get a divorce.

“There were two points that helped,” she recalls. “One about predictors of divorce, and another point about the happiness of couples with kids and without. Both groups have the same overall happiness, but couples without children had fewer ups and downs.

“The crux of our issue was that I changed my mind about wanting children due to health concerns,” she says. “I used to be able to talk to him about anything that was bothering me. But this was such a conflict of interest that I could not lean on him for support.”

Instead of turning to self-help books or YouTube, thousands like Krysta have attended online courses to get back to basics on key emotional skills. There might be thousands across America contemplating divorce right now, but there are just as many dedicating hours to learning about the evidence around how to live well.

Learn techniques for free, anywhere

Emiliana Simon-Thomas co-designed and runs the free online Science of Happiness course that Krysta took back in 2014, the year it launched. The course, which runs on EdX, summarises the latest evidence for a range of practices (gratitude, self-compassion, finding ‘flow’) over a ten-week period.

She says she’s been practicing the mindfulness, forgiveness, and reconciliation tips from the course during lockdown. “I am very deliberate about exercising my muscles of apology, and forgiveness,” she says. “And I don’t have a really strict, formal, like 45-minute, ‘sitting on a cushion with a candle in front of me’ practice but I make a point of being aware of what’s going on in my mind and body throughout the day.”

“In the beginning we were very surprised,” Simon-Thomas says. “It’s been very validating for me honestly at a personal level. It’s provided me with a strong sense of meaning in my work. I’m still flabbergasted by it.” To date 600,000 people have signed up, and in April daily sign-ups tripled.

“Part of it is a little sobering because it makes me realise the need,” she explains, “and how badly people are looking for support, help, and insight in terms of where their happiness comes from. People’s lives are changing.”

Commit to practicing new skills

Another popular course looking at the evidence for happiness is Yale’s Science of Well-Being course. Launched free online in 2018, it has since been taken by over two million people. Laurie Santos says its popularity has felt “a little surreal, honestly.”

Free online access to the course, and the evidence basis, were both essential to Santos: “I wanted anyone to be able to learn this content for free. And the focus on scientifically-based evidence was critical. I’m a scientist myself, so I didn’t want to give people platitudes.”

When we email for this article, she explains that she’s trying to practice what she preaches. At first I get her away message, explaining that she’s cutting down on time spent on emails, and giving an FAQ. Now developing a new version of the class for younger learners, Santos also works on the Happiness Lab podcast and still needs time to check in with her students.

“The main way I’ve protected myself is to say no a lot and do more to protect my time so I have space for friends, family, students, and the people I love. But it’s hard,” she adds, “and it takes work.”

Remember what you already know

Unlike Krysta, Nicola (an expat who recently moved to the US) had already made her life-changing decisions before doing The Science of Wellbeing. Last summer she left her job in the UK, moved country and married. She found she needed a little extra support to cope.

“Even though it’s been great, there were a lot of different things to juggle: missing family and friends, not having a regular job, settling into a new relationship, getting married and navigating a new country. I underestimated how much fallout there was going to be from all of this change,” she says. “I’m quite a resilient person, I can generally cope with change quite well. But there were a few moments where I was a bit emotional.”

Nicola had previously completed yoga teacher training, so she was already familiar with some of the course content. What she really appreciated, she says, was the structure and commitment of the course: “A lot of the tools I knew already and had practiced. It shone a light on those things and was like: ‘OK, you know how to do these things, so work through them.’” She has now completed the Yale course, and recently found a new job.

Improve lockdown communications

2020 was the year most of us learned the true meaning of ‘cabin fever’. For Professor Jay Buckey, an astronaut and doctor, it was the perfect time to open the PATH program to the public, for free. PATH and its sister, Expedition-APPP, are designed as training programs for astronauts. They cover conflict resolution, stress management and improving mood.

“I was really surprised about how international it became,” Prof. Buckey recalls. “We had people coming in from Poland, Brazil, a lot of English-speaking countries – Australia, New Zealand, the UK. I guess a lot of problems are the same everywhere.”

Given its popularity in lockdown, Prof. Buckey and his team are hoping to make the program more modular–more “pick and choose”–and to introduce “refresher”’ sessions for returning learners who want to brush up, rather than repeat.

John moved in with his partner during lockdown and says he and his partner “never really fought at all” before. He says techniques from PATH (namely Fair Fighting) helped reduce the intensity of fights, and time it takes to get back to normal.

Although he sometimes found he advice aimed more at teams, he found the advice helpful: “I’ve used a lot of the resources to try to ensure that fights with my partner, with whom I’ve moved in with due to the pandemic in much-too-small quarters, do not escalate and that we resolve them fairly.” He adds that he’s also found the de-escalation techniques useful when police have been called to a neighbour’s and he intervened.

Prof. Buckey himself says he regularly used interest-based negotiation and focused breathing, but even for him, remembering these skills when you need them is what really counts. “In an isolated, confined environment, people say: ‘I couldn’t remember it when I needed it.’ I always have to say to myself: ‘Wait a minute, I know how to deal with this.’” He laughs: “‘I need to step back and do this thing that we built this program about.’”

Avoid using courses to paper over the cracks

Nicky Walton-Flynn, who has ten years’ experience working as a psychologist and trauma therapist, agrees that courses that offer basic CBT-type guides can be useful for changing negative thinking patterns. Likewise, courses for behavioural change, as well as mindfulness apps (she recommends Headspace to clients) absolutely calm busy minds.

But for all the support they offer, she says, they are no substitute for treatment: “If someone has an attachment disorder, personality disorder, or has experienced trauma, trying to work on emotional regulation without the one-to-one support of a qualified therapist can be very dangerous. To me, emotional regulation means relearning trust, rewiring neural pathways, and working with somatic responses with another person–not with an app, or alone.”

For example, practicing gratitude is encouraged at certain stages of therapy but, Walton-Flynn explains, some clients need to express a rightful anger before they can reach a place of gratitude: “It is these small aspects of online courses that I am cautious of. Vulnerable people typically believe they are at fault and that they need to be able to fix themselves by doing some mindful meditation and practicing gratitude. Those practices can work, but not by themselves. They require the support of a group or other people.”

To get you through a bit of work stress, for example, or a move, courses work well. But the hard line is, mental health deserves more: “If you are someone who is struggling with a co-occuring disorder or trauma, or a diagnostic condition recognised in the DSM-V, then these disorders need to be worked through with a therapist.”

When I think about happiness I see empty beaches, wire-haired terriers, and dark chocolate straight out of the fridge. I do not see crying to my therapist over Zoom, getting divorced, or watching lectures on Coursera. But as Krysta explains, looking back on her marriage: “There was no way to reconcile our differences. I left so that he could achieve his life goal, and so that I didn’t have to live a life of guilt.” Sometimes, happiness comes from heart-wrenching choices.

Happiness also comes from unsexy commitments. Courses like Berkley’s and Yale’s and programs like Dartmouth don’t make any promises, but for thousands of learners they reveal the simple, evidenced truth about a better life.

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