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- Yale’s most popular class in history teaches you science-backed steps to becoming happier.
- Professor Laurie Santos’ free online version, The Science of Well-Being, blew up in popularity.
- I enrolled and loved it. Santos is an engaging teacher, and the tools are pragmatic and low-lift.
How do we live a meaningful life? For how often it’s asked, that question isn’t easy to answer.
Yale professor Laurie Santos aimed to do just that in 2018 when she launched “Psychology and the Good Life.” The course was designed to bust myths around what we think will make us happy (like the luxury Mercedes-Benz status symbol) while also providing a roadmap of science-backed habits to build a happy life.
Naturally, the course quickly became the university’s most popular class in its 319-year history. At one point, one in four Yale students were enrolled in it, and the university even had to pull fellows from its other schools to staff it.
Given its popularity, it was clear that this course could be useful beyond Yale’s campus. So, to increase accessibility, Santos created a free online version: “The Science of Well-Being.” Throughout 2020, a whopping 2.2 million people enrolled in the happiness course online as they stayed home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
You can take the course for free here, which takes an estimated 10 weeks (19 hours total) to complete. Or, keep reading for an overview of what to expect and a firsthand review of the online course.
What to expect from the class:
- Misconceptions about happiness
- Why our expectations are so bad
- How we can overcome our biases
- Stuff that really makes us happy
- Putting strategies into practice
Each section includes video lectures, optional readings, and “rewirement” activities to do each day to build happier habits. Research suggests that if you do these rewirements as prescribed, you should experience a boost in your mood and overall well-being. After completing the five weeks above, students should commit to practicing one rewirement exercise for at least a month.
My experience taking the course:
I should disclose that I enjoy online classes. In the character-strengths test that you’re invited to take at the course’s outset, “curiosity” was my most dominant trait out of the 20 possibilities.
But despite being a candidate of least resistance, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed a few weeks in the course. It felt immediately and concretely useful – most of the class legwork is completing daily “rewiring” tasks designed to build those research-backed happiness habits into your life even after the course ends.
Here’s what I liked about the course:
1. You can verify whether you’re actually getting happier.
In the beginning, you’re invited to respond to questionnaires that measure your baseline happiness. By the end of the course, you take them again to see whether your score increased. (Hopefully, your numbers rise!) To me, a before-and-after metric lent concreteness to a typically abstract topic.
Surprisingly, I found the baseline happiness survey helpful for an unexpected reason: I was feeling fatigued, and the questions it posed helped me locate an overlooked source of dissatisfaction – I was continually rating one part of my life much lower than the others. It became clear what was wrong, and within the first lecture, I was able to use the framework to see my life more clearly.
2. The online format is less pressure than an in-person class.
To make the class warm and inviting, the lectures are shot in Santos’ own home, with a handful of Yale students in the audience. It feels intimate – Santos’s tone is friendly and conversational, while still providing a great, in-depth exploration of the topic with an expert (most contemporary research was conceptualized and coined by Santos herself).
Plus, you can easily rewind and rewatch lectures without asking Santos to repeat herself. And there’s no pressure to ask or answer questions!
3. It doesn’t feel like extra work.
Santos’ lectures make for easy watching. Once I sat down to play a lecture, I wanted to continue. I never felt like I was forcing myself to complete a task – I was satisfying my curiosity.
More importantly, since so many of us are so busy (and ironically may benefit the most from this course), there’s absolutely no required reading or grade penalty for a missed assignment deadline – so you don’t need to stress about suggested deadlines if you can’t meet them. All the information you need to know is summarized within the lecture. If you want to dive deeper, Santos provides links to complementary readings.
In other words, this class is about well-being – and it aims to practice what it preaches.
4. The optional homework is actually fun.
While you can take the class at your own pace, you’re encouraged to implement the rewiring techniques on a weekly schedule. Research finds that improving your well-being takes daily, intentional effort over long periods – meaning this 10-week class is a great opportunity!
In a follow-up interview that I conducted with Professor Santos to discuss happiness in quarantine, this point – the importance of building these habits every day – remained paramount.
Is it worth it to get a certificate?
Maybe, but most likely not. You’ll have access to all the course materials and forums for this class without paying. But, if you want a certificate of completion or graded homework assignments, you can pay $49. You can also always upgrade any time during the course or afterward, so it’s probably worth it to test it out for free before committing to payment.
If you want but can’t afford the $49 certificate, apply for the course’s financial aid. Click on the “financial aid” link beneath the “enroll” button on the left. You’ll be prompted to complete an application and will be notified if you’re approved; applications take at least 15 days to be reviewed.
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