Teaching the Science of Happiness

“In order to help improve my students’ mental health, I offered a course on the science of happiness. It worked – but why?”

Illustration insert: despardes.com

Bruce Hood in Aeon: In 2018, a tragic period enveloped the University of Bristol, when several students committed suicide related to work stress. Suicide is usually the ultimate culmination of a crisis in mental health, but these students weren’t alone in feeling extreme pressure: across the campus there was a pervasive sense that the general student body was not coping with the demands of higher education. My own tutee students, whom I met on a regular basis, were reporting poor mental health or asking for extensions because they were unable to meet deadlines that were stressing them out. They were overly obsessed with marks and other performance outcomes, and this impacted not only on them, but also on the teaching and support staff who were increasingly dealing with alleviating student anxiety. Students wanted more support that most felt was lacking and, in an effort to deal with the issue, the university had invested heavily, making more provision for mental health services. The problem with this strategy, however, is that by the time someone seeks out professional services, they are already at a crisis point. I felt compelled to do something.

At the time, Bristol University was described in the British press as a ‘toxic’ environment, but this was an unfair label as every higher education institution was, and still is, experiencing a similar mental health crisis. Even in the Ivy League universities in the United States, there was a problem, as I discovered when I became aware of a course on positive psychology that had become the most popular at Yale in the spring of 2018. On reading about the course, I was somewhat sceptical that simple interventions could make much difference until I learned that Yale’s ‘Psychology and the Good Life’course was being delivered by a colleague of mine, Laurie Santos, who I knew would not associate herself with anything flaky.

That autumn term of 2018, I decided to try delivering a free lunchtime series of lectures, ‘The Science of Happiness’, based on the Yale course. Even though this pilot was not credit-bearing, more than 500 students gave up their Wednesday lunchtimes to attend. That was unusual as, in my experience, students rarely give up time or expend effort to undertake activities unless they are awarded credit or incentives. There would be 10 lectures, and everyone was requested to fill in self-report questionnaires assessing various mental health dimensions both before and after the course, to determine whether there had been any impact and, if so, how much.

The Science of Happiness had clearly piqued interest as indicated by the audience size, but I was still nervous. This was not my area of academic expertise and there was heightened sensitivity following the media attention over recent tragic events on campus. What were the students’ expectations? Talking about mental health seemed hazardous. Would I trigger adverse reactions simply by discussing these issues?

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