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Stuck at Home? Take Yale’s Most Popular Course Ever: The Science of Happiness

In its first year, the class attracted more than 1,200 students. The online version is abbreviated, but free

(MI PHAM / Unsplash)
smithsonianmag.com

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, schools around the world have cleared their campuses and shuttered classroom doors. But the halts to in-person learning haven’t stopped dogged educators from continuing their lessons online—in some cases, for audiences bigger and more diverse than ever before.

One of the most buzzworthy virtual offerings available is a class called “The Science of Well Being,” taught by Yale psychologist Laurie Santos. The course, which got its start on Yale’s campus as “Psychology and the Good Life” in January of 2018, is the most popular class in the university’s history, according to a statement. Enrollment on Coursera is currently open, and in the past two weeks, a whopping 300,000 people have signed up.

In its inaugural year, the class attracted more than 1,200 students—nearly a quarter of Yale’s undergraduate population, David Shimer reported for the New York Times at the time. Floored by the interest, Santos decided to post an abbreviated version of the course, styled as a multi-part seminar series that she filmed in her home, to the online learning platform Coursera in March of the same year so it could reach a wider audience.

While Yale’s annual undergraduate price tag is above $50,000, the Coursera class is free (though students can pay $49 to receive an official certificate of completion).

“The press attention we got for the class back in 2018 made me realize that it’s not just Yale students who need this,” Santos tells Callie Patteson at Today. “This would be great content to share with everyone who wants to be happier and flourish a little more.”

Santos’ teachings are especially pertinent during these challenging times as people around the world grapple with the social, financial, emotional and professional consequences of the outbreak and the physical distancing required to curb its spread.

“A lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,” Yale University student Alannah Maynez told the New York Times in 2018. Under immense pressure from the current global pandemic, much of the rest of the world likely feels the same.

In weekly installments, Santos’ lectures dole out advice on building personal happiness and productive habits, stressing not only the importance of mental wellbeing but also practical ways to achieve it. Drawing on the fields of psychology and behavioral science, the course debunks myths about happiness, then trains its students to overcome their own biases through reading and activity-based assignments, reports Business Insider’s Mara Leighton.

“We think [happiness is] about money and material possessions, but it’s really about a whole host of different things,” Santos tells Today. “It’s taking time to be other-oriented, taking time for social connection, taking time to be mindful.”

These practices are still possible within the constraints of the pandemic—a global emergency whose psychological and emotional toll shouldn’t be discounted, Santos says: “This is a physical health crisis, but also a mental health crisis.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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