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How do we live a meaningful life?
Despite how slippery and subjective the answer may seem, Laurie Santos, a Yale professor and leading expert in positive psychology, wants you to know that leading a fulfilling life can actually be simple.
The Science of Well-Being, the explosively popular online course from Coursera, is adapted Santos’ 2018 Psychology and the Good Life ‚ which became Yale’s most popular on-campus class in its 319-year history, eventually requiring the university to pull fellows from other schools to staff it.
Santos’ online course delves into our misconceptions about what makes us happy, explains why our expectations are so bad (spoiler: the brain doesn’t always prioritize its happiness), and provides strategies for prioritizing the truly good stuff.
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 course
Topics covered in The Science of Well-Being:
- 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 daily “rewirement” activities 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.
What I loved about the course
1. You can actually measure if you’re 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.
I also found the baseline happiness survey helpful for an unexpected reason: I had been 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. Within the first lecture, I was able to use the framework to see my life more clearly.
2. The lectures are fun to watch — and less pressure than an in-person class.
Santos’ lectures make for easy watching. They’re shot in her own home with a small audience of Yale students, which makes the videos warm and inviting. In a conversational tone, Santos gives us in-depth explorations of happiness and positive psychology as an expert (most contemporary research was conceptualized and coined by Santos herself).
Once I sat down to play a video, I wanted to continue. It didn’t feel forced or tedious like in-person lectures sometimes can. Plus, I could easily rewind and rewatch classes without asking Santos to repeat herself. Best part? There was also zero pressure to ask or answer questions.
3. The optional homework is really easy and fun.
While you can take the class at your own pace, you’re encouraged to do the rewiring techniques on a weekly schedule. Research suggests that improving your well-being takes daily, intentional effort over long periods, so a 10-week class is a great opportunity. But, even if you’re not routine about it, you’ll still learn things that can help you understand how to be happier.
Overall, all the assignments are low-key, low-stress, and easy to implement. There are no required readings or grade penalties for a missed assignment deadline. For readings, the must-know information is summarized within the lecture, and, if you want to dive deeper, you’ll see links to complementary readings.
4. What I learned improved my life in substantial and concrete ways.
One of my key takeaways from The Science of Well-Being (and an interview I conducted with Laurie Santos on mental health) is that difficult, doable activities that put us in our flow state make us feel really happy. For me, that manifested in completing 75 pilates classes in three months because pilates is challenging, meditative, and out of my comfort zone. The course, and the flow state activities I now prioritize, have made me significantly happier and more confident.
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.
The bottom line
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 really enjoyed a few weeks in the course. The lessons 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. I can also say that what I learned in the course has substantially helped my mental health in the long term, especially over the last year.