In the spring of 2018, Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos unveiled a new course, Psychology and the Good Life. The subject was happiness.
Santos' course was a blend of abstract and concrete. It combined positive psychology with the real-life applications of behavioral science. It debunked popular notions of what makes people happy (like the luxury Mercedes-Benz status symbol) and helped students understand the habits they should build to lead truly happier, more fulfilled lives.
The course was launched in the US — home to supposedly only the 18th-happiest population in the world, according to the 2020 World Happiness Report — at one of the nation's most elite and high-pressure colleges.
And the reaction was unprecedented. Psychology and the Good Life became the most popular class ever taught in Yale University's 317-year history, and garnered national and international media attention. The university reportedly had trouble staffing it, pulling fellows from the School of Public Health and the Law School to meet increasing demands.
Santos told The New York Times that a remarkable one in four Yale students were taking the course. While most large lectures at Yale don't exceed 600 students, Psychology and the Good Life had enrolled 1,182.
After waves of people asked for access to the course, Santos designed an iteration for the online learning platform Coursera, called The Science of Well-Being, available for free to non-Yale online students. To see what it's like, I enrolled.
* 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
They include 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 get a boost in your mood and overall well-being.
To make the class warm and inviting, it's shot in Santos' own home, with a handful of Yale students in the audience so you can see how the material lands with other people. It feels intimate, and Santos' tone is friendly and conversational.
It felt relieving, watching a group of unguarded people commune over personal happiness and how to use science-backed thinking to untangle it. And because some of the most contemporary research was conceptualized and coined by Santos herself, it feels like a more in-depth exploration of the topic at hand.
Thankfully, for the busiest among us (and who, ironically, may benefit the most from this course), there's absolutely no required reading. All the information you need to know is summarized within the lecture. If you want deeper context, Santos provides links to complementary readings. And there's also no grade penalty for a missed assignment deadline, so you can work at your own pace if you can't or don't want to meet the suggested deadlines.
In other words, this class is about well-being — and necessarily operates against the grain of traditional academia in its quest.
I should disclose that I enjoy online classes. In the character-strengths test 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 habits into your life to make you happier after the course.
1. You can verify whether you're actually getting happier. In the beginning, you're invited to respond to two questionnaires measuring your baseline happiness. At the end of the course, you'll take them again to see whether your score increased. Hopefully, your numbers will rise. This, for me, was essential. A before-and-after metric lends some concreteness to a typically abstract topic.
2. There are unexpected benefits. Surprisingly, I found the baseline happiness survey helpful for another reason entirely: I had been feeling fatigued recently, and the questions it posed helped me realize for the first time that I was continually rating one part of my life much lower than the others. It became clear what was wrong. Within the first lecture, the research gave me the tools to cut through my daily white noise and see clearly where my dissatisfaction was stemming from.
3. The online format is low-pressure. You can rewind without asking Santos to repeat herself, and you can rewatch lectures. Plus, there's no pressure to ask or answer questions.
4. It doesn't feel like homework. 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, but that I was satisfying my curiosity.
The only thing to note is that, while you can take the class at your own pace, you're encouraged to implement the rewiring techniques on a weekly schedule, since research has found that improving your well-being takes daily, intentional effort over long periods — meaning this six-week class is a great opportunity.
In a follow-up interview I conducted with Professor Santos to discuss the course's popularity throughout quarantine, this point — the importance of building these habits every day — remained paramount.
When you enroll, if you choose to earn a certificate ($49), you'll get access to all course materials, including graded assignments. Upon completing the course, your electronic certificate will be added to your "accomplishments" page. From there, you can print your certificate or add it to your LinkedIn profile.
If you choose to audit the course, you'll still have access to all the course materials, but you won't be able to submit assignments for feedback or a grade.
You can upgrade to a paid certificate at any time during or after your audit. Once you pay for a course certificate, you have 180 days from the day you paid to complete the course.
If you pay for a certificate in a course you've already taken, any grades you already earned will be saved, but you may need to complete more coursework that wasn't available in the audit version.
If you can't afford the fee, 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.