In an article published yesterday on Greater Good Science Center, Emiliana Simon-Thomas and Dacher Keltner, co-instructors for a MOOC on the scientific principles and everyday behaviors that predict happiness, GG101x: The Science of Happiness, shared some preliminary findings into the effects that taking their ten-week course had on participants. They wanted to find out whether taking an online course about the science of happiness actually makes one happier. Turns out, it does.
Of course, happiness is a notoriously difficult concept to define, which makes the issue of measuring it and capturing its changes in quality and intensity over time a complex endeavor to say the least. For their purpose Simon-Thomas and Keltner set out the following definition of happiness :
There is no perfect consensus definition, though most people have an intuitive sense for how it feels, and research suggests that there are systematic qualities and characteristics of those who fit the description of “very happy people.” Key insights that arise from this work, taking multiple methods and perspectives into account, is that happiness hinges upon the strength and authenticity of a person’s social connections, their aptitude for human kindness, and their constructive role in meaningful community.
Based on this definition, Simon-Thomas and Keltner monitored various self-reported metrics related to happiness of the 5000 participants who completed the course, before, during and four months after they had completed the course. What they found makes a pretty compelling argument for learning about the science of happiness–the participants’ happiness levels went up over the ten weeks in which they were taking the course and was still up from their starting level four months after completing the course.
Every week, we checked in with our students to see how they were feeling. We showed them a sequence of six cartoon faces created by Pixar artist Matt Jones to convey fear, enthusiasm, anger, affection, sadness, and amusement. Under each, we asked them to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much each face matched how they’d been feeling lately. Then we transformed their collective weekly ratings into a single score.
The result? For students who responded at least 8 out of 10 times—suggesting that they were fully participating in the course—positive feelings went up, and up, and up. They felt progressively less sadness, anger, and fear, while at the same time experiencing more and more amusement, enthusiasm, and affection.
We also invited students to fill out a brief battery of research-validated questionnaires that are regularly used to assess feelings like happiness, stress, flourishing, or satisfaction with life. They did this three times, just before, right after, and three to four months after completing the course. Again, we found evidence that participating in our Science of Happiness course improved people’s lives.
More specifically, the course’s participants found that:
1. Well-being went up and stayed up
During the course, subjective happiness, life satisfaction, and flourishing increased by about five percent—and this boost remained even four months after the course was completed, suggesting that the impact of GG101x is sustained.
2. Stress and loneliness went down, and stayed down
Students reported feeling significantly less stress and loneliness in their lives, both issues that present substantial barriers to health and happiness. This also continued to be true four months after the course ended.
3. A sense of common humanity went up, and stayed up
It turns out that GG101x helped people to think of themselves as having a stronger connection to the rest of humanity, no matter how similar or different. This more open-minded perspective may be a key to boosting happiness on wider, more collective levels.