The Science Of Well-Being
The Science of Well-Being is a ten-week online course from Yale University. I took the course recently and here’s how it changed me.
Get up, throw together some breakfast (muesli and berries in a bowl with yogurt and some home-smoked bacon on yesterday’s sourdough bread), struggle to write some words, sip the coffee that has gone cold while staring out the window wondering when then next ambulance would pass, force myself to make and eat lunch, and then wash up before finally collapsing in a supine heap on the sofa while trying to talk myself into going for a walk and resisting the urge to start thinking about what to cook for dinner, or worse, because there are so many bad things to think about.
During the height of the lockdown and quarantine, my days settled into a predictable pattern. It wasn’t awful. Life can get a lot worse. But, it was most definitely a grind. Things that used to be fun, like writing, cooking, walking and even spending time with my family, felt like a burden. Even reading, watching films or playing guitar didn’t bring me any joy.
Well-Being In A Time Of Pandemic
I don’t even remember when the digital gods offered me the Science of Well-Being course. However, a few weeks of learning what recent research has to say about happiness and having a good mindset felt like the perfect reprieve from the pandemic blues.
Coursera is a kind of Netflix for university courses. Signing up is pretty easy. It’s free to join and there are monthly plans if you want a certificate for your studies or if you would like to sign up to longer programmes. After a few clicks, I was in.
How The Course Is Delivered
The first six weeks of the course involved watching video lectures and doing some reading. There’s a generous number of links to academic papers, if you want to read more deeply about the research mentioned in the lectures, and there’s a short test at the end of each week.
The videos are mostly recorded in a campus seminar setting. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale and a specialist in cognitive science, is an engaging speaker. The material is fascinating. The pace of delivery and the amount of work are just right to keep you engaged but not overwhelmed.
But, you do have to wade through a lot, as this course was designed originally for undergraduate students and many of the examples are relevant to their stage of life (getting good grades, etc).
The course ends with a four-week personal assignment (more details below) and then a reflection exercise where you look back over the course and what you’ve learnt.
The Power Of Rewirement
Neuroplasticity is the term for our brain’s ability to rewire itself. Older models of the brain assumed that there was a fixed structure, so things like personality, intelligence and memory were sort of set, and then just decayed as you got older.
However, it turns out this isn’t true.
Our brains can be reshaped. Habits and practice change the physical structure of the brain. That’s why a piano player’s brain looks different on a scan to a trumpet player’s.
Recent research into positive emotions suggests that we can make ourselves feel better by changing our behaviour. We can almost hack our way to happiness (I explored some of this in my series on creativity and mental health).
The Science of Well-Being explores how habits can help you to rewire your brain. Such good habits can be physical activities, like sleep or exercise, choices, like opting for spending your money on experiences rather than things, mindsets, like gratitude or not comparing yourself to others, and social practices, like kindness and being socially connected.
It also gives you plenty of strategies for making these kinds of habits stick, like developing goals, identifying and working around obstacles, and even designing the environment around you so that it supports you and the changes you want to make.
The Great Rewirement Experiment
The final four weeks of the course involve a personal experiment. You choose one of the insights from the course and apply it daily, trying to build a new well-being habit.
I opted for applying character strengths based on the VIA Institute survey (here’s something about this from a few weeks ago). This meant trying to utilise as many of the top character strengths from that test in my daily life.
I managed to do this for 23 out of the 28 days and didn’t miss two days in a row. The most fascinating aspect was going through all my projects and recurring commitments and thinking about how my character strengths fit into them. For a few projects, and things I’d like to do in the future, I even changed the parameters of the project to include the strengths in more ways.
However, the feeling that this induced wasn’t something I’d describe as happiness.
Did It Make Me Happier?
At the start of the course, you’re asked to take two tests that measure your happiness. On the PERMA survey, I got 6.69 out of a possible 10, and my Authentic Happiness Score was 2.58 out of 5. By the end of the course I’d scored 8.4 and 4.29, respectively.
So, according to the academically validated tests, I’m happier.
But, do I feel happier? Well, yes, sort of. What happiness looks like in our pared-down pandemic lives is difficult to judge. I’m certainly dancing and laughing more often, and enjoying long spells of reading and playing the guitar.
Perhaps more than happiness, I feel a greater sense of agency and power. I already owned everything I had to do, but doing the course, and especially the four-week assignment, drove home the feeling that the things I was doing, and the life choices I’d made to get here, authentically belonged to me.
A Few Realisations
Before doing this course, I tended to track mainly physical habits. Tracking them was largely a quantitative game. Walk 10,000 steps, get 8 hours sleep, or read for an hour, yes or no, every day.
The course made me look harder at how I tracked my mental habits and I realised I had to do more than just keep a numerical tally. I was already doing a daily gratitude habit, for example, but that was just listing three things every day.
Mindset maintenance requires more than just ticking things off a list.
Perhaps my biggest realisation was that many of my habits were a form of preparation for well-being. They create the conditions necessary for happiness. But habits like applying my character strengths actually bring the science of well-being inside the daily work itself.
So, I find myself starting my daily routines by asking new questions. How can I make cooking an act of learning? How can I bring an appreciation of beauty and excellence to how I set up my writing station and create work like this? How do I keep feeding my sense of curiosity when my daily environment doesn’t change much?
Once you accept that your mind can be reshaped and that your choices can play a role in that reshaping, then it’s fascinating to explore the ways you can use habits to alter your mindset and your mood.