Why Tens Of Thousands Of People Are Signing Up For This Online Happiness Course

04/23/2014 08:29 am ET | Updated Apr 24, 2014
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The Internet is jam-packed with information about how to be happy -- much of it conflicting, and a good deal of it simply inaccurate. With over 75 million Google search results for the term and 40,000 happiness-related books available for purchase on Amazon, the sheer volume of advice out there can be dizzying. And it's not necessarily helping us to become any happier.

That's why the University of California at Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) -- an organization that studies the science of well-being with the goal of fostering a more resilient and compassionate culture -- is using a new online platform to educate the public about what it really takes to lead a happy, meaningful life.

Dacher Keltner, Berkeley psychology professor, Born To Be Good author, and co-founder & director emeritus of GGSC, says he's witnessed a hunger for this kind of information. Recently, his long-available happiness class attracted a wait list of 400 people -- unprecedented for the 200-person class.

To reach a wider audience this fall, Keltner and neuroscientist Emiliana Simon-Thomas will bring a wealth of positive psychology research to the public with the Science of Happiness MOOC (a massive online open course) about positive psychology, which touches on much of the same research presented in Keltner's undergraduate course.

"The [course] starts with the idea that happiness and health are fundamentally about strong social connections and being immersed in a strong social community," says Keltner, citing research that strong social ties can add years to your life. "We're going to zero in on things that build strong social ties and communities -- things like compassion, empathy, how to read people's emotions, gratitude, charity, generosity and giving."

The course emphasizes two main (scientifically-proven) keys to happiness: Strong social ties, and a sense of purpose or connection to the greater good.

"For the past 10 years, the Greater Good Science Center has been trying to share the science behind the idea that the best way to pursue happiness is through pursuing a meaningful life -- meaningful being constituted by committing yourself to a greater purpose beyond your own self-interest," Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center, told the Huffington Post. "This includes meaningful relationships, community and a sense of belonging, and contributing to the greater good."

Leading thinkers in positive psychology -- Sonja Lyubomirsky, Rick Hanson, and Barbara Frederickson, to name a few -- will join Simon-Thomas and Keltner as guest-lecturers throughout the course, engaging with topics including mindfulness, compassion and gratitude.

The eight-week course is the first of its kind, taking advantage of Berkeley's Edx platform -- a large-scale open coursework system -- and is available to the public free of charge. Nearly 30,000 people have already signed up, and the center is expecting up to 100,000 to enroll.

The courses' creators hope to help the public to critically assess and intelligently sort through the mass of happiness advice and content available on the Internet, and to give them real, tried-and-true science that can be applied to anyone's life.

"Everything we teach in the science of happiness is based on a research finding," says Simon-Thomas. "We don't have a philosophical or spiritual tenor underneath it. My background is in neuroscience, and I don't have any other agenda than to give people more information about what works and what doesn't work."

But the information isn't just a bunch of research about how positive emotions occur in the brain. A central part of the course is designed to be hands-on and experiential. Each week is divided into a subject, the students will dive into the science and the studies, and then ending the week with a practical exercise that's been shown through a research study to boost well-being.

"A potent part of the class is that we get people to try things out," says Dacher, explaining that the course will involve weekly exercises, as well as self-reflection and mood evaluation.

Students will keep track of their activities and progress, as well as their own emotional state throughout the weeks as the course goes by.

"The idea is that hopefully, over the eight weeks, they'll be able to keep track of their rising levels of positive relative to negative feelings," says Simon-Thomas.

If there's one thing she hopes students learn from the course, Simon-Thomas says, it's that "you get much more happiness from your interpersonal connections than from your possessions and privilege."

Keltner adds, "[It's] good for people to take a step back and notice how their habits and values may be impacting their happiness."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Sonja Lyubomirsky's name. The error has been fixed.

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