• Cat Graham

The Science of Wellbeing - Can Happiness be Taught?

Happiness is a concept that seems pretty elusive, especially during the pandemic. Happiness means a sense of control, wellbeing and joy. Simple enough, but so many of us are unhappy, and want to be happy, can we actually be taught happiness? Laurie Santos, a celebrated professor of Psychology at Yale University, studied happiness - how to attract it, cultivate it and build productive habits to be happy. She developed a course called The Science of Wellbeing, and it was the most sought-after course for years, taught in small working group cohorts. This celebrated course was then made available to the world through Coursera, and I took the course. I really wanted to understand how happiness seems to follow some people, and elude others, like myself. Is it actually something that can be taught?

The course is a ten-week course and every week a new module is introduced with up to 8 videos, four readings, workbooks and a quiz. The course takes the student through why a course like this matters: what do we think will make us happy (spoiler alert, it’s not what we think), understanding expectations and why they lead to unhappiness, and how to overcome our biases in our own minds. This in turns reboots the brain to be conscious of old habits and intentionally form new ones.

Of course, I had every intention of carving out the two-plus hours each week to get through the course in the 10 weeks, the beauty of Coursera is that you can stop and start until you finish the course. I would often have a tough day and resume the course, looking for a fast fix or answer that would lift me out of whatever difficulty I was facing. The fact is, I completed the course last night, having started it last February. The fact is also there are no quick fixes.

In a recent article in the Harvard Health Review, aptly titled “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier,” the foundation of actually being happy is in fact gratitude. “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” That sounds like relatively simple advice. But we all need an approach that builds this habit of being grateful, even when it seems there isn’t much to be grateful for. Both the course and the research in this article point to five key things we can do to practice gratitude and increase our happiness.

  • Keep a gratitude journal

  • Be conscious about happiness and unhappiness, analyze and repeat (or delete)

  • Meditate, be mindful and present every day of your life

  • Practice kindness and connection every day

  • Understand that our minds are programmed to adapt and ultimately get used to things, which means we can develop better habits

Every year I write a gratitude post in November, and gratitude is one of our core values here at Cheer Partners. Since the pandemic, I think it’s harder for everyone to be happy, given so many of us have had to make do with limitations we never had before. While I still believe certain people are prewired to be happy, while many of us aren’t, I do think we can reprogram ourselves to be happier, and expressing gratitude is the foundational element. Take the course, and let me know if this course helped you achieve greater happiness.