Insights Unveiled: Reflections from Teaching a University Course on the Science of Happiness

Insights Unveiled: Reflections from Teaching a University Course on the Science of Happiness

Unlocking Happiness: Insights from Teaching the Science of Well-Being

Delivering a university course that promises to enhance students' happiness often sparks curiosity, with many eager to uncover the elusive secret behind fostering joy. What are the keys to happiness? What are the top ten recommendations? These questions echo throughout lecture halls and discussion forums, as if there exists a magical formula for instant bliss. However, the truth is far from a quick fix.

Despite the quest for life-transforming discoveries, the reality is that much of what contributes to happiness has already been discussed. Concepts like social connection, mindfulness, gratitude letters, acts of kindness, communing with nature, maintaining healthy sleep habits, and limiting social media usage are among the myriad psychological interventions shown to enhance well-being to varying degrees.

So, why do inquiries persist when we seemingly possess a wealth of knowledge about what works? The answer lies in the alarming trend of declining happiness among students and young adults, as evidenced by national surveys revealing lower levels of well-being in the United Kingdom and the United States compared to other age demographics. It was in response to this troubling trend that we launched the science of happiness course at the University of Bristol in 2019, aiming to counteract these downward spirals.

Throughout the course, we delve into lessons drawn from positive psychology and provide students with opportunities to translate theory into practice. Rather than relying solely on graded assessments, we evaluate student engagement—a fundamental aspect of both education and holistic life satisfaction. It would be contradictory to address issues like performance anxiety and student perfectionism while subjecting students to high-stakes exams. Thus, we opt for a credit-based approach, emphasizing participation and growth over grades.

But make no mistake—earning course credit without examination is no easy feat. For many students, meeting the demands of attending over 80% of lectures and tutorials, maintaining weekly journal entries, and collaborating on a final group project presents unforeseen challenges. Approximately 5% of students annually fall short of these requirements and must complete a reassessment in the summer. Establishing consistent positive habits amid life's myriad demands is no trivial task.

Nevertheless, despite its rigors, the science of happiness course continues to garner immense popularity and yield promising results. Year after year, we observe notable improvements of around 10-15% in students' mental well-being upon completing the course, compared to peers on a waiting-list control group.

In essence, the journey toward happiness is not a destination but a continual pursuit—a journey marked by self-discovery, growth, and resilience. Through education and practice, we empower students to embark on this journey with courage and curiosity, cultivating a brighter, more fulfilling future for themselves and others.

Sustaining Happiness: Insights from Long-Term Study of Happiness Course Graduates

Recent findings from a comprehensive study shed light on the enduring impact of the science of happiness course, offering valuable insights into the complexities of long-term happiness. One to two years post-completion, students' initially elevated happiness scores had largely reverted to their original levels, prompting reflection on the nature of sustainable well-being.

Central to our analysis is the concept of hedonic adaptation—an inherent human tendency to acclimate to both positive and negative experiences. As individuals refocus on life's inherent challenges, the transient boost in well-being experienced during the course naturally diminishes. However, our study unearthed a noteworthy exception to this trend.

Approximately half of the cohort reported continued engagement in the practices taught during the course, such as gratitude and mindfulness, long after its completion. Remarkably, these individuals demonstrated sustained levels of elevated well-being, defying the typical regression observed in their peers who discontinued such practices.

In many respects, mental health mirrors physical health, requiring ongoing dedication and effort for meaningful and lasting results. Just as one does not expect enduring muscle gains after a single workout, sustained happiness necessitates consistent investment and commitment.

If there were to be a singular top tip for cultivating lasting happiness, it would be the cultivation of habits informed by psychological insights. Rather than pursuing drastic, unsustainable changes, prioritizing small, incremental adjustments fosters enduring transformation.

Moreover, our inquiry raises questions about prevailing messages within the self-care industry, which often emphasize individualistic pursuits of happiness. Contrary to popular belief, sustained happiness is less about self-focused endeavors and more about altruistic engagement with others. As Bruce Hood explores in his recent book, prioritizing the enrichment of others' lives offers enduring well-being benefits less susceptible to the effects of adaptation over time.

In essence, our study underscores the transformative power of integrating psychological principles into daily life, advocating for a shift from self-centric approaches to holistic, community-focused well-being initiatives. By embracing this paradigm shift, individuals can embark on a journey towards lasting happiness, enriching not only their own lives but also those of others.

Embracing the Journey: Nurturing Happiness as a Continuous Endeavor

In the pursuit of enhancing our well-being, it's essential to recognize that happiness is an ongoing journey rather than a destination. Regardless of the methods or activities we adopt, it's crucial to acknowledge that true happiness is always a work in progress—a dynamic process shaped by our choices, experiences, and interactions with the world around us.


Sarah Jelbert is a dedicated lecturer in psychology at the University of Bristol, where she shares her expertise and passion for understanding human behavior and well-being.

Bruce Hood, a distinguished professor of developmental psychology in society at the University of Bristol, brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to the exploration of how individuals develop and navigate their psychological landscapes. Through their collaborative efforts, Sarah Jelbert and Bruce Hood contribute to advancing our understanding of happiness and its intricacies within contemporary society.

In conclusion, as we navigate the complexities of life and strive to cultivate happiness, it is imperative to embrace the understanding that happiness is an ongoing journey. Regardless of the methods or activities we engage in to enhance our well-being, the key lies in recognizing that true happiness is a dynamic process that requires continuous effort and adaptation. By acknowledging this, we can approach our pursuit of happiness with patience, resilience, and an open mindset, thereby enriching our lives and fostering a greater sense of fulfillment.