“The Science of Well-Being” online course from Yale
Taking this free online course will teach you about evidence-based interventions with large effect sizes to improve your own well-being (a.k.a. happiness).
What is the course about?
It is a free online course that presents scientific evidence about what makes people happy along with practical advice and exercises for implementing evidence based interventions to improve your own life. The course is primarily focused on what will make financially secure, first-world-country residents happy—it does not touch on what to do if you live in poverty, political unrest/war, etc.
Why should you care?
Evidence shows that most people are highly ineffective at achieving a high quality of life. People put too little effort into improving their lives. When people do try, they chose ineffective approaches.
You probably already care about your own well-being. If not, you should still care about this course because personal well-being begets free time and feelings of generosity. I believe being happier can make you a more effective Effective Altruist.
My experience with the course
I took the course at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I listened to all of the lectures, read some of the suggested readings, and did some of the recommended exercises/challenges. I started doing a couple of the evidence based interventions regularly (gratitude journaling and exercise). I think the course helped me focus on what changes would really help me and scientific evidence in the course motivated me to actually start trying. I’ve found that I have increased positive emotions and decreased negative emotions.
To put a number to it, my baseline PHQ-9 score is now consistently 3-5 (save for a spike related to a challenging life event). Prior to the course, it was typically 7-12. I’m using PHQ-9 even though it’s not the best measurement because it’s one I took frequently before the course when I was in therapy and my therapist gave me access to the scores.
Evidence for course effectiveness
The professor, Laurie Santos, has published studies about the effect of the course on the happiness of students. They find a consistent, if modest (1 point on a 10 point scale), increase in well being. However, many students may not fully engage with the course material.
Once could consider this 1 point increase a good “floor” for the expected effect the course will have on you. If you believe you can be an above average student, the payoff may be even higher.
There’s not great evidence that I could find about how long the effects of the course last, but I’ve found them to be durable through two years with no signs of waning. If you’ve also taken the course, I’d love to hear about your experience in this regard.
Key course content
I encourage you to watch the whole course (there’s so much good stuff in it), but here are some of the biggest takeaways that have stuck with me:
Money has diminishing returns on well-being. Probably a familiar one to you all!
Repetition is the happiness-killer. Listening to your favorite songs, eating your favorite food, and taking your favorite vacation get boring and reduce utility compared to mixing it up.
There are a wide variety of effective interventions for improving your own happiness. The course recommends choosing from seven of the best ones (based on effect size and strength of supporting evidence). They’re things like sleep, gratitude, and exercise. You don’t need to do all of them- just doing some works fine. The course explains them best but if you only have an hour to spare there’s also this lecture.
Knowing about how to improve your life isn’t enough—it takes concerted effort to implement these interventions.
How to take the course
It’s free on Coursera. The website tries to get you to pay for a certificate, but you can do everything in the course without it.