Yale’s Popular Free Online Course Review
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How do we lead a meaningful life?
Despite the slippery and subjective nature of the answer, Laurie Santos, a Yale professor and leading expert in positive psychology, wants you to know that leading a fulfilling life can actually be simple.
The Science of Wellbeing, Coursera’s hugely popular online course, is adapted from Santos’ 2018 Psychology and the Good Life, which has become Yale’s most popular on-campus course in its 319 years of history, eventually forcing the university to recruit scholars from other schools to staff it.
Santos’ online course dives into our misconceptions about what makes us happy, explains why our expectations are so bad (spoiler: the brain doesn’t always prioritize its happiness), and provides strategies for prioritizing the really good things .
You can take the course for free here, which takes around 10 weeks (19 hours in total). Or keep reading for an overview of what to expect and a first-hand review of the online course.
What to expect from the course
Topics covered in The Science of Wellbeing:
- Misconceptions about happiness
- Why our expectations are so bad
- How to overcome our prejudices
- Things that really make us happy
- Putting strategies into practice
Each section includes video lectures, optional readings, and daily “reconnect” activities to build happier habits. Research suggests that if you perform these reconnections as prescribed, you should experience an improvement in your mood and overall well-being. After completing the above five weeks, students must commit to practicing a rewiring exercise for at least one month.
What I liked about the course
1. You can actually measure if you are becoming happier.
At the beginning, you are asked to answer questionnaires that measure your basic happiness. At the end of the course, you take them again to see if your score has increased. (Hope your numbers go up!) For me, a before and after metric brought concreteness to a typically abstract topic.
I also found the Basic Happiness Survey helpful for an unexpected reason: I felt tired, and the questions it asked helped me locate an overlooked source of dissatisfaction: I was continually assessing some part of my life much lower than the others. In the first lecture, I was able to use the framework to see my life more clearly.
2. Lectures are fun to watch – and less pressure than an in-person class.
Santos lectures make viewing easy. They’re shot in his own home with a small audience of Yale students, making the videos warm and inviting. In a conversational tone, Santos gives us in-depth explorations of happiness and positive psychology as an expert (most contemporary research was conceptualized and invented by Santos herself).
Once I sat down to play a video, I wanted to continue. It didn’t feel forced or tedious like in-person conferences sometimes can. Also, I could easily rewind and rewatch lessons without asking Santos to repeat himself. Best part? There was also no pressure to ask or answer questions.
3. Optional homework is really easy and fun.
Although you can take the course at your own pace, you are encouraged to complete the rewiring techniques on a weekly schedule. Research suggests that improving your well-being takes daily, intentional effort over long periods of time, so a 10-week course is a great opportunity. But, even if you’re not routine, you’ll still learn things that can help you figure out how to be happier.
Overall, all missions are low-key, low-stress, and easy to implement. There are no required readings or grade penalties for a missed assignment deadline. For readings, the essential information is summarized in the lecture and, if you want to go deeper, you will see links to additional readings.
4. What I learned improved my life in a substantial and concrete way.
One of my main takeaways from The Science of Wellness (and an interview I conducted with Laurie Santos on mental health) is that challenging, achievable activities that put us into our state of flux make us really happy. For me, this manifested by taking 75 Pilates classes in three months because Pilates is challenging, meditative, and out of my comfort zone. The course and flow state activities I favor now have made me much happier and more confident.
Is it worth getting a certificate?
Maybe, but probably not. You will have access to all course materials and forums for this class without paying. But, if you want a certificate of completion or graded assignments, you can pay $49. You can also always upgrade anytime during the course or after, so it’s probably worth testing it out for free before committing to pay.
If you want but cannot afford the $49 certificate, apply for course financial aid. Click on the “financial aid” link under the “register” button on the left. You will be prompted to complete an application and will be notified if you are approved; requests take at least 15 days to be reviewed.
The bottom line
I must reveal that I love online courses. In the character strength test you are asked to take at the beginning of the course, “curiosity” was my most dominant trait out of the 20 possibilities.
But despite being a candidate of less resistance, I was surprised at how much I really enjoyed a few weeks of classes. The lessons felt immediately and concretely useful — most of the prep in class involves doing daily “rewiring” tasks designed to embed these research-based habits of happiness into your life. I can also say that what I learned in the course has significantly improved my long-term mental health, especially over the past year.