During a time when we are being advised to stay home and avoid meeting with other people, we've been thinking a lot about how to stay positive. For some, that means polishing off that pint of ice cream while binge-watching "Love is Blind." (Lauren and Cameron forever).
But for others, it means signing up for an online class all about happiness from an Ivy League professor.
When Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University, started her Psychology and the Good Life course in 2018, she set out to give her students practical, science-backed information about how to be happy.
To her surprise, nearly one in every four students signed up for the class, making it the most popular course in Yale's history.
"It's sort of interesting that a quarter of Yale students want to take a class on happiness rather than economics, machine learning or computer science," Santos told TMRW over the phone. "The press attention we got for the class back in 2018 made me realize that it's not just Yale students who need this. This would be great content to share with everyone who wants to be happier and flourish a little more."
In March of the same year, Santos put together a shorter version of the class called The Science of Well-Being that can be completed via the online learning platform Coursera for free (unless you want a certification of completion, in which case there is a fee).
Over the past two years, virtual enrollment has averaged around 10,000 to 20,000 people per month. But since the coronavirus crisis escalated, the class has seen a spike in popularity. Within the last two weeks, an astonishing 300,000 people have enrolled in the course.
"This is a physical health crisis but also a mental health crisis," Santos said. "People's routines have completely changed. People are social distancing, they are not allowed to do the one main thing they do when things are stressful, which is often go hang out with their friends often in public spaces."
"A lot of people have been looking for things to do to feel better in this current crisis," she explained. "Especially people who are home and have a little more free time on their hands are looking for things to do that are productive."
According to the course description on Coursera, The Science of Well-Being engages students in a series of challenges designed to increase personal happiness and build productive habits.
"One of the first things we teach in the class is that we have really bad theories on the kinds of things that would make us happy," Santos said. "We think it's about money and material possessions but it's really about a whole host of different things. It's taking time to be other-oriented, taking time for social connection, taking time to be mindful."
"I think we really can teach people not necessarily to be happier but to teach people the right things to do to become happier."
While the official start date of the class on Coursera is March 23, students are able to join the 10-week course at any time free of charge.
"Our expectation of it is to give away this content for free for anyone who wanted it. We know it can help people. We're just starting to collect data on a standard 10-point happiness scale: Taking the class and following the exercises seems to bump you up a whole point."
While The Science of Well-Being is not specifically related to the COVID-19 outbreak, Santos has started a podcast called "The Happiness Lab" that features episodes speaking specifically to the coronavirus. The episodes present the same kind of tips you might find in the course, but it's geared toward the unique issues people are facing right now, like how to social distance without emotionally isolating.
"It's really about applying these tips to the challenges we are all facing."