What Do You Think Are the Secrets to Happiness?

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What Do You Think Are the Secrets to Happiness?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

What do you think are the keys to happiness? Friendship and family? Love and laughter? Wisdom? Wealth? Or something else?

Do you think that happiness is a matter of luck or a mind-set you can learn?

In “Over 3 Million People Took This Course on Happiness. Here’s What Some Learned.,” Molly Oswaks writes:

The Yale happiness class, formally known as Psyc 157: Psychology and the Good Life, is one of the most popular classes to be offered in the university’s 320-year history.

The class was only ever taught in-person once, during the spring 2018 semester, as a 1,200-person lecture course in the largest space on campus.

That March, a free, 10-week version made available to the public via Coursera, titled “the Science of Well-Being,” also became instantly popular, attracting hundreds of thousands of online learners. But when lockdowns began last March, two full years later, the enrollment numbers skyrocketed. To date, over 3.3 million people have signed up, according to the website.

“We octupled the number of people taking the class,” said Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale and the head of the university’s Silliman College, of its pandemic-era popularity.

“Everyone knows what they need to do to protect their physical health: wash your hands, and social distance, and wear a mask,” she added. “People were struggling with what to do to protect their mental health.”

The Coursera curriculum, adapted from the one Dr. Santos taught at Yale, asks students to, among other things, track their sleep patterns, keep a gratitude journal, perform random acts of kindness and take note of whether, over time, these behaviors correlate with a positive change in their general mood.

Ms. Oswaks describes the impact of the psychology course on students:

Tracy Morgan, a programming supervisor at the Bob Snodgrass Recreation Complex in High River in Alberta, Canada, signed up for the class last June, as she was in lockdown with her children and husband.

“There’s no reason I shouldn’t be happy,” she said. “I have a wonderful marriage. I have two kids. I have a nice job and a nice house. And I just could never find happiness.”

Since taking the course, Ms. Morgan, 52, has made a commitment to do three things every day: practice yoga for one hour, take a walk outside in nature no matter how cold it may be in Alberta and write three to five entries in her gratitude journal before bed.

“When you start writing down those things at the end of the day, you only think about it at the end of the day, but once you make it a routine, you start to think about it all throughout the day,” she said.

And some studies show that finding reasons to be grateful can increase your general sense of well-being.

Ewa Szypula, 37, a lecturer of French studies at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said she has been interested in self-improvement techniques since studying for her Ph.D. several years ago. “Somewhere along the second or third year, you do feel a bit burned out, and you need strategies for dealing with it,” she said.

One small study from Dr. Santos’s curriculum that stuck with her involved polling 632 Americans to predict how happy they would be if they were given $5 to spend on themselves versus getting $5 and being told they must spend it on someone else. In the study, people predicted that they would be happier if they were allowed to keep the money. But participants consistently reported afterward that they had in fact derived more satisfaction from spending money on someone.

Dr. Szypula had the opportunity to combine her newfound knowledge in a practical experiment on her sister’s birthday. Instead of keeping an expensive dress she had bought, she gave it to her sister.

“I’m still feeling that happiness months later,” she said.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • How do you define true happiness? Is it contentment? Joy? Success? Is it the opposite of sadness, the absence of pain? Or is it something deeper? Has living through the coronavirus pandemic this past year shaped your understanding of happiness? How?

  • Do you generally think of yourself as a happy person? What was the happiest time of your life? What did happiness feel, sound or taste like in that moment? What gave you such deep bliss or joy?

  • What do you think are the secrets to happiness? Where have you learned these lessons — from experience, friends, family, literature or religious or spiritual study? When you are feeling down or blue, what do you do to make yourself happy?

  • What is your reaction to the Yale University course and the three big takeaways for students: sleep, gratitude and helping other people? Do you think you will focus on these three things more now? Do you think you might benefit from writing in a gratitude journal every day, as Ms. Morgan did? What else in the article resonated with you?

  • Do you think society puts too much emphasis on happiness? Have you ever felt pressure to put on a happy face, even if you didn’t feel that way inside? Is being happy one of your life goals? How does it compare in importance with other goals you might have, such as making money, starting a family or striving for excellence?

  • Do you believe we, as a society, give too much attention to physical health rather than mental and emotional health? Do you think schools should teach students how to be happy? Why or why not? Would you want to take the Yale course, which is now free to the public via Coursera?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.