In 2018, Bruce Hood wondered if there was a way to teach well-being. "A lot of universities [are] waking up to the fact that students are experiencing terrible problems with mental well-being," Hood tells Inverse. The University of Bristol, where Hood is a psychology professor, had experienced 11 student suicides between October 2016 and April 2018. "I was very concerned."
That same year, Hood's former Ph.D. student, Laurie Santos, pioneered a course at Yale University called Psychology and the Good Life. Hood got in touch, and Santos shared her notes. In the Fall of 2018, Hood began teaching an adapted version of this course called 'The Science of Happiness,' which examines the evidence behind what makes a joyful life.
The course became essential during the pandemic. Hood knows this is true because he studied its impact on his students as they endured Zoom university. The research results were published this week in the journal PLoS One, which found that students who took the 11-week course benefitted from it during quarantine more than those who took it when classes were back in session.
What's new — The course started in 2018 at Yale, but the pandemic cast it in a whole new light. The 166 students who took the course the first semester it was offered — during the Fall of 2020 when classes were still fully online — reported better well-being than the 198 students who were waitlisted and took it during the Spring 2021 semester, when classes were back in person. The course offers three class sessions a week: a pre-recorded lecture students watch on Mondays, a real-time online lecture on Wednesdays, and remote small-group meetings on Thursdays or Fridays.
The first group didn't experience a better than average sense of self but didn't dip either. "Our students didn't change from baseline in the sense that what we saw was resilience," Hood tells Inverse. The pandemic was already trying everyone's patience, and Hood observed that students who took this course earlier maintained their well-being rather than plummeting. The course made them more resilient against the trials of quarantine life.
When Hood first taught the course with co-author Sarah Jelbert, a psychology professor at the University of Bristol, in 2018, they saw that students' sense of self improved. However, when it was taught during the fall of 2020, rather than an improvement, Hood and his team found that students maintained their baseline wellness. In other words: Their mental well-being didn't go down but stayed the course.
That's better than the increased anxiety their peers who were waitlisted reported. When Hood and Jelbert performed a follow-up assessment six weeks after the course ended, they observed the class' positive effects remained.
“What we saw was resilience.”
Why it matters — College is stressful enough without a global pandemic, and if even an online course can assuage difficulty, that's promising. If and when another crisis forbids in-person contact, a remote class like this could help thwart any mental health conditions that stem from it.
"University has an overwhelming demand for mental health services. They can't get to everyone," says Izzy Johnson, a University of Bristol student who took the course in 2018. "The great thing about this course is that although it's not technically a mental health center, it gives you proven tools to improve your well-being." Offering more classes like this for credit could help students learn to manage themselves before facing a crisis.
Johnson still engages with the class as a student mentor. Even a mentorship role nourishes her sense of self in the way attending the class did. She keeps up with former students and meets weekly with current students to review course material. In this way, she's constantly reinforcing the lessons she learned.
Hood thinks that the effects of well-being are strongest while students are enrolled in the course but is curious to see if the lessons are sustainable.
Johnson attests to its helpfulness during the pandemic. One skill she learned to practice is sending gratitude messages to her friends and family, even if they are just brief texts. "Sending someone a message like, 'Hope you're doing okay, you mean a lot to me,' was definitely a nice thing to have," Johnson tells Inverse. "That, during the pandemic, was extremely helpful."
The knowledge that a course like this has a measurable impact on a students' well-being can also help address a more significant crisis among universities worldwide: how to help suffering students adequately.
Digging into the details — How do you grade a course on happiness? One solution is you don't; this class only offered pass or fail, and while it had a final project, that project wasn't graded either.
"I'm a great believer that one of the major pressures on students is exam performance," Hood says. The final project encouraged creativity, asking students to demonstrate something they've learned from the course. That lesson could be expressed through writing a song, making a film, or creating a poster. Outstanding projects received commendations.
Attendees also submitted weekly journal entries describing how their day was going. While many people partake in this practice, students were submitting their entries for review. This meant a sympathetic person was looking out for them and ready to offer a helping hand.
"We have in the past identified students who seemed in their journaling in a bit of a crisis point," Hood says. "We have an approach where we just say, 'Hey, how's it going, it looks like you may be going through a bit of a tough time, you want to come in and talk to anyone, we're very happy to do that.'" There's no call for professional help, but an outside reader potentially sees a student's crisis, sometimes before the student is aware.
Hood clarifies to his students that this psychoeducation course is no substitute for psychological help. Still, it does promote a culture of mental wellness that extends far beyond social media trends.
"I think the course has been well appreciated by international students because mental health issues and well-being is taboo in many cultures," Hood says. "Because it is an educational course which gives credit, I think that normalizes these issues."
“This is an educational experience that all students should have.”
What's next — Hood intends to take this show on the road, offering more of these courses throughout universities in the U.K. There's also a possible machine learning element. While this most recent study looks at 364 students over two semesters, Hood and his team have more than three years' worth of material from past courses, including 18,000 journal entries. He hopes to pore these entries to glean how language can predict mental well-being.
"We're doing AI analysis of the semantic content of those diaries, looking for patterns," Hood says.
Johnson is now a psychology grad student at the University of Bristol and hopes to earn her Ph.D. there while studying the psychology of happiness. She sees room for growth in this fledgling program.
Hood also hopes to offer other life skills courses that examine interpersonal relationships and personal finances. Working for university credit without the pressure of earning a grade motivates students to work without adding excess stress.
"This is an educational experience that all students should have," Hood says.