Healthy Outlook: Free online class teaches ‘science of happiness’

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I’ve occasionally considered going back to school to further my education. The problem is that most graduate programs don’t offer classes that I can complete on my own schedule at home in my pajamas, that have only optional assignments and that are completely free — of cost and of obligations.

Fortunately for me, I’ve discovered the perfect school and courses that fit all of my criteria.

I recently stumbled upon edX, online at The platform currently holds more than 2,500 online classes. A lot of them offer professional certificate programs and the like, at a cost, but many of them are completely free MOOCs, or massive online open courses. It’s a treasure trove for lifelong learners — or, as my family members and I affectionately label each other, nerds.

The class that initially drew my attention to the website was the Science of Happiness, which is presented by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley.

The free class — which is taught by Dacher Keltner, director of the GGSC, and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the center’s science director — begins with an introduction to explain why the class exists and what to expect, plus an exploration of historical philosophies on happiness.

The course is separated into nine weeks, focusing on different topics, but it’s completely self-paced. A few topics on the list are the power of social connection, mindfulness, mental habits of happiness, and gratitude.

photo by: Wikimedia Commons

Dacher Keltner

The class does have a little bit of “homework” involved, but of course, it’s all optional. Naturally, if you’re taking the time to read materials, watch the videos and process it all, it seems only reasonable that you would want to get the most out of the class, which is the goal of the homework.

One Week 1 assignment is called “Three Good Things.” It simply asks you to write down — as the name might imply — the details and circumstances surrounding three good things that happened to you that day.

In a video accompanying the assignment, Simon-Thomas acknowledges that the practice may sound a bit hokey at first.

“Most of the research shows that the more regular, authentic effort that you invest and put into these kinds of exercises, the bigger the impact, the most lasting the effects,” she says in the video.

The class also features input from other experts in the field of happiness, including Barbara Fredrickson, Paul Ekman, Sonja Lyubomirsky and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Besides the potential to learn scientifically sound ways to boost your happiness, keeping your brain stimulated is good for it.

An article from Harvard Health says that “scientists have found that brainy activities stimulate new connections between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells” and develop plasticity. As examples, the article lists reading, taking courses and doing word and math problems.

There’s an impressive list of other health-related course titles on edX. Here are a few: “Population Health: Disease Prevention and Management,” from Doane University; “Nutrition and Health: Macronutrients and Overnutrition,” from Wageningen University & Research; “Through My Eyes – Intellectual Disability Healthcare around the World,” from the University of Queensland, Australia; and another one from the GGSC, “Mindfulness and Resilience to Stress at Work.” (I confess — I enrolled in that last one, too, but I haven’t even opened it yet. Fortunately, no tuition dollars lost.)

I’ve even spotted some Big 12 involvement: “Reinvent yourself: Unleash your creativity” is a free course from the University of Texas School of Public Health.

Many of the classes do offer certificates if you would like to pay and receive grades on assignments to complete the course. The Science of Happiness, for instance, offers a certificate for $49. It’s an option, but it’s not necessary in order to see the class materials.

Here’s a selection of a few other titles of free courses on edX, just to get a taste of the variety: “Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness,” from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; “The Spain of Don Quixote,” from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; “Human Rights: The Right to Freedom of Expression,” from Amnesty International; and “Ancient Masterpieces of World Literature,” from Harvard University.

About Healthy Outlook

Healthy Outlook is a column written by Journal-World reporter and Health section editor Mackenzie Clark, in hopes of helping readers make their lives a little bit happier, healthier and more active.

Have questions about the world of health and wellness in Lawrence, or a health story idea? Contact Mackenzie:

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