The Science of Wellbeing

In April, I was encouraged to enrol in Coursera’s The Science of Wellbeing course to help me cope with the debilitating depression and anxiety that I had been battling for several months. 

Let me start off by saying that this article is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write. So many hours have been spent writing and rewriting and restructuring and deleting and editing. And an absolutely ridiculous number of hours were spent procrastinating in an attempt to avoid this entirely. It’s the curse of being a writer, or any creative really – I get to explore my mind and heart and create something out of what I find. But sometimes this exploration can be very vulnerable and very painful, and it is much nicer to hide in bed and eat peanut butter straight out of the jar while pretending that the feelings aren’t there. 

But the feelings are there, always, and they kept trying to steal my peanut butter, so eventually I had to sit down and write the thing.

And the thing starts off with me being really sceptical about the whole “this course will teach you how to be happy” concept, for a number of reasons. I initially wrote about four pages on this topic, but what it really boils down to is my relationship with mental illness, and my aversion to any ‘treatment’ that falls outside of medical science. I do acknowledge that there are very real physical, mental and emotional benefits of exercise, proper nutrition, meditation, journalling and other holistic health practices – but I have always ranked these far below psychiatrists, psychologists and prescription medication on the leaderboard of things that actually make a difference in the lives of the mentally ill. 

I feel particularly strongly about this for a number of reasons:

(a)   I have many friends and family members who suffer from serious, chronic mental illness. Furthermore, I have struggled with clinical anxiety and depression since mid-2017, and was diagnosed with bipolar I in mid-2019. So it’s fair to say that I’m pretty familiar with mental illness, what it can do to people, and how difficult it can be to pull yourself out of the shadows once they have drawn you in. 

(b)  People can sometimes overlook the fact that mental illness is generally caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, meaning that it is actually a physical illness. Just like someone can’t fix a broken leg by wishing really hard, you can’t use willpower to get rid of your depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD or bipolar. Believe me, I’ve tried. 

(c)   Lastly, there is a disturbing social narrative (informed by the above) that mental illness is “all in your head”, and that it’s really not that bad. This is already damaging for many mentally ill people who struggle with near-constant guilt and imposter syndrome – a little voice in the back of their head that whispers, “You’re not actually depressed or anxious or bipolar. You’re just lazy and weak, and you’re looking for excuses to make yourself feel better.” Society has made considerable progress, but there is still a huge stigma around mental illness and how legitimate its effects are. This means that people are often nervous about and resistant to getting medical help, especially because they might be hearing things like “all you need is more exercise” or “maybe you should start a gratitude journal”. 

All of this comes together to form the foundation of my cynicism about The Science of Wellbeing – I just didn’t think it would work, and I thought that it was just another thing adding to the narrative that mentally ill people can fix themselves if they just try harder.

And so, as I was churning all of this over in my mind and rolling my eyes at the idea that an online course about gratitude and savouring and kindness could turn this depressed lump into a 5am-meditation-session-and-kale-smoothie kind of girl, I was hit with a pretty uncomfortable realisation. 

had been doing all the medical stuff. I had a trusted psychiatrist and I was taking my medication. I was, for the first time in my life, having weekly therapy sessions with a wonderful psychologist who was giving me solid advice that had actually started to help. But, on average, I was still feeling pretty ‘meh’ (i.e. crying in my boss’s bathroom roughly twice a week). So, I had to admit that it may be time to swallow my pride and accept some ‘holistic help’. 

I had assumed that The Science of Wellbeing would be a collection of floofy teachings about the power of love and the evils of gluten, led by a master of floof with some sketchy qualifications. A giant slice of humble pie was headed my way.

The course is actually offered by Yale University, and is their most well-attended in history. It was developed by Dr Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology and one of the world’s top psychological scientists. Because of how popular and genuinely helpful it turned out to be, Yale decided to make it available through Coursera - a massive online education platform that offers thousands of courses from hundreds of international institutions. Best of all, like many Coursera programmes, The Science of Wellbeing is 100% free (unless you would like to receive a certificate upon completion). 

So yeah... not so floofy, after all. 

The programme is 10 weeks long, and takes approximately 20 hours to complete – so just a couple of hours of work per week. Each week covers a different topic through a series of short video lectures, (optional) readings, and practical exercises. From week two, there is a short quiz you need to complete each week, and at the end of the course you need to submit an assignment. Now this may sound intense, but the beauty of a course like this is that you can tailor your experience to suit your needs and schedule – you can set your own pace and even reset your deadlines if you fall behind.

What makes this course particularly unique are the weekly ‘rewirements’. Dr Laurie explains, “We call them ‘rewirements’ because they’re practices aimed at rewiring your habits. Research suggests that if you do these rewirements as prescribed, you should get a boost in your mood and overall wellbeing.” Prescribed rewirements include practising meditation, setting up a healthy sleep schedule, savouring positive experiences, increasing your acts of kindness, and establishing and strengthening social connections. 

That is pretty much all the background info you need, and I have rambled far too much already, so let’s jump straight into my experience of The Science of Wellbeing. (Spoiler alert: I was wrong, Dr Laurie Santos is my hero, and you should all enrol immediately.)

THE COURSE

My initial plan for this article was to break down each week and talk about the content covered, as well as what I took away from it. However, while each week has a distinct theme and covers its own set of topics, I found that the overall message stays the same from week one to 10. Furthermore, I can split the content into two chunks: weeks one to three discuss why we often find it so hard to be happy, while weeks four to 10 look at strategies for making ourselves happier.
I personally found the first two weeks to be the most revolutionary, touching, and – dare I say – life-changing. Therefore, I’m going to go into detail on just these two lessons, and I’ll give you a little taste of what awaits in the rest of the course. 

Week One: Introduction & Misconceptions About Happiness

It is not enough to only know the theory of how to be happy (i.e. what you should and shouldn’t be doing). If you really want to make a change, you have to put the theory into practice. 

You can learn how to be happy, but it takes hard work. 

This is something that I was afraid of. When I was younger, it seemed like happiness was my default setting – I had just assumed it would always be that way. Fast forward to adulthood, and I find myself so fragile and drained, desperately trying to hold myself together with sticky tape and always feeling so close to just falling to pieces. To discover that getting back to the happiness of childhood would require a full rewiring and remodelling of my life, habits and actions just felt incredibly overwhelming. On the other hand, I had reached a point where I didn’t know if I would ever be able to just be happy again, and now I had hope. Hope that if I listened to the science and followed Dr Laurie’s advice, I would actually be able to live the life that I wanted. 

I had to really sit with these thoughts and work with them to figure out if I was prepared and willing to commit to change. I had become so used to just going along with the ride, stumbling constantly and telling myself and others that it would be fine – I would make it through - with sarcasm and bad coping mechanisms and a rock ‘n roll attitude. It was rough and unstable, but it felt safe. 

However, I knew that I was heading in a downward spiral, and for the sake of my health, job and relationships, I had to make a change. 

Week Two: Things That We Think Will Make Us Happy (But Don’t)

All that stuff that we think will make us happy, like good grades, a high salary, nice stuff, a perfect body... actually doesn’t. Scientists have conducted numerous studies which have determined that when a person achieves these goals, their long-term subjective wellbeing doesn’t really change. According to a pretty famous theory by research psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, the acquisition of the things that we believe will make us happy only makes up around 10% of our overall subjective wellbeing. About 50% is determined by genetic factors, and a whopping 40% is determined by actions, intentions and habits. As humans, we work pretty hard to achieve the things that will make us happy, but we’re working towards the wrong things.

Honestly, this particular bombshell didn’t surprise me too much. I have a job that I love, an incredible support system of family and friends, and two very silly, slightly chubby cats. Objectively, my life is pretty great. And yet I still end up crying in the shower... a lot. I had accepted that, even with the most beautiful life, I would always struggle to some extent because my brain just didn’t function properly. 

However, I was pretty shocked to learn just how much my habits could affect my overall happiness. This scares me quite a bit, because it reaffirms that the onus really is on me to make myself happier. On the other hand, it is incredibly liberating to know that I actually have a fair amount of power and control. 

The next four weeks cover the following:

  • Week Three: Why Our Expectations Are So Bad 

(i.e. Our brains are mean)

  • Week Four: How We Can Overcome Our Biases

(i.e. How to stop your brain from being mean)

  • Week Five: Stuff That Really Makes Us Happy

(i.e. All of the stuff that I thought was silly floof)

  • Week Six: Putting Strategies into Practice

(i.e. How to do the work)

These are all absolutely fascinating and eye-opening lessons with a bunch of guest interviews and scientific studies so that you can really get into the specifics of how our brains work and how we can shape them to give us the lives that we so desperately want. 

Weeks seven to 10 are devoted to ‘Your Final Rewirement Challenge’, which is briefed as follows: 

  • Pick a rewirement from the course that really resonated with you – something that you found particularly helpful, or particularly difficult.
  • Commit to practising this rewirement for four full weeks, monitoring your progress, thoughts and feelings as you go.
  • At the end of these four weeks, you will complete the challenge by answering a few questions such as why you picked your chosen rewirement, which strategies (if any) you put in place, and changes in your happiness score. This comprises your written assignment, which will undergo peer review (i.e. it will be ‘graded’ by fellow course participants).

The hope is that this assignment will help you to implement, practise and maintain habits that will increase your health, happiness and wellbeing. I’m still in the process of completing my rewirement challenge, and so I won’t share too much about that here – but let me just say that the fact that this is the most important course requirement is pretty darn incredible. Something extra that really helps in making this whole assignment less overwhelming is the fantastic ReWi app, developed specifically for the course. The user interface is great, and it makes it super easy to track your progress, and to ensure that you are doing the work that you need to be doing. Even if you aren’t going to do the course, I would highly suggest downloading this app (available on the App Store and Google Play) so that you can get an insight into who you are, how you are living, and how you could make your life just a little bit brighter. 

If there is one thing that has shone through in this course, it is the empathy, passion and compassion of Dr Laurie Santos – the fact that she has put together this course is enough proof of that. But what is truly outstanding is that in each and every video, her integrity and genuine concern for the happiness of her students is almost tangible. She has become a hero of mine, and I hold her in the highest regard of which I am capable.

This course has been fascinating, eye-opening, thought-provoking and brilliant. But I’m not going to tell you that it has made me happy. I think that the reason that the first two weeks hit me so hard is that there is a big part of me that hasn’t been sure if it really is my mental illness making me unhappy, or if I’m just not trying hard enough. I have been so terrified to find the answer because I feared that either it would mean that I was doomed to a life of misery, or that I was responsible for my own pain. Chronic mental illness brings so much pain and emptiness and anxiety and hopelessness, and often I have wondered if I will ever be able to enjoy sustained happiness or, at the very least, normalcy. And now I know that I can. It will take time and effort and hard work, but to know that there are real, practical things that I can do to create the life that I so desperately want...it feels like I have been lost at sea and I can finally see a light in the distance. Even better, I now have a map for how to get there. And I know that it will be so, so worth it.

By Emily Wedepohl