UC Berkeley's free Science of Happiness course taught me simple ways to connect with the people I love and appreciate what I have

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  • The Science of Happiness is an online course from UC Berkeley, offered through edX.
  • This class uses positive psychology, exercises, and surveys to explain steps to becoming happier.
  • I signed up for this course and it helped me boost my feelings of gratitude and social connection.

Have you ever wondered why you feel happy when doing something for other people, or when you build new relationships? 

One online class – and the first-ever massive open online course (MOOC) on the topic of positive psychology – aims to dive into the science behind the everyday actions that make us happier.  With about 500,000 enrollments so far, The Science of Happiness, the University of California, Berkeley’s free online edX course, explores the roots of a meaningful life, from how happiness is linked to strong social ties to how certain activities can foster emotional well-being.

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Even during the first week of the course, you learn practical tips that you can apply to your life. Each happiness practice is accompanied by a reflection activity, so you can track how you feel after doing it. You can also share your experience with others via the edX discussion board and interact with other students. 

One of the practices from the course that I engage in often is Three Good Things, where I list three positive things that happened that day and focus on what caused them. Somedays I list a career accomplishment like landing a new client, but usually, it’s something like catching up with an old friend or perfecting a delicious recipe. Recognizing these little joyful moments, especially on days when I’m feeling down, has helped me develop a more optimistic outlook and enhanced my overall well-being. It also shows me what consistently makes me happy, so I can incorporate more of the things that make me happy into my routine.

  • You can track your progress and see how your feelings change over time.

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At the beginning of each week, the course offers weekly check-ins which monitor your personal progress – especially in regards to how you’re feeling over time. As each week goes by, you can keep track of your score to see how it changes as you engage more with the course material. Since many courses I’ve taken only offer a pre-course and post-course survey to see how you improve, I liked that this one offered more opportunities to note how you feel throughout.

Personally, I found that my scores fluctuated over the weeks. In some weeks, my score didn’t change as the practices I learned — such as taking an “awe walk” and paying more attention to my surroundings — didn’t feel as personally fulfilling. I did notice, though, that my happiness scores were highest when I practiced activities related to social connection, compassion, and gratitude.

  • You learn how to improve your social connections, thereby increasing your happiness. 

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This course particularly focuses on social connection and how it can help us understand our own minds better. One thing that stood out to me was how much we use non-verbal sounds to convey a variety of feelings, such as saying “aww” to communicate compassion and “hmm” to signal interest. As a result, I started using them more often to express my support and empathy towards those around me, which helped me connect with them more.

I also made a commitment to practice more altruism in my life, whether it is volunteering or practicing a random act of kindness. Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I’ve joined a local mutual aid group in my area, where I cook meals for houseless and food-insecure families. I also regularly check in with friends and family members to remain connected, especially if I haven’t heard from them in a while, which involves a quick text or a spontaneous FaceTime call. Little things like these may seem small, but have a big impact in boosting the happiness of others, according to the course.

  • It’s a great way to meet new, like-minded people.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this course was the ability to join and form Happiness Teams — groups of students who meet up virtually to discuss the course content and try happiness practices together. The teams cap at 100 and have descriptions based on interests or preferences — such as a Spanish-speaking team or teams focused specifically on mindfulness.

Joining a Happiness Team is completely optional but encouraged, as it allows for greater personal engagement with course material, whether it’s starting a meditation group or getting involved with a charity. 

I ended up developing a team with a few of my relatives, where we all virtually met up once a week to share our thoughts on each of the topics and watch some of the recommended “Happiness Cinema” movies in the course. Discussing everything with my group helped me better develop my active listening skills, a practice that helps deepen your connection and communication with others. I found that clarifying, summarizing, and sharing things with each other not only improved my understanding of the material, but helped me bond with my family. 

The bottom line

Ultimately, this class doesn’t just teach you about how to enhance your happiness — it also shows you how you can make others’ lives more fulfilling as well. By the end of the course, you’ll be able to identify what happiness is and how to achieve it with research-backed tips, such as random acts of kindness and mindfulness. Personally, it’s helped me strengthen my connections and feel more satisfied with my day-to-day life.

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