Science of happiness course improves students’ mental health, study finds

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A university course teaching students lessons in happiness improves their mental wellbeing, research has found.

The University of Bristol’s Science of Happiness course, which counts towards a degree, is the first of its kind in the UK and was launched in 2018.

It uses the latest peer-reviewed studies in psychology and neuroscience to educate students on what is scientifically proven to make people happier.

Any student can enrol on the Science of Happiness, the only course at the university that gives credits towards a student’s degree but does not involve any exams or coursework.

Instead, students gain credit for their engagement in weekly activities and so-called happiness hubs, which are led by senior student mentors, and complete a final group project.

Professor Bruce Hood, who runs the course, said: “I knew the students would enjoy the lectures as the content is so fascinating, but I was truly astounded to discover the positive impact on their mental wellbeing.

“Initially, I thought all the benefits of the course would be washed away by the stress of the pandemic and the lack of social interaction.

“This definitely happened to other students, but those who took the online version of the course still benefitted even though the lectures and happiness hubs were virtual.

“This study proves that learning about happiness can improve your mental well-being.”

Almost 1,000 students at the University of Bristol have taken the Science of Happiness course.

Over three months, they are taught about what studies reveal about people’s brains as well as tangible practices to achieve a more fulfilling life.

Students learn how talking to strangers makes people happier, despite the majority shying away from such encounters.

The course also reveals how loneliness affects people’s health by impairing their immune systems, while optimism increases life expectancy.

Giving gifts to others activities the reward centre in a person’s brain – often providing more of a happiness boost then spending money on themselves, it teaches.

Students are also informed that sleep deprivation impacts on how well they are liked by others, while walking in the countryside deactivates part of the brain related to negative ruminations – associated with depression.

Sarah Purdy, pro-vice chancellor for student experience at the university, said: “Offering students a course that was not examined or graded was a new approach for us.

“It was a recognition that equipping students with the skills they need to stay mentally resilient is at least as important as giving them the knowledge they need for their future careers.

“It’s hugely gratifying to see that this approach has worked. Not only are students feeling better while at university, but they will take what they have learned with them on the next step in their journeys.”

She added that the university had “transformed” its wellbeing services over the past five years and offered counselling, self-help resources, specialist support, therapeutic groups, online communities and student-led groups.

The paper, entitled, ‘Benefits of a psychoeducational happiness course on university student mental well-being both before and during a COVID-19 lockdown’ was published last week.

In the first study, researchers found significantly higher mental wellbeing in first year undergraduate students who took the course compared to a waiting-list control.

A second revealed that students taking the course when Covid-19 restrictions began did not experience increases in mental wellbeing but had higher wellbeing than a matched group.

The third study found an online course increased mental wellbeing in university students and staff during a Covid-19 lockdown.

This supports the claim that courses such as the Science of Happiness are beneficial in both live and online formats and in times of uncertainty, such as the pandemic.

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