Happiness Takes Practice

Summary: Happiness can indeed be learned through courses like their ‘Science of Happiness’, which educates students on evidence-informed habits for well-being. However, a follow-up study indicates that the initial boost in well-being requires sustained effort and continued practice of these habits, such as gratitude and meditation, to maintain long-term benefits.

This study underscores the importance of actively working on mental health, akin to maintaining physical fitness, challenging the prevailing ‘self-care’ narrative by emphasizing outward-focused activities.

Key Facts:

  1. Learning Happiness: The ‘Science of Happiness’ course at the University of Bristol, launched in 2018, demonstrates that educational programs based on scientific research can significantly improve well-being.
  2. Sustaining Well-being: Long-term improvements in happiness are contingent on the consistent application of positive psychology interventions learned during the course.
  3. Research Findings: This is the first study to longitudinally assess the well-being of students who have taken a happiness course, highlighting the necessity of ongoing mental health practices.

Source: University of Bristol

We can learn to be happy, but only get lasting benefits if we keep practising, a first-of-its-kind study has revealed.

The team behind the University of Bristol’s ‘Science of Happiness’ course had already discovered that teaching students the latest scientific studies on happiness created a marked improvement in their wellbeing.

But their latest study found that these wellbeing boosts are short-lived unless the evidence-informed habits learnt on the course – such as gratitude, exercise, meditation or journaling – are kept up over the long-term.

This shows a happy woman.
“Much of what we teach revolves around positive psychology interventions that divert your attention away from yourself, by helping others, being with friends, gratitude or meditating.” Credit: Neuroscience News

Senior author Prof Bruce Hood said: “It’s like going to the gym – we can’t expect to do one class and be fit forever. Just as with physical health, we have to continuously work on our mental health, otherwise the improvements are temporary.”

Launched in 2018, the University of Bristol’s Science of Happiness course was the first of its kind in the UK. It involves no exams or coursework, and teaches students what the latest peer-reviewed studies in psychology and neuroscience say really makes us happy.

Students who took the course reported a 10 to 15% improvement in wellbeing. But only those who continued implementing the course learnings maintained that improved wellbeing when they were surveyed again two years on.

Published in the journal Higher Education, is the first to track wellbeing of students on a happiness course long after they have left the course.

Prof Hood said: “This study shows that just doing a course – be that at the gym, a meditation retreat or on an evidence-based happiness course like ours – is just the start: you must commit to using what you learn on a regular basis.

“Much of what we teach revolves around positive psychology interventions that divert your attention away from yourself, by helping others, being with friends, gratitude or meditating.

“This is the opposite of the current ‘selfcare’ doctrine, but countless studies have shown that getting out of our own heads helps gets us away from negative ruminations which can be the basis of so many mental health problems.”

Prof Hood has distilled the Science of Happiness course into a new book, out on March 10. ‘The Science of Happiness: Seven Lessons for Living Well’ reveals an evidence-informed roadmap to better wellbeing.

The other paper authors are fellow University of Bristol academics Catherine Hobbs and Sarah Jelbert, and Laurie R Santos, a Yale academic whose course inspired Bristol’s Science of Happiness course.

  • Surprising take aways from the Science of Happiness course include:
    • Talking to strangers makes us happier, despite a majority of us shying away from such encounters.
    • Social media is not bad for everyone, but it can be bad for those who focus on their reputation.
    • Loneliness impacts on our health by impairing our immune systems.
    • Optimism increases life expectancy.
    • Giving gifts to others activates the reward centres in our brain – often providing more of a happiness boost than spending money on oneself.
    • Sleep deprivation impacts on how well we are liked by others.
    • Walking in nature deactivates part of the brain related to negative ruminations, which are associated with depression.
    • Kindness and happiness are correlated.

About this happiness and psychology research news

Author: Laura Thomas
Source: University of Bristol
Contact: Laura Thomas – University of Bristol
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Long‑term analysis of a psychoeducational course on university students’ mental well‑being” by Bruce Hood et al. Higher Education


Long‑term analysis of a psychoeducational course on university students’ mental well‑being

Although many higher educational institute (HEI) psychoeducational courses teaching positive psychology interventions report benefits to mental well-being upon completion, they have not typically addressed whether such beneficial effects are sustained long-term beyond the period of the courses.

Here, we report a pre-registered follow-up of 228 undergraduate students, from a variety of disciplines, who took a positive psychology course 1 or 2 years previously. Overall, group analysis revealed that students who had taken the course did not continue to show the originally reported benefits at follow-up.

Students who had taken the course scored higher on mental well-being than other students tested using a university-wide survey, but they were also higher at baseline 1–2 years earlier indicating a sampling bias.

An exploratory analysis, however, revealed that 115 students (51% of the group) who had continued to practice the recommended activities taught during the course maintained their increased mental well-being over the period of follow-up.

We therefore suggest that continued engagement is a key factor in sustaining the long-term benefits of positive psychology courses. Implementation of such courses should therefore include provision and mechanisms for maintaining future student engagement.

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