FE_Happiness_Banner
Root Stocks/Getty

As a professor of psychology at Yale and host of The Happiness Lab podcast, I’ve spent the last few years teaching simple science-backed tips to improve our well-being. I know the research inside out—but the giant dumpster fire of a year that was 2020 has had me struggling, too.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cheated us out of all the good times we live for—the weddings, the vacations, the graduations and celebrations. Our work lives have been upended and our livelihoods threatened. There are people we love who we haven’t seen in months and some we’ll never see again; millions of us are mourning someone close who’s been taken by this awful disease. These overwhelming losses have had a devastating effect on our mental health, with rates of depression, anxiety and even suicidality surging around the world.

The good news is that there’s a lot to be hopeful for in the new year. With a vaccine on the way, there’s a real hope that we’ll soon be returning to the way of life we miss so much. But we can’t toss out our masks just yet. Even under the best public health scenarios, we’re in for several more months of cancelled plans, social distancing, and skyrocketing COVID cases, all during the coldest and darkest times of the year. For a while at least, 2021 is going to feel like 2020 2.0.

So how do we get it through it? Most of us realize that we need to take steps to manage our stress and emotions during tough times. The problem is we tend to go about managing those feelings in surprisingly ineffective ways. If you listen to my podcast, The Happiness Lab, you’ll know this is a common refrain. Our minds have really bad intuition about what we should do to become hap- pier and feel better. So even when we put in some work to improve our well-being, we often wind up doing it wrong.

But there is a better, scientific approach to improving our own happiness. Over the last two decades, psychologists have studied the kinds of behaviors and mindsets that really can boost well-being.

I started gathering these scientific findings together long before anyone had heard of COVID-19. It was back in 2018 when I had just come face-to-face with a different mental health crisis: the one facing my students at Yale. I had just taken on a new role as a Head of College, which meant living with students on campus and seeing their daily lives up close. I witnessed the high rates of stress and anxiety my students were facing first hand. Too many of the young people I cared about were lonely, stressed about the future and intensely worried about their grades. But it wasn’t just Yale students who were struggling. A 2018 survey of college students nationally reported that more than 40 percent were so depressed it was difficult to function, more than 60 percent had experienced overwhelming anxiety, and more than one in 10 had seriously considered suicide in the previous year.

FE_Happiness_Laurie Santos
Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos, whose class on the science of happiness is the most popular in the university’s history. Enrollment for the free online version has skyrocketed since COVID, as people search for ways to be happy amid tragedy.
Marsland Michael

Faced with these awful statistics, I wanted to do something to help. I decided to create a new class on the science of happiness—one that gave students practical, evidence-based tips for reducing their stress and improving their well-being. And the students showed up in droves. Over a thousand students attended class the first week. We had to move to a concert hall. In the end, it became the largest class in Yale’s history with just under a quarter of the entire student body registered. The popularity of the class prompted Yale to share the happiness class more broadly. We put a six week version of the course—called The Science of Well-Being—on Coursera.org so that anyone in the world could take it for free. Hundreds of thousands of people signed up.

But that was all before COVID hit. Starting in March of 2020, en- rollment in my online happiness class doubled, tripled—then octupled. In the middle of a pandemic, more than three million people signed up to take an Ivy League class about how to feel happier.

But did it work? Could taking a scientific approach to happiness help people feel better in the midst of a deadly pandemic?