Joy division: Would you pursue a course in Happiness Studies?
At Harvard University in 2006, the most popular course wasn’t in law, medicine, business, even the arts. Twice a week, some 1,400 students flocked to a course called Psyc E-1504, for lessons in the relatively new field of Positive Psychology.
Lectures covered self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality and humour. Simply put, the course promised an education in happiness.
Its professor, Tal Ben-Shahar, moved on from Harvard in 2008, crafted leadership-development programmes, and eventually set up the Happiness Studies Academy in 2016, where he also offers a certificate course in Happiness Studies online.
Over 40 hours of lectures, fortnightly webinars and tonnes of homework, participants study two modules — Introduction to Happiness Studies and Facilitating Happiness. The aim is to decode what brings on the elusive emotion and learn how to teach themselves and others to be happy.
The course costs $3,900 (about ₹2.8 lakh), but students across 57 countries have enrolled so far.
I am a positive-action coach and alternative healer, and I signed up last year. I’m now completing the second semester. Let me explain why I enrolled, and what it’s been like to view happiness through the lens of academic study.
As someone whose clients grapple with anxiety, feeling stuck and being unable to cope with their choices and circumstances, I’m constantly pointing out that being positive is a learned behaviour. That learning needs effort, presence of mind and patience, just like any new skill. When I first heard of Ben-Shahar, I was fascinated.
The lecturer and author had graduated from Harvard with a BA in Philosophy and Psychology and has a PhD in Organizational Behavior. His legendary course was no longer offered at Harvard (not that I’d get into Harvard anyway — being realistic is an essential element of happiness). But the online version addressed the same questions: What if there was a set of habits that could keep you in the “I’m happy and life is good” frame of mind for 70% of the time? What if you could learn those habits, just like you learnt long division or badminton? And what if you could define happiness not as a vague sense of well-being — a pink wisp of candyfloss — but as a recognisable emotion that helped you live your life better?
I’m halfway through the pre-recorded lectures and live webinars, and already the course has done two very important things for me. It’s offered research-based evidence on how mindsets influence emotion and behaviour, and it’s taught me simple yet powerful tools I can share with my clients.
I already firmly believed that physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well-being determined one’s overall levels of happiness. Ben-Shahar’s model included them all and he threw in another aspect: relational well-being, or our dynamic with the people in our lives.
The course contains references to literature and real life, from Shakespeare’s Henry V (which raises the question: what is the price you are willing to pay for happiness?) to the differently abled writer and activist Helen Keller (to what extent are you willing to commit to your pursuit of it?). I particularly loved the idea of creating Islands of Sanity: small pockets of time during which you consciously single-task so your focus is not divided.
I’m learning what might seem obvious: That we’re all programmed to be happy. But I’m also learning about the mindsets, ingrained fears and habits that short-circuit that programming. I’ve been able to develop my own exercises as a result.
One such exercise gets clients to rate themselves every morning on four energy levels: Physical (tired or well rested?), Emotional (drained annoyed, anxious or in a good mood?), Intellectual (at peace or overthinking?) and Spiritual (feeling powerless or hopeful?). Depending on the day’s scores, they must include or drop activities to right the balance and re-energise. Sneak in a nap on days when they’re intellectually drained. Connect with a friend if they’re emotionally low. It’s an effective tool and a great way to understand how energy is expended and can be redirected or replenished.
It’s one of the best courses I’ve done. It’s helped me articulate to clients that happiness is not a static sensation, but a state of being that needs to be worked on. And it’s kept me in a curious state all through.
There is no exam at the end of this course. No grade that attests to what I’ve learnt. But I am convinced, after lectures on cognitive re-framing, neuroplasticity, improv comedy and anterograde amnesia, that being happy isn’t rocket science. It’s a very real, very achievable, possibility.