Academic courses in positive psychology and emotional intelligence are all the rage in Western universities. These teachings, which are often hastily dubbed ‘happiness courses’, help students to lead more peaceful and fulfilling lives.
One of the most interesting and successful examples is the course ‘Psychology and the Good Life‘ by Dr Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale, one of America’s most prestigious universities. In 2018, Santos launched the ten-week Positive Psychology Course as a way of harnessing the insights of science to help children live happy and fulfilling lives.
Much to the amazement of Santos herself, after only a few lectures, the course evolved from an experiment into the most popular course in Yale’s history. The disproportionate interest shown by students convinced the university to offer the course free of charge on the Coursera portal: 3.8 million people enrolled in ‘The Science of Well-Being’. It even resulted in a podcast, ‘The Happiness Lab’, which has been downloaded over 65 million times.
The sheer scale of success is astonishing and the reasons for the course’s popularity are the same as the ones that inspired Santos to create it. Reading some reports, in fact, she had noticed how young people were affected by anxiety and states of distress. Her direct experience with her students confirmed these difficulties. In her podcast, Santos says that one fact in particular prompted her to act: In the US, the rate of depression in 20-year-olds has doubled since 2009.
“Professor Santos’ course was a success, but positive psychology is an emerging area of psychology that has been very convincing for some years now”, explains Andrea Gaggioli, Professor of General Psychology at the Catholic University of Milan. “This is because it merges two prominent aspects together: first, it deals with interesting topics that intrigue us all on a daily basis, such as wellbeing; and second, positive psychology relies heavily on scientific evidence and research, which help to make everything less ethereal and abstract. This strong link with science certainly also helped to overcome the mistrust that many people have towards psychology”.
Positive psychology deals with what makes life worth living
The difference from traditional psychology
Just what does positive psychology mean? “It is a subject that developed in the United States in the early 2000s, thanks mainly to Martin Seligman, who was also president of the American Psychological Association. It focuses on exploring and promoting the individual’s resources and potential. Seligman views it as something that “deals with what makes life worth living”. In this regard, it represents a departure from traditional psychology, which instead focuses primarily on what is dysfunctional. Previously neglected topics, such as positive emotions, passions, enthusiasm, creativity, have regained centre stage. Let’s not forget that everything is strongly linked to psychological scientific research”.
The success of the course is also linked to the fact that it intercepts an obvious difficulty in boys and girls. “Young people today live their daily lives filled with anxiety and anguish. It is unfortunately a persistent element, intensifying in recent years for a variety of very different reasons”. We should also add the pandemic, which”, according to Professor Gaggioli, “acted as a catalyst and made things worse. Not surprisingly, the real pandemic now is mental health. This is further confirmed by the story of the psychologist bonus that the government initiated”.
Previously neglected topics, such as positive emotions, passions, enthusiasm, creativity, have regained centre stage
Andrea Gaggioli, Professor of General Psychology at the Catholic University of Milan
The pandemic, not surprisingly, was also a contributing factor to the success of Professor Santos’ online course. There was plenty of time to search for and experiment with new digital content, and the weeks of lockdown gave many people the opportunity to reflect on their own wellbeing, something that the fast pace of normal life rendered very difficult.
Many enrolled in the physical and digital courses believe that the benefits come mainly from the homework assignments. This is not precisely reading or study material, though there is no shortage of it, but practical exercises.
Professor Santos believes that happiness is not something that springs up in a moment because of some achievement or goal, such as getting one’s dream job, but is a daily commitment made up of experiments, trial and error and habits that are perfected over time and that one has to train.
Techniques to increase one’s wellbeing include writing down five things one is happy about every day over a period of a few weeks. An exercise that may seem trivial, yet science proves that it really works.
The echo created by the course prompted many universities, both in the United States and Europe, to activate similar teachings. However, some positive psychology courses have been present in the psychology faculties of Italian universities for some years now.
One of the first academic initiatives of this kind was the course ‘Psychology for Well-Being: empowerment, rehabilitation and positive technology’, which the Catholic University of Milan launched in 2015. Yet it’s not only the universities that are involved. An increasing number of companies are using positive psychology courses to boost the wellbeing of their employees at work and in the personal lives. Finally, another field of application of this subject, which seeks to activate people’s potential, is teaching, where it can be a useful complementary element to classical pedagogical strategies.