I took a course on happiness. Online. At Yale. For free.
I love higher learning as an adult -- I didn't fare that well in my college years. I enrolled at UCLA a few years back to get a certificate in counseling and although well worth it, it was costly and time-consuming. But with this online Yale course, I was able to finish lectures from bed and was a week ahead before I knew it.
And it did not cost me a dime.
Sometimes I yearned for more quantifiable evidence, or wanted updated scientific studies but I quickly realized, it was simply about practical application of some simple activities they called “rewirements” – a reference to rewiring our brains to induce well-being, also known as… happiness. It was scientifically confirmed what I suspected all along, that shiny things, loads of money and good grades will not make us happy. Even the things that we think would be devastating are in fact not as bad as we thought. In the final weeks of the course, the instructor asked us to pick one activity or rewirement to execute daily for 4 weeks. They included meditation, gratitude, savoring, kindness, exercise, connection, sleep and goal setting. I chose to practice all the rewirements, utilizing the Re-Wi app they developed to support the class to document my progress.
Implementing these habits into daily life and learning the scientific research behind them fits nicely with my personal goals and lifestyle. More importantly it supports being an effective coach, a better partner, a sharper writer and a good human. Plus it looks great on my resume. Some of the research was compelling, but after awhile I began to see this more as my personal social experiment. I started to see a pattern as to which rewirements made me happy...and which retirement gave me debilitating anxiety. The app asked when applied, how did each habit made me feel. I was already doing a daily and nightly gratitude practice when I began the course, and surprisingly I rated gratitude as neutral. It excited me to see how much joy uncomplicated kindness and connection brought me. I was surprised at how overlooked yet easy savoring can be. And how for some of us it turns out, setting daily goals (instead of my usual weekly goals) gives us anxiety. It also made me incredibly sad to see in which areas of my life I hadn’t been kind, or how little sleep I have been getting.
I began sharing the class with people I knew it could benefit or who might find it as interesting as I did. This is the way I "socially committed" to it. I spoke of the course details with friends that were looking for more meaning in their lives. A few seemed to find it overwhelming and/or intimidating - or didn't "have time." Could there be a fear of commitment there? Maybe a lack of commitment to self-care. Self-discovery could also be unchartered and scary territory for some. Maybe when we hear Yale University we automatically hear some negative self-talk. Let me remind you, it’s a FREE course at Yale so it can't hurt to try. I shared it on business platforms such as LinkedIn, and I wonder how many of those I reached actually enrolled. Either way, it all held me accountable - saying it out loud to the world so I would accomplish the goal of finishing it. I completed it despite heading out on a much-needed, 10-day cruise mid-course, and in spite of the Nashville tornado we are still coming back from. I’m still unsure if completing the course was ego-driven or mere accountability or both.
As far as my strategy goes, I relied heavily on the Re-Wi app to keep me responsible. After just a week, I didn't feel as accomplished at the end of the day if I hadn't completed most of the rewirements. I wish I had asked for "situation support" in my partner, not only to create a better environment, but to connect more and be reminded to practice kindness. Perhaps it would have had a positive effect on him and his habits/happiness as well.
The suggested WOOP framework (wish, outcome, obstacle, plan) is a practical, accessible, evidence-based motivational strategy developed by NYU Professor Gabriele Oettingen – and it did not resonate with me. I saw implementation of the rewirements as a personal experiment, not a goal-oriented project. Like I said, I get anxiety just thinking about plans. I understand that having an intention is powerful – but the mental contrasting didn’t do it for me either. Maybe my brain just doesn’t work that way. I do know that Oettingen was hard to listen to although she's a celebrated professor of psychology and a positive psychology pro. Put it this way, I can’t stand to listen to Deepak Chopra’s voice either. Forgive me.
During the 4 week final challenge, I completed and recorded some or all of the activities 25 of 27 days. I planned on completing some of, if not all of the activities every day. (Yes, I set a goal and didn’t die.) I noticed a slow start on the first day, as I felt overwhelmed -- as if I couldn't possibly try to accomplish or record all rewirements every day. I quickly realized this to be untrue; I could. The 2 days I missed were due to the tornado that came through my side of town. I can't say I didn't implement the rewirements those days because I surely had, but it was difficult to make myself use the app. I needed a day or two to connect to what was going on around me. But you see, I connected.
Sample Week of Re-Wi App
I took the PERMA profiler -- a questionnaire which measures thriving in terms of 5 domains: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment -- as well as the Authentic Happiness Survey to start the course . I answered the same questions again upon completion, and my score stayed exactly the same. Here's the catch – some happiness factors increased such as engagement and meaning to life. Even my perception of my health increased. But areas like relationships and loneliness faltered. When I embarked on this journey, I was grieving my father and managing the stress of family over the distribution of (or lack thereof) my father's estate. It was also mid-winter in middle Tennessee, and I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. During the course I had to switch jobs, tend to an ailing 14 year-old dog, suffer through continuous financial fear, deal with the aftermath and trauma of a natural disaster, navigate the love of my life leaving… and the beginning of what is now a full-on global pandemic (COVID-19.)
This course has kept me more balanced and self-aware than ever -- and here it all came out in the wash. My happiness score was low and remained low, however I got a little boost in confidence, a workout for the mind and loads of self-knowledge I wouldn't have attained otherwise during an incredibly challenging time.
The experience of building new habits was self-revealing. I found myself being more present when I was trying to accomplish a rewirement. Take savoring for example - somewhat impossible to accomplish without being completely present. I found myself then savoring the other rewirements, namely connection, acts of kindness, gratitude, exercise. The daily goal setting? A morning to-do list is more palatable. I do a weekly goal sheet on a legal pad on Monday mornings as I have for years. It’s just strange to see what’s on it these days; buy rice & beans and frozen food for a month, call utilities, call the landlord, find work, FIND HAND SANITIZER.
I discussed with my Yoga teacher Jane (who holds a M.A. in Counseling Psychology and a B.A. in Psychology) how both short and long term goals make me anxious. She shared that she too has anxiety with setting goals. To paraphrase, she says it could be a result of living a soulful life where we listen to our bodies and are open to opportunities and possibilities as they are revealed. I can get behind that.
I felt inspired by the data I was collecting on myself, which lead to further curiosity, a signature strength I had lost in this past year. It’s cool to know that simply being kind, savoring and connecting gives me the most joy. I already had a hunch that exercise makes me blissful; not just for vanity, but for health and vitality (in addition to the endorphins I so badly need these days.)
I could have done without out the WOOP lecture. I would like to learn more about our signature strengths and how using them daily translates into lasting improvements. I would love to see spirituality or time in nature added as rewirements. For some of us they are one in the same. Even without the structure of a course, I could make it one of the activities I partake in everyday because I know from experience it brings me joy. Makes me… happy.
In the coming weeks and maybe for the next year or more, we are going to lose that vital connection to ourselves while we are in true survival mode. Simple pleasures will fall off our radar. Some of us will find ourselves changing, where we lose those things that I now realize I have lost – hope, bravery, perseverance, zest and curiosity; the very things I need the most during these trying times. I can take stock in the things that I learned I still possess, including humor, gratitude, love of learning, appreciation for beauty, kindness, honesty, perspective and most importantly forgiveness. What I found in taking a course in happiness during one of the darkest times of my life is that I have the ability to make subtle and lasting changes to my daily existence that could keep me afloat, even when I can’t pay the bills or when I am heartbroken beyond words. So maybe this wasn’t a quest for happiness at all but a lesson in awareness – learning what good stuff truly makes us tick as individuals, the things that give life meaning even in uncertain times. Times like these.
You can take The Science of Well Being, online at Yale University with Laurie Santos here: https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being.
Writer, coach and music business professional Joanna Basile hails from Chicago, lives in East Nashville and misses the weather in LA.