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A ‘science of happiness’ course at Bristol Uni is making people happier

First-year students enrolled on the psychoeducational module – the first of its kind in the UK – are experiencing a profound increase in their wellbeing

Our definition of happiness changed dramatically over the past year. With optimism in a deficit, it became something seemingly short-term: getting the perfect rise on your banana bread, mastering a TikTok dance, or the clatter of the Le Creuset delivery on your doorstep.

The state of mental health among students was in an entirely different predicament back in 2018, when the University of Bristol launched its ‘Science of Happiness’ course. It’s the first of its kind in the UK, educating students on the mechanisms behind making people happier. A University city notoriously associated with some of the most concerning attitudes towards mental health, Bristol made headlines with a high number of suicides back in 2017 and with students reportedly set to wait three times longer to access mental health services than the national average.

Three years on from the course inception, and as the UK marked it’s coronaversary yesterday, research into the psychology behind our spirits has proven fundamental, as it’s been shown to have solid, positive improvement on student mental health.

How far can science help us to be happier? This is something course leader and Professor of Developmental Psychology in Society, Bruce M. Hood, wanted to explore. Hood got the 10-week module off the ground because of the startling ramifications of mental health among young people. 

“I was alarmed at the rising problem of student mental health problems back in 2018, and wanted to do something about it,” Hood tells Dazed. “By coincidence, a former student of mine, Laurie Santos had developed a course at Yale University that inspired me to do something for our students.”

Influenced by the Yale University programme that explores the misconceptions in happiness and productive habits, the course, through a combination of theoretical and practical activities, offers weekly ‘Happiness Hub’ discussions to journals capturing their reflections and the effectiveness of methods on their own mental health. 

The module was taken by first year students in order to alleviate the daunting transition into undergraduate studies. The study since has shown that studying happiness in turn has a positive impact on a student’s own mental wellbeing. Following the progress of the first cohort, who took part in the programme in 2019, data indicates that students had a significantly higher mental wellbeing than a control group. A secondary cohort, who participated during the pandemic, recorded that they did not experience increased well being, but a proportionally higher third cohort of students and staff who completed the module online reflected increased wellbeing.

“The combination of theory and practice with regular meetings with other students appears to be a formula that increases self-reports of wellbeing,” notes Hood. “I also think that teaching them about the importance of resilience especially in relation to exam performance is critical.”

As the report highlights, statistics regarding depression and anxiety among young people in higher education are dire, with a five-fold increase for students in the UK throughout the past decade. “Even before the pandemic, there was a crisis in student mental well-being which has been exacerbated by the lockdown,” acknowledges Hood. A major by-product of a global health pandemic resulted in a colossal cataclysm in the state of our happiness. Our definition of cheerfulness altered dramatically, becoming something seemingly short-term and attainable through the four walls of our quarantine or pixelated squares on Zoom in order to rekindle with familiar faces. 

It therefore comes as no surprise that recordings on life satisfaction have evolved radically, more so in a pre-pandemic era. It reflects a U-shape that mirrors lifespan, with the lowest point situated between the 40-60 age bracket. But following the effects of COVID-19, the impact on the younger generation has been severe enough to drastically alter the U-shape, resulting in the lowest satisfaction amongst younger age groups. 

Encouraging students to partake in psychoeducational courses is proving to be beneficial in alleviating the uncertainty of continued unsettling times. While students are given credit for their participation rather than graded examinations, the valuable module lends itself to a younger generation, already fearful of the future repercussions from the pandemic, by teaching invaluable lessons for a more fulfilling life.