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Can Online Psychology Classes Increase Well-Being?

Recent research demonstrates that well-being can be taught.

Key points

  • Online classes have been increasingly popular during the pandemic.
  • A study found that participants in online psychology courses saw increases in well-being from their baseline measures.
  • If these classes have long-term benefits, they could become reliable public health interventions.

Among the countless ways people took to coping during the pandemic was by signing up for online classes. Coursera, for example, saw an astonishing 640% increase in enrollment during March-April of 2020, compared to the same period from the previous year. The diverse array of courses offered on these Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms can provide many gains. Knowledge, skills, and a productive way to pass time are some of them. According to a recent study , a boost in happiness might be another one.

Two different psychology classes, thousands of students

 Sergey Zolkin/Unsplash
Source: Sergey Zolkin/Unsplash

Can an online course about well-being actually improve the subjective well-being of those who are taking it?

To explore this question, researchers compared the well-being measures of participants at the start and after completion of two different online psychology courses. One of them is the 10-week The Science of Well-Being course on Coursera, which is based on a wildly popular Yale class taught by Professor Lori Santos. Last year, 1 million new subscribers from around the world enrolled in the course. Apart from learning about the scientific background of various well-being drivers, The Science of Well-Being students are invited to do evidence-based positive psychology interventions as homework assignments. These rewirement challenges , as Santos calls them in her course, include using character strengths in new ways, making new social connections, and meditating.

Participants in the control group were enrolled in an Introduction to Psychology course, also offered online by Yale.

The data from both courses was collected during the same timespan from three different cohorts between August 2018 and August 2020. Taken together, the sample from The Science of Well-Being course had 2250 students, while the sample from the Introduction to Psychology course had 2637 students.

To evaluate the subjective well-being of the participants, the researchers used a multi-dimensional self-report measure ( PERMA profiler ), which gave insight into 15 different well-being variables, including positive emotions, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

The study found that participants from both courses saw increases in well-being from their baseline measures. However, participants from The Science of Well-Being course improved significantly more, a result that was replicated in three samples from different time spans.

The benefits of doing your homework or the rewards of practical course content?

What is behind the significant improvement in well-being levels among the participants from The Science of Well-Being course, compared to the Introduction to Psychology course?

Was it the homework assignments?

After all, plenty of previous research has demonstrated that positive psychology interventions can foster well-being by promoting positive emotions, thoughts and behaviors, as well as helping people to respond to life events in adaptive ways. For example, gratitude interventions , where people are asked to write down things they are grateful for, have been shown to increase happiness and life satisfaction . Best Possible Self interventions, which invite people to envision a future where everything has worked out for them in most optimal ways, can lead to increased levels of optimism . Acts of Kindness interventions can decrease symptoms of depression .

Or was it the course content itself?

Unlike the Introduction to Psychology course, which covers a wide range of topics from the general discipline of psychology, The Science of Well-Being mainly explores findings from studies about human flourishing. For example, some of the topics covered during the class are: why do we often get it wrong when predicting what will make us happy, what really makes us happy, how to override biases, how to build healthy habits.

“With the present results, it’s difficult to know which aspects of these differences between the courses played the causal role–the interventions or the course content,” write the authors, urging future studies to investigate these course components more deliberately.

For now, for those taking the classes, it might prove worthwhile to do their homework and to put into practice the research-backed activities, rather than merely read about them. Sculpting our well-being muscle is not unlike honing any skill. However impressive one’s recipe book collection, one rarely becomes a star baker without standing in the kitchen—sleeves rolled up to elbows, measuring cups and flour spills abound—and starting to bake.

Well-being can be taught

CC0/Unsplash/Alex Block
Source: CC0/Unsplash/Alex Block

The authors conclude with an important takeaway from the study: well-being can be taught. Specifically, psychoeducation in combination with positive psychology interventions has the potential to have beneficial ramifications in public mental health initiatives. While these free online courses that are offered on very large scales are no substitute for psychotherapy, they can provide significant rewards—whether through personal enrichment or an uplift in well-being.

As Professor Santos puts it, “bringing a small mental health benefit to millions of people can have a huge value.”

One open question that remains is how long this effect lasts. Future studies are needed to investigate whether a year or more down the road the students of online classes such as The Science of Well-Being still show similar improvements in well-being. Long-term benefits would enhance the value of these courses even further, making them reliable public health interventions.

References

Yaden, D. B., Claydon, J., Bathgate, M., Platt, B., & Santos, L. R. (2021). Teaching well-being at scale: An intervention study. PloS one, 16(4), e0249193.

Quoidbach J, Mikolajczak M, Gross JJ. Positive interventions: An emotion regulation perspective. Psychological bulletin. 2015;141(3):655.

Mongrain, M., and Anselmo-Matthews, T. (2012). Do positive psychology exercises work? A replication of Seligman et al. (2005). J. Clin. Psychol. 68, 382–389.

Manthey, L., Vehreschild, V., and Renner, K. H. (2016). Effectiveness of two cognitive interventions promoting happiness with video-based online instructions. J. Happiness Stud. 17, 319–339

Meevissen, Y. M., Peters, M. L., & Alberts, H. J. (2011). Become more optimistic by imagining a best possible self: Effects of a two week intervention. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 42(3), 371-378.

Mongrain, M., Barnes, C., Barnhart, R., & Zalan, L. B. (2018). Acts of kindness reduce depression in individuals low on agreeableness. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 4(3), 323.

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