‘Science of Happiness’ digital course improves students’ mental health

The University of Bristol has seen significant improvements in the mental wellbeing of students who took the remote course, which is void of any exams or coursework while still providing degree credit

A remote course on the ‘Science of Happiness’ from the University of Bristol was shown to significantly improve students’ mental health during the pandemic. 

The online course is the first of its kind in the UK, and is the only course at the University that gives the benefit of credit towards a student’s degree without involving any exams or coursework. 

Using peer-reviewed studies in psychology and neuroscience, the course provides information on what is scientifically proven to make us happier and improve mental wellbeing. 

It was initially launched during 2018 after the UK saw an increase in student mental health problems. 

Professor Bruce Hood heads up the course, and is also behind a new study published today in the journal PlosOne, exploring the experiences of Bristol students who took the 11-week course compared to those who did not. 

The study found that the 166 students who took the course experienced a better maintenance of their mental wellbeing compared to the control group. 

In contrast, the control group was seen to show a significant decline in their mental wellbeing, as well as an increase in anxiety. 

It’s clear that Professor Hood and his team are offering something that is engaging, educational, and genuinely effective for improving mental health – and it has become an important piece in our support package for our students Professor Sarah Purdy, pro-vice chancellor for student experience at the University of Bristol 

Prof Hood noted that the pandemic could have a part to play in the findings: “Psychoeducational courses like the ‘Science of Happiness’ have been shown to benefit students. However, what was less clear is how it would help students during a pandemic that not only affected nearly everyone’s mental health, but also meant they had to study for it online. 

“The results were a welcome sign that the course is achieving its aims. It was also pleasing to see it working with all content and interactions conducted online. 

The fact that benefits were replicated with a wholly online version, provides support for expanding the provision of such courses to reach larger populations where in-person lecturing is problematic. We believe that provision of such a course should be part of the educational experience for all students.” 

The course has seen such success over 1,200 students that it has now become a BBC podcast, ‘The Happiness Half Hour’. 

‘Purely for benefit’ 

Izzy Bond, a ‘Science of Happiness’ student, took the course alongside her psychology degree before going on to become a course mentor. Bond is now doing a psychology Masters and has plans to take on a research PhD. 

“I was curious about a course that involved no examinations and was purely for your own benefit,” she said.   

“I did it twice, once before and once during the pandemic, and really enjoyed it both times. As a mentor I’d help students understand the course content and we’d chat through the studies and do more informal things, like go for walks. 

“One of the things that really stood out from the course is when we did a quiz which ranked what we felt were our strengths and weaknesses. Studies have shown that those who do jobs that match their strengths have higher life satisfaction – all of my strengths suggested I would enjoy being an academic, which really confirmed my decision to pursue becoming a lecturer.” 

Professor Sarah Purdy, pro-vice chancellor for student experience at the University of Bristol, said: “This evidence is really important in developing our understanding of the benefits of psychoeducational courses on mental health.  

“Dr Hood’s work raises interesting possibilities about widening the scope of the ‘Science of Happiness’ course and we are working with him to realise those.” 

You might also like: Integrating mental health into the curriculum

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