Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

Online psychoeducational courses can provide accessible support to student well-being amid the pandemic and beyond, according to recent research from psychology professor Laurie Santos and other experts.

The recent study from Santos and three contributors from the University of Bristol — Catherine Hobbs, Sarah Jelbert and Bruce Hood — revealed that participation in credit-bearing online happiness courses can have a protective effect on student mental health. The study, published Feb. 16, examined the impacts of the virtual “Science of Happiness” course on students from the University of Bristol compared to a wait-list control group. The online course was modeled after Santos’ popular “Psychology and the Good Life” class, offered at Yale. Using various self-reporting measures — including well-being, perceptions of academic performance, positive expectations and interest, engagement, feedback and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic — the researchers examined the benefits and limitations of their online happiness course.  

“​​As a result of participating in the course, students maintained levels of mental well-being during the lockdown compared to a match control group who experienced significant decline in mental well-being as well as increased anxiety,” Bruce Hood, University of Bristol professor of developmental psychology in society, wrote to the News. “This suggests that the course may strengthen resilience during times of adversity.”

Due to the pandemic, interest in online courses has increased significantly. 

The study is considered by its authors to be among the first to test the efficacy of online courses in improving well-being in a university academic course setting.

“There is a real interest now in whether you see the same sorts of benefits from courses conducted online versus courses conducted face-to-face,” said Sarah Jelbert, a lecturer in the School of Psychological Science at the University of Bristol. 

The researchers sought to examine whether online courses were capable of delivering on the goals of existing in-person options.

The article explained that many universities use a “reactive, individualized approach” to treat mental health, which typically takes the form of mental health services and treatment. Courses such as the online “The Science of Happiness,” however, are intended to provide students with tools to better understand their own mental health and take measures to prevent it from declining.

“The goal of classes like these is to give students strategies for improving their well-being,” Santos wrote to the News. “Classes like these are not meant to be a substitute for therapy or mental health counseling but would be complementary in the sense that they teach students concrete evidence-based skills they can use to improve their resilience and flourishing, ones that can be used to help students navigate the stresses of college life.”

Santos also recently appeared in The New York Times Magazine to discuss her work, drawing especially from her students’ understandings of happiness and their experiences with “Psychology and the Good Life.” 

In addition to her class, which has become exceedingly popular at Yale, Santos also has a podcast called “The Happiness Lab” that currently has over 35 million downloads.

“It’s been humbling that so many people have resonated with the class I developed here at Yale and the podcast that followed from it,” Santos wrote. “It’s also been amazing to see that so many universities around the world are beginning to teach similar courses for their students, especially since we’re starting to see evidence that classes like these can indeed help student resilience.” 

With the positive reception of Santos’ work and that of her co-authors at the University of Bristol, the researchers have indicated interest in continuing to explore means of improving the courses as well as identifying the factors that make students especially likely to benefit from the course.

The collaborators have also indicated interest in expanding course offerings beyond Yale and the University of Bristol.

“What we really want to do is take these results and apply them to get more universities on board with this idea of embedding teaching about happiness into the curriculum,” Jelbert said.

A total of 477 Yale College students were enrolled in Santos’ “Psychology and the Good Life” as of Feb. 9.

GAVIN GUERRETTE
Gavin Guerrette covers faculty scholarship & breakthroughs. He is a freshman in Branford College majoring in Humanities.