Science of Happiness MOOC captivates millennials

Millennials are less likely to marry, vote, follow a religion or stick to one job. And right now, the demographic cohort aged 18 to 33 is signing up in droves for UC Berkeley’s new Science of Happiness Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

“It’s become clear that millennials are seeking a new model of the meaningful life, one less focused on the ideas that captivated my generation, such as greed and materialism,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, co-teacher of the MOOC, which launches Sept. 9 through the edX platform. “Our course will be a science-based platform for the lives they are creating.”

Young people are defining success in new ways

Young people are drawn to the softer side of science. (iStockphoto)

From teenagers to septuagenarians, more than 50,000 women and men worldwide have enrolled in the first-of-its-kind MOOC. The bulk of enrollees belong to the Millennial Generation, which is said to be marked by the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and is more passionate than previous cohorts about living a mindful, meaningful life in the face of economic booms and busts.

“I have been in an emotional, mental, physical, and financial rut since graduating high school and I need to reinvent the way I live in my everyday life,” wrote an 18-year-old Californian when registering for the eight-week online program created by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being.

Open to anyone with an Internet connection

UC Berkeley’s Science of Happiness MOOC is free and available to anyone with an Internet connection who signs up, though people in the health, welfare and counseling professions can take it for credit at a modest cost. Registration began in January and is open until the first day of class. The course is especially popular with the 18-to-24-year-old crowd, though members of Generation X (born between 1964 and 1980) are not far behind.

Among those Gen-Xers is Azucena Ramirez, 43, of San Antonio, Texas, who was among the first to sign up for the MOOC. An outgoing and creative native of Mexico City, she has worked in events marketing for such companies as Dr. Pepper and Royal Caribbean International, but was laid off twice in recent years. Lately, she has been trying to keep up her spirits through yoga, meditation and self-help therapy, but often finds herself crippled by self-doubt.

“I’ve hit a horrible point in my life. I got laid off from an awesome job, moved in with my parents, and just lost my way,“ said Ramirez, who hopes the course will give her a new lease on life. “I need to be around people who have a positive outlook on life.”

Dacker Keltner is co-teacher of the Science of Happiness MOOC

Dacher Keltner is co-teacher of the Science of Happiness MOOC

Overall, Science of Happiness students hail from as far afield as Australia, India, China, Japan, Russia, Europe, Israel, Egypt, Kenya, Sudan, Japan, Brazil, the Philippines and New Zealand. More than 60 percent of the students taking the course are women. At least 40 percent of a person’s happiness depends on habits and activities, the MOOC’s creators say. Thus, the course will include practical exercises for students to track any changes that improve the emotional quality of their lives.

Cross-generational hunger for happiness

“People are hungry for the science of happiness because they’ve hit a wall – in that they’ve obtained all the things they thought would make them happy, and found themselves still disenchanted – or they’ve witnessed this same kind of scenario in other people, and want to know how to avoid that path,” said UC Berkeley neuroscientist Emiliana Simon-Thomas, co-teacher of the MOOC and science director at the Greater Good Science Center.

More than 10 million people globally are estimated to have registered for MOOCs in the few years since online courses began being offered through such platforms as Coursera, Udacity and edX. Unlike previous forms of open courseware – which typically involved downloading texts and observing recorded lectures – MOOCs are customized for a massive online student experience, and incorporate feedback, discussion boards, homework, study groups and even exams and grades.

Computer sciences and engineering are the most popular MOOC topics, but the social sciences and positive psychology courses such as the University of Washington’s “Becoming a Resilient Person” and Harvard’s “Unlocking the Immunity to Change” are catching up. Berkeley’s “Science of Happiness,” which will feature such guest lecturers as mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn and Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotions, is sure to rank among them.

The idea for the course came in response to Keltner’s “Human Happiness” course, which routinely fills auditoriums, and has 400 on the waitlist. Another impetus was the growing interest in content on the Greater Good Science Center’s website, which attracts 350,000 unique monthly visitors, many of whom report that what they read there has a positive influence on their lives.

Students seek personal and career benefits

Among them is Nicky Sloss, 43, a well-being consultant for the Association of Independent Schools in Sydney, Australia, who registered for the MOOC after reading about it in the Greater Good Science Center e-newsletter: “I would like to be able to impart what I learn to both my clients and colleagues, along with the personal benefits, of course,” she said.

Azucena Ramirez is among the first to sign up for the MOOC

Azucena Ramirez is among the first to sign up for the MOOC

Erica Chick, 37, of Buckingham, Penn., became intrigued with the work of the Greater Good Science Center at her parenting book club meeting where she saw the film, “I Am,” in which Keltner and others discuss the nature of humanity. She signed up for the MOOC soon after.

“I look forward to understanding in greater detail and from a scientific perspective how the relationships among genes, life experiences and regular practices play into our ability to achieve happiness,” said Chick, who owns consulting firms that assist with career transitions, human resource planning and large-scale organizational changes.

Ramirez of San Antonio is hoping to connect with other people in her area who have enrolled in the class – maybe even partner with a local coffeehouse to host a Science of Happiness study group, with free coffee. More than anything, she hopes the class will help her regain her confidence and set her on a meaningful career path.

“I want to be in the moment. I want to learn more about myself. I’m open to a career change because right now, it’s hard to put myself out there and hear yet another rejection,” she said, her voice cracking.

And then she laughed: “So now you understand why I want to take a happiness class?”