University of Bristol published research on the science of happiness

Science and Health

Are people naturally happy or can they make themselves joyful? 

In fact, there is even a how-to course on “The Science of Happiness” offered since 2018 at the UK’s University of Bristol, where researchers have conducted a first-of-its-kind study on the subject.

Although many colleges that have offered psychoeducational courses teaching positive psychology interventions report benefits to mental well-being in the end, they have not investigated whether such beneficial effects are sustained long-term.

Mental well-being is a major concern among university students all over the world. In a large-scale survey of 37,500 students across 140 universities in the UK, 22% of students reported a current mental health diagnosis, and 88% reported feelings of anxiety.

The Bristol study found that students who attended the course enjoyed a significant improvement in their well-being, but the benefits are transient unless the habits learned on the course, such as gratitude, exercise, meditation, or journaling, are maintained over the long term.

Prof. Bruce Hood. (credit: Courtesy from Prof. Bruce Hood)

Senior author and developmental psychology Prof. Bruce Hood said: “It’s like going to the gym – we can’t expect to do one class and be fit forever. Just as with physical health, we have to work continuously on our mental health, otherwise, the improvements are temporary.”

The course—the first of its kind in the UK—does not involve exams or coursework, but it teaches students what the latest peer-reviewed studies in psychology and neuroscience say really makes us happy.

Well-being improvement in the course

Students who took the course reported a 10 %—15 % improvement in well-being. However, only those who continued implementing the course learnings maintained that improved well-being when they were surveyed again two years later.

Just published in the journal Higher Education under the title “Long‑term analysis of a psychoeducational course on university students’ mental well‑being,” the study is the first to track the well-being of students on a happiness course long after they have left it.

“This study shows that just taking a course—at the gym, a meditation retreat, or an evidence-based happiness course like ours—is just the start; one must commit to using what you learn on a regular basis. Much of what we teach revolves around positive psychology interventions that divert your attention away from yourself by helping others, being with friends, gratitude, or meditating,” Hood said.

“This is the opposite of the current ‘self-care’ doctrine, but countless studies have shown that getting out of our own heads helps gets us away from negative ruminations which can be the basis of so many mental health problems.”

Among his conclusions about the course were that talking to strangers makes us happier, despite a majority of us shying away from such encounters; social media is not bad for everyone, but it can be harmful for those who focus on their reputation; loneliness impacts on our health by impairing our immune systems; and optimism increases life expectancy.

In addition, giving gifts to others activates the reward center in the brain – often providing more of a happiness boost than spending money on oneself. Sleep deprivation impacts how well others like us.

Walking in nature deactivates part of the brain related to negative ruminations, which are associated with depression, and kindness and happiness are correlated.

The authors concluded that, alone, psychoeducational courses are likely to be only minimally effective. “They should be considered a key piece of a multicomponent approach integrated with other university services. 

Such a scheme would represent a considerable challenge that both universities and students might resist, but the alternative is to address the ever-increasing burden of higher use of student clinical well-being services.”