Sunday, 11 January 2015

ciao, GG101x

When I just started my first MOOC, the choice of courses at edX was very limited and most of them were called “Introduction to something”. Two and a half years on, edX has a bewildering array of courses, and not only in English but also in French, Spanish, Mandarin and Turkish. And check out the names: Alien Worlds, The Art of Poetry or How Stuff Moves. Somehow, Introduction to is not sexy anymore. On the other hand, even a verified course in Jazz Appreciation does not look that impressive on your CV (if you still care about these things).

As I did stop (or like to think that I did) to care about my CV, I thought one can do worse than take a course boldly named The Science of Happiness, “The first MOOC to teach positive psychology”. It turned out to be a happy choice indeed.

Now “happy”, together with “love”, is one of the most abused words in English. We ask “Are you happy with that?” when we merely mean “Are you OK with that?”. Likewise, one says “I am not happy with your service” meaning “Your service is rubbish”, as if one would be truly happy otherwise. No s/he wouldn’t. So why bring in happiness in the first place?

“Father, I must speak. I can be silent no longer. All day long you mutter to yourself, gibber, dribble, moan, and bash your head against the wall yelling ‘I want to die’. Now you may say I’m leaping to conclusions, but... you’re not completely happy, are you?”

In Monday Begins on Saturday, Magnus Feodorovich Redkin, who collects various definitions of happiness, quotes a poem by Christopher Logue:

You ask me:
What is the greatest happiness on earth?
Two things:
changing my mind
as I change a penny for a shilling;
listening to the sound
of a young girl
singing down the road
after she has asked me the way.
Logue himself once said: “Poetry cannot be defined, only experienced”. Could be the same said about happiness? If so, how could it be studied scientifically?

That’s what Science of Happiness is about. Created by the Greater Good Science Center (I love the name!), the interdisciplinary course was first offered in Autumn 2014 and ran for nine (or ten) weeks. This year, it is re-launched as a self-paced class so you can take it any time before May 2015. The last year program was as follows:

  • Week 1: Introduction to the Science of Happiness
  • Week 2: The Power of Connection
  • Week 3: Kindness & Compassion
  • Week 4: Cooperation & Reconciliation
  • Week 5: Midterm Exam
  • Week 6: Mindfulness, Attention, and Focus
  • Week 7: Mental Habits of Happiness: Self-Compassion, Flow, and Optimism
  • Week 8: Gratitude
  • Week 9: Finding Your Happiness Fit and the New Frontiers
  • Final Exam

Every week, the students were asked to “check in” by answering quick questions about how they’ve been feeling over the past few days. These weekly check-ins track the changes to the student’s general emotional state through the course. They are are voluntary, confidential, and do not affect the final grade.

Apart from lectures, readings, homework and exams (easy-peasy, I should say), the course includes optional weekly “happiness practices”, such as Random Acts of Kindness. Unfortunately, I took their “optionality” rather literally; in other words, I skipped the practices. But nothing really prevents me from doing them now.

As you can see from my progress chart above, even without “happiness practices” my emotional state (the left part of the chart) had improved quite significantly. Does it mean I am a happier person now? I am not sure, but strongly suspect that the answer is yes.