UC Berkeley offers open online course on the science of happiness

Kira Walker/Staff

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Students around the world will soon be able to study the intricacies behind turning frowns upside down in a new online course to be offered by UC Berkeley this fall.

The online course, called “The Science of Happiness,” will focus on theories of positive psychology and aim to provide practical lessons for enrolled students. With more than 45,000 students already enrolled, it is included in UC Berkeley’s top five most popular massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which are open to anyone with Internet access around the world and offered through the nonprofit online initiative edX.

The course was created by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, an interdisciplinary scientific research center that studies human well-being. It will be taught by neuroscientist Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the center’s science director, and campus psychology professor Dacher Keltner, a co-director of the center, who has taught a similar class on campus about human happiness. They will be joined by leading experts in related fields, who will facilitate seminars for the enrolled students.

“We hope that we can give the most people possible the tools to be happy,” Simon-Thomas said. “What we’re really looking at is the research that tells us about what it means to be happy, and what we’re really focusing on are elements of that equation that are less studied at this point.”

Course material will be provided for eight weeks, but students will have up to 10 weeks to complete the class. The course will include a midterm, a final and practical exercises, as well as an online discussion component where students can vote for other students’ questions to get responses from the instructors.

“Even if we set aside three hours for this discussion, it’s going to be very complicated to have 45,000 people’s voices heard,” Simon-Thomas said, although she added that by the time the class begins, there may be as many as 12 GSIs to assist in facilitating the course.

Suzie Shepard, a former lecturer at San Jose State University — where she taught a course called “Creating a Meaningful Life” — is enrolled in the online course. Now, she is hoping the course will continue her studies of happiness while allowing her to perform everyday activities and spend time with her family.

“I’m at home as a parent and I’m imagining I’m putting food in the crockpot and I could be listening to it and reading it,” Shepard said.

UC Berkeley began working with edX to offer MOOCs in 2012. A study released last year found that MOOCs may cost more than traditional courses to develop and offer fewer benefits to students. MOOCs can also potentially increase social inequality because students can pay to get a certificate of achievement signifying they have completed an edX course, the study said.

Chris Van Nostrand, director of marketing at the campus resource center for online education, said that they have seen a lot of people gravitating toward the cost-free MOOCs and that they have expanded the number of courses offered in recent years. He added that these courses typically see high international registration rates.

“Online degrees and hybrid programs are important to UC Berkeley,” Van Nostrand said. “MOOCs fit in with regards to being able to reach a large global audience.”

The course begins Sept. 9, and students can register online through the edX website.

Contact Angel Grace Jennings at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @angeljenningss.