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Learning to live well in lockdown: A student’s diary on the Science of Happiness course

When I heard the Science of Happiness course was being made available, I was immediately curious. Not only did Bruce Hood’s course offering provide the prospect of doing something to cheer me up during lockdown, but because I’ve spent the past year admiring the authentic learning techniques used in the Bristol Futures course. However, I had my reservations, with over 700 students and only 4 weeks can this really improve my happiness? Either way, I had the time to try.  

Week 1:  

After the usual technical difficulties, the lecture began. Personally, I am not the biggest fan of watching things online and unlike many student’s RePlay has always baffled me, but this lecture actively encouraged you to engage. Using the chatbot rather than being asked to raise your hand/ turn on your video and microphone made it feel safer to ask questions. I was less afraid of asking a stupid question, or of my video freezing at a comical moment (the new reliance on technology does not suit my decrepit laptop). We were also encouraged to use the chatbot for just that: chat. Hearing about where people were from and what they were feeling grateful for made it feel more like I was in a room of likeminded people rather than staring at blank screens.  

From an authentic learning standpoint, the Science of Happiness really glows, particularly in the way that it is ‘assessed’ (as an optional course it is not credit bearing assessment). Before setting our weekly task, Prof. Hood provided an entire slide about WHY we should be doing these tasks and HOW it would be helpful for us. This is always something I have struggled with at university, being set tasks that at the time feel arbitrary and I am unsure about what their purpose is or the skills I am developing. By explaining it simple terms why we should be doing the task, it made me look forward to doing it, and excited to see the possible results.  

From the perspective of a student in lockdown, I was excited to see the blending of synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Again, with a decrepit laptop and dodgy internet connection, the interactive seminars were not always in my favour, so the opportunity to reflect on the course in my own time by completing small daily tasks was appealing. Similarly, a big part of this course seems to be about reflection: on your day; on your experiences; on your relationships. I am also applying this to my learning outside of this course with the hope it might become a valuable ‘Way to Wellbeing’, particularly in a time when it is easy to wish things were different.  

All in all, I’m looking forward to the rest of this course, and who knows, maybe it’ll make my life in lockdown a little bit happier

Week 2:  

As forewarned, my hedonistic adaptation kicked in slightly this week, and although I noticed a significant change in my mood shortly after the first lecture I have now noticed it drop back down to normal; external factors may have come into play with this week being full of deadlines. Nonetheless, the homework, write 3 things that went well in your day has been making my evenings far more pleasant, and I have been able to savour the little things much better: sitting on the grass with my dog, really good bread etc. Also, by doing a little bit of asynchronous work each day (8-10 minutes) I have really stayed engaged with the ideas and concepts behind the lectures. 

This week for our homework we are to write a gratitude letter expressing our thanks to someone close to us and READ IT TO THEM. While I see how helpful this would be, I would be lying if I said that my inner Stiff Upper Lip is battling against my desire to try and reach a new level of sustained happiness. We will see, I have the feeling that with the right amount of nervous laughter and self-deprecating jokes I will manage to stutter the words out. 

One aspect of the lecture that really changed the way that I am currently viewing lockdown is the idea of ‘Focalism’: being obsessed with one thing and thus being unable to see the context and situations that go on alongside it. This is easy to do with university at the best of times, focusing so hard on the stress of impending deadlines that you fail to see any of the positives going on around you. Lockdown puts this into hyperdrive, and I have previously spent days absorbed in the news, not focusing on the fact that the weather’s been lovely in England for almost eight weeks or that the lack of dog groomers means that the family dog now resembles a pompom made by a very young child who has not yet mastered their motor skills.  

Week 3:  

This week was on mindfulness. Not to sound too colloquial, but mindfulness is my jam. I love yoga and meditation and am a full believer in breathwork, chakras, EVERYTHING. I greatly enjoyed the homework and the five-minute meditation session mid-lecture. For any two-hour lecture, I would say this is a must halfway through.  A lot of the lecture this week focused on the impact of exercise on mood, and while I think most people know that, I was surprised to find that the reasoning behind this was not the endorphins released (although I’m sure that helps) but a routine. By committing a bit of time each week to something it gives us structure, which in turn makes us feel more purposeful and ultimately, happy.  

Week 4:  

The final week was on goal setting, and I am beginning to see the benefits of going through all the studies which initially while I enjoyed as they are interesting examples, thought they detracted from the core content. This course has not told me anything I didn’t already know; diet, exercise and sleep are important and through reflecting, mindfulness and gratitude you can feel more fulfilled, but it has allowed me to understand all of these concepts on a deeper level and empathise with my past self about why I may have failed to do these things in the past and imagine the obstacles that may stop me doing it in the future.  

Pedagogically, there were also many aspects of the course that I really enjoyed. The variety of homework was something that I really relished, and it was enjoyable having a distinction from week to week. In a lockdown exam context, it helped to break up the monotony of essays and gave me something productive to do each day. Furthermore, while I was not very good at keeping up with the Nudge app, the fact that I had a medium to contact my lecturers without logging on to blackboard and my email, meant that if I was having problems with any of the tasks I could contact them in a less formal manner than logging on to blackboard.  

I guess the ultimate question is, am I happier because of taking the course? For anyone who knows me, I’m a pretty cheerful person anyway, so I’m not sure my happiness has gone up drastically. However, I have noticed significantly less ‘bad days’, and my ability to cope with these bad days has felt more conscious as if I am equipped with strategies to do so.  Similarly, I feel like I’ve been able to appreciate the good days more and be a little bit more present in moments of enjoyment. In short, I am a believer, and would strongly recommend anyone and everyone to enrol on this course in the future.  

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

An interview with...

An interview with… Alex Forsythe

Dr Alex Forsythe has been an educator and psychologist since 2003 and among her various accomplishments, she is Senior Lecturer at University of Liverpool, Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and Head of Professional Certification for the Association of Business Psychology.

What are the main benefits students experience through goal-setting?

When we want to get something done, we set ourselves specific goals and deadlines in order to get where we want to be. We set ourselves these goals because we know what we need to achieve in order to progress. Whether it is in our careers, our lifestyle, or our fitness, goals create a specific psychological reaction that make us all the more motivated to accomplish the goals we have set ourselves.

Our brains are very complex machines, but they are also very simplistic in some of their processes. The hidden secret of goal setting lies in the fact that our brains cannot differentiate between what we want and what we have.  Instead, the brain absorbs the information of what we want and projects it into our self-image. When our reality doesn’t match up to our self-image, we are all the more like to motivate ourselves to change.  Goals give us a strategy for achievement.

What inspired you to first start looking at goal-setting and its impact on learning?

I am an occupational psychologist and most of these strategies have been around in the business and sports literature for some time.  We know the technique works.  It was simply a matter of applying my knowledge of psychology in the workplace to help students regulate their performance.

What are the most valuable resources/articles you use?

I have a book chapter forthcoming which pulls together the key resources in this area and the science behind the processes.  I am very happy to provide that to any interested academic. 

What piece of advice would you give to help students understanding of the feedback process?

In life, some feedback has no basis in reality it is nothing more than obnoxious aggression, that kind of feedback should be rejected.  The problem is that challenging feedback which is designed to critique our work, evaluate us and move us progressively forward, can generate the same fight or flight emotions as receiving obnoxious aggression.  Evaluation is loud and it is hurtful and getting upset is a natural response, but when we rely on our emotions to make a decision about whether or not feedback is obnoxious aggression or candid language designed to move us forward, we end up making all sorts of attribution errors that can leave us stuck.   To move forward, it is critical to find ways to regulate the negative emotions that are integral to good evaluation so that we can embrace failure as a friend and work actively with those who wish to help us improve our performance.

Can you tell us where you’ve used goal-setting in your life to achieve something?

It has taken practice, but I now regularly use regulatory techniques to pivot my focus away from distractions that are getting in my way.  I also find that such processes help me to have confidence in myself, believe that I can achieve and that I can overcome the inevitable obstacles that will come my way.  One of the most important changes that I have noticed is that I have more patience for myself.   I am much better at switching my focus away from how to do things, towards dedicating more time towards thinking about what, why I am doing what I do.  This has really helped me live in the moment, feel less stressed and achieve more.

What one film/ book/ resource would you like to share with the academic community?

As a ‘hard faced’ scientist and psychologist, we are not really encouraged to explore psychoanalytical theory, however, two books of that elk really spoke to me, possibly because both are written from the lived experiences of therapists.  “The Examined Life” by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz.  This is a very short book which explores how to change by exploring the stories of how people become the prisoners of history, their thinking or doing and the poor choices they make.   This book, and “Why do I do that?” by Joseph Burgo helped me formulate my thinking about how students were coping (or not) at university.  

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

That we stop chasing metrics.   People will work to whatever measurement system is put in place, often with perverse consequences.    When we go directly at improving a metric, we rarely get to the right result and in the process, we demoralise our staff.   Good results are the outcome of high performing teams, so HE should spend more time focusing on the health, wellbeing and performance of its teams and the results will follow.