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Continuous practice of happiness is key to mental wellbeing: a new psychology research reveals

Continuous practice of happiness is key to mental wellbeing: a new psychology research reveals

Recent research published in Higher Education1 indicates that while happiness can be learned, its long-term benefits are contingent on continuous practice. According to the study centered on the “Science of Happiness” course at the University of Bristol, habits like gratitude, exercise, meditation, and journaling can boost your well-being significantly. However, these evidence-informed habits must be maintained to enjoy their benefits.

 

An adaptation of Yale University’s “Psychology and the Good Life” course, the Science of Happiness course, is designed to scientifically improve mental health and well-being. In lieu of traditional examinations and coursework, the course is structured to impart knowledge about the nature of happiness from contemporary peer-reviewed research in psychology and neuroscience. 

 

The course was launched in 2018 and covers diverse topics. These topics ranged from biological and environmental factors influencing happiness to practical strategies for nurturing mental well-being. Emphasizing evidence-based activities, or “happiness hacks,” the curriculum educates and equips students with tools to enhance their mental health actively.

 

While prior research has hinted at the short-term benefits of psychoeducational courses on psychological well-being, questions lingered regarding their long-term impact. To address this gap, the researchers embarked on the current study investigating whether participation in a structured educational program like the Science of Happiness course could sustainably improve students’ mental well-being.

 

The team decided to systematically examine the long-term effects of the psychoeducational course, hoping to find out if the initial benefits observed in students’ well-being could be maintained over time.

 

 

In their research, the investigators gathered data from students participating in the Science of Happiness course and completed follow-up surveys. Initially, invitations were extended to 905 students who had previously taken pre-course or post-course wellbeing assessments, of whom 638 possessed complete data sets for both pre-and post-course evaluations. Of this group, 228 students responded to the long-term follow-up survey, which occurred between 12 and 29 months post-course completion.

 

The study utilized several well-validated instruments to assess well-being. The Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale, known for its reliability and validity in capturing positive aspects of mental health, was used to evaluate general mental well-being. Anxiety levels were evaluated using the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Questionnaire (GAD-7), while loneliness was measured with the UCLA Loneliness Scale 3-item version.

 

Initially, participants in the course reported a significant increase in overall well-being, marked by a noticeable rise of 10 to 15% in scores on the Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale. This immediate improvement proves the course’s effectiveness in enhancing students’ mental health in the short term.

 

Regarding ongoing practices introduced in the course, approximately half of the respondents (50.67%) reported continuing with at least one happiness-enhancing activity, such as expressing gratitude, mindfulness or meditation, regular physical activity, journaling, or acts of kindness. Among these, gratitude emerged as the most commonly sustained practice.

 

The researchers uncovered a nuanced perspective after conducting follow-up assessments up to 29 months post-course completion. While students initially experienced an uplift in well-being, it was short-lived. Only those who actively continued practicing the “happiness hacks” learned during the course could sustain the improved levels of well-being over the long term.

 

Bruce Hood, the senior author of the study and professor of developmental psychology in society at the University of Bristol, emphasized the significance of consistently practising the lessons learned from such courses. He noted, “This study shows that just doing a course – be that at the gym, a meditation retreat or on an evidence-based happiness course like ours – is just the start: you must commit to using what you learn on a regular basis.”

 

Hood elaborated on the course’s focus on positive psychology interventions, which redirect attention away from oneself by engaging in activities such as helping others, socializing, expressing gratitude, or meditating. He highlighted the contrast with the current ‘self-care’ doctrine, emphasizing that numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of shifting focus away from negative ruminations, which can be the basis of many mental health issues.

 

The study highlights the importance of a proactive approach to mental health. However, it has some limitations, such as the potential response bias and challenges maintaining a representative sample during long-term follow-ups. These considerations point to the need for further research to refine our understanding of sustaining mental well-being through psychoeducational courses.

 

References

Hobbs, C., Jelbert, S., Santos, L.R. et al. Long-term analysis of a psychoeducational course on university students’ mental well-being. High Educ (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-024-01202-4

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