I took Harvard's free 6-week course on happiness—here's what I learned

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After six weeks of reading articles, watching videos and contributing to class discussion boards, I've officially completed Harvard University's "Managing Happiness" course, led by social scientist and Harvard professor Arthur Brooks.

The online class is completely free for audit only, and anyone can take it up until March 27, 2024. The course is self-paced, but after six weeks, you lose access to its materials and your progress.

Now that I've finished the course, my biggest takeaway is that I feel a lot more in control of my own happiness. I left with an understanding that the things beyond my control can, and will, affect my happiness, but my reactions to these outcomes are more important.

When I first started the Harvard course about happiness, I had several questions that I hoped to have answered. Here are some insights that I've gained.

Here's what I learned from Harvard's free happiness course

1. How often should we experience happiness?

Though there isn't a set frequency for how often we should feel happy, we can experience happiness very often, especially by doing things that will make us genuinely smile.

The first thing that we were asked to do for the class was to grip a pencil between our molars for 60 to 90 seconds to mimic the act of smiling. Though the activity felt silly, it did make me laugh which is associated with happiness.

Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, a French neurologist who studied facial expressions, was particularly interested in what some call the "Duchenne smile," a smile that engages the muscles around your mouth and eyes. "If we force a Duchenne smile, we start to feel happier," Brooks says in one of the course's videos.

And research from 2022 seems to support that theory. The Duchenne smile teaches us that "you can stimulate your happiness and improve it," sometimes by just genuinely smiling, Brooks adds.

2. Is it realistic to expect to feel happy all of the time?

As often as we can cultivate happiness in our own lives, it's not possible to feel happy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Modern research shows us that our emotions are under our control — but only partly," Brooks says during the course.

Our genetic makeup and outside factors like other people's actions can also affect our emotions, he explains. It requires effort and discipline to better manage our feelings.

It's also important to remember that "happiness requires some amount of unhappiness," Brooks says. Instead of avoiding unhappiness, we should embrace it and try to see what it is teaching us that can lead to growth.

3. If happiness is connected to our experiences, especially with those around us, how can we protect it when dealing with difficult people?

Relationships greatly impact our happiness, but how to handle interactions with difficult people was not something we covered in depth. However, one of the seven practices that Harvard researchers believe leads to happiness and good health is having good conflict-resolution skills.

To be happier, researchers interviewed for the course also encourage people to form and strengthen relationships with people they can count on. An 85-year Harvard study found that the number one thing that makes us happier in life is positive relationships.

Brooks recommends developing great relationships and achieving healthy friendship balance by:

  • Having check-ins with your friends
  • Asking deep questions to gauge people's true opinions on important topics to build upon friendships with acquaintances
  • Making more friends that "you don't need"

"In order to have a friend, you must be a friend," Brooks says, so you should practice the behaviors that you'd want a friend to have. Be supportive, give people the capacity to be themselves and provide advice without judgment, he recommends for those looking to become better friends.

4. How can we cultivate happiness during tough times in our lives?

We typically feel like we're having a tough time during major transitions in our lives, but writer Bruce Feiler, who was mentioned and interviewed for the course, believes that life is found in the transitions.

Sometimes transitions are ones that we choose like moving to a new city or starting a new job. Other times, we can't anticipate them like the pandemic or the loss of a loved one.

But after interviewing hundreds of people and asking them about the transitions in their lives, Feiler learned that 90% of people were able to get through their tough times. For this reason, he suggests accepting your emotions and going through the process of recovery, instead of not acknowledging that things have changed.

Psychologists have also discovered that many people experience post-traumatic growth, a transformation after life-changing experiences and trauma.

According to the American Psychological Association, signs of post-traumatic growth can include:

  • Appreciation of life
  • New possibilities in life
  • Personal strength
  • Relationships with others
  • Spiritual change

And if you're struggling to find happiness during a tough time, Brooks offers this piece of encouragement: "Remember that bad things don't last."

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