At a time when books on happiness are so plentiful that pundits are saying they’ve jumped the shark, and when Pharell’s little song “Happy” has inspired one of the latest JibJab animation — a MOOC (massive open online course) coming out of Berkeley is poised to make a history in education.
“The Science of Happiness” — a MOOC sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) — will launch in September of this year. And though they announced the course only recently, it has already generated close to 40,000 registrations, according to UC Berkeley’s Professor Dacher Keltner. They’re on course to reach more than 100,000 people, when the first class bell rings. But given the momentum they’ve gained in such a short amount of time, his projection seems modest. A few MOOCs have reached audiences in the hundreds of thousands. If there were a competition, “The Science of Happiness” may have an unfair advantage.
First, take the short but remarkable history of happiness — as a subject -- on college campuses. Harvard’s Tal Ben Shahar teaches the school’s most popular course, PSY 1504, Positive Psychology, which “focuses on the psychological aspects of a fulfilling and flourishing life.” UC Berkeley has a similar course — also leveraging the science of positive psychology — that has huge waiting lists. When I was in college — the late 70′s/early 80′s — the most popular course was a “gut” (you could get a passing grade by relying solely on your intuition) called “Rocks for Jocks” (yes, geology). Clearly something has changed; popularity today is not just about taking it easy. It’s about the practical value of well being, and we don’t mind working for it.
And practical may be UC Berkeley’s biggest selling point. Not only have they attracted a world-class faculty (including Paul Eckman, a leader in the study of emotions, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, the psychologist most associated with the concept of “mindfulness” — the course provides a regimen centered on positive personal exercises. Each week, students will learn “a new research-tested practice that fosters social and emotional well-being—and the course will help them track their progress along the way.” It may in fact be the first online course aimed at changing behavior at scale.
The reach: teaching the teachers
And the scale is possible, of course, because of the reach of online courseware. Three reasons for this: First, there’s the targeted number — 100K users — itself. Second, there’s the complexity and diversity of the students. So many countries, so many communities, so many professional profiles. And third, one professional profile is getting special attention: people who can take the UC Berkeley curriculum and teach it themselves.
Last week, Keltner and I spoke about this in a phone interview. I noted how the “teaching the teachers” model was the hallmark of the OpenCourseWare movement, the precursor to the MOOC revolution. It was a simple idea, first advanced by MIT: put the world’s top curricula online for all the world to see. Result: college all over the world — including some of the poorest schools in South America and Africa — took the curricula and made it their own. Think of this as the education market’s equivalent to the open-source movement. The experiment lives on, and in more interesting places today. Happiness — the pursuit of which is enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence — is now something that everyone can study. In other words, you may not need to go to Harvard, MIT, or UC Berkeley to get the basics (if you want to go pro, think about Penn’s graduate program in positive psychology). And that, my friend, is why the course is already so popular (why so many people, all over the world, want it).