Can You Teach the Pursuit of Happiness Online?

BioPsychoSocial_Health2.jpgWilliam McDougall, Harvard social psychologist, wrote that people can be happy while in pain and unhappy while experiencing pleasure. While the philosophical and semantic ramifications of the term “happiness” are still far away from being well-defined on a universal basis, it is generally accepted that while short-term happiness are more to do with positive feelings like pleasure or victory, long-term happiness tends to be more value based and goal-oriented.

One thing is certain however: on a psychological basis, a state of happiness is popular and sought after, going by the number of university courses that teach exclusively how to be happy as part of our overall well-being. This is an encouraging trend as it indicates that progressively more and more people are eager to realize “happiness” through their cerebral cortices (in the brain), rather than through their pleasure centers in the limbic systems. Realizing the need to be happy, rather than being driven by our instincts to be happy is a significant step up the social evolutionary tree.

The leader of the pack of such courses is Tal D. Ben-Shahar at Harvard University, who reached the limelight a couple of years ago for enrolling the most students on single course at Harvard, 855, beating even introductory economics. Termed as “positive psychology,” such courses pioneered by Marty Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania professor who is considered its father, focus upon optimism as a way of daily living and a route to personal transformation. There is clinical evidence that well-adjusted, “happy” people have patterns of brain activation different from the rest, although whether such neural activity can be programmed through “formal” teaching is far from clear.

But from this February, Ben-Shahar is actually teaching the course online, both on a credit ($1625) or non-credit ($700) basis. In his recent interview on “The Daily Show,” host Jon Stewart joked that he could not believe that anyone could get away with running a course on happiness. But such courses are merely a growing trend, something I find very heartening. Young people are finally willing to formally commit their cerebral cortices to ask the big questions of life and its meaning.

I wish you the very best of pre-frontal lobe activity in life.

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
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