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How One Writer Found Purpose Amidst a Global Pandemic

Yale University's “Science of Well-being” course and the practice of meditation has been especially potent.

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When the pandemic first hit, my life in the Front Range had yet to alter too drastically. A ten-day trip I’d been planning to Japan was suddenly off the table, but I already worked from my Boulder home and was in good health. As the weeks wore on, though, things changed: I had my heart broken; a hero of mine died due to complications associated with COVID-19; I was laid-off from my main job and my contract work was put on hold indefinitely. By traditional standards, things were falling apart, yet day-to-day, my mood was only improving. I was taking a happiness course and, it appeared, it was working.

The third week in March—after it became clear that everything would change—I enrolled in “The Science of Well-being” on Coursera, currently free to auditors. The class, which takes about 20 hours to complete, was developed by Yale Professor Laurie Santos in response to the high levels of depression, anxiety, and stress she was seeing among students (similar to what the World Health Organization is now observing globally). In conjunction with short lectures, the course offers a series of “rewirements,” or hands-on challenges designed to increase happiness and build productive habits.

At the outset of the class, students take a series of tests to determine their signature strengths, as well as two baseline measurements of well-being. While all homework is experiential—for example, applying your top signature strengths to your life or getting seven hours of sleep per night—the course focuses on misconceptions about happiness, highlighting the mind’s features that lead us to think the way we do. Students are given science-backed tips to help combat those annoying features and biases, as well as research on what actually makes us happy. Over time, the combination allows the mind to change.

Instead of fixating on a lucrative career, the perfect body, or saving to buy a home, we learn that we should focus on relationships, building healthy habits, and experiences. One of the most important things you can do to boost well-being? Get off or significantly limit your social media use. In regards to wealth, the research shows that after a certain threshold, money won’t make you happy. You’d be better off fostering more free time and spending your money on others. In fact, acts of kindness in general—such as sending Venmo funds to friends or buying a gift card for the cashier when you checkout at the grocery store—can have a significant impact on well-being.

“Acts of generosity can be deeply nourishing for the person who’s giving, as well as the person who’s receiving,” says CU Boulder Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Sona Dimidjian, whose work focuses on cultivating mental health and wellness among women, children, and families. “Having compassion and care for others and having compassion and care for oneself are not separate activities—they’re inextricably connected.”

The act of engaging in self-work is thus an act of compassion, the benefits of which become especially apparent when challenges arise. For parents and caregivers specifically, this work is particularly important.

“It’s like when you’re on an airplane and you’re asked to put your oxygen mask on first,” says Professor Dimidjian. “In order to be prepared to help support others, we also need to pay attention and—even if it’s small moments or steps—care for our own well-being.”

As the course outlines, things that help generate well-being are committing those acts of kindness, as well as using your signature strengths, exercising (this is important for mental and physical health), getting enough sleep, taking time to savor moments, practicing gratitude, engaging in social connection (even if it’s via Zoom or wearing masks as you pass your neighbors), and meditation. Six weeks into the course, students are asked to pick one of the above and, using tools from the lectures, make a plan for sticking with it.

I chose meditation—although the benefits of meditation are unparalleled, as students learn at the outset of the course, knowing isn’t half the battle. The combination of the science presented in the course, as well as the tools for building healthy habits such as the WOOP method, were a game-changer. For practices to really stick we need situational support and a growth mindset. The latter can be taught and requires one focus on the learning process rather than outcomes; those with a growth mindset are able to learn from deficiencies and capitalize on mistakes.

Every day, for the last four weeks, I’ve taken at least twenty minutes a day to sit with my thoughts, simply noticing and observing the inner-workings of my mind. I practice mindfulness on hikes throughout the foothills and when navigating the small space I share with my roommates. By paying attention to how quickly my thoughts change, or how I react to a specific situation, I’ve been able to build resilience, let my anxiety and other stressors more easily go, and move away from fixed narratives. Savoring moments or practicing gratitude can have similar effects. For Professor Dimidjian, those acts of mindfulness are an important step in leading a more fulfilling life.

“People often think of mindfulness and other practices like that as abstract or esoteric, but they’re actually really practical and applicable to daily life,” says Dimidjian. “It could be as simple as paying attention to what you do and how you feel, and identifying experiences as either nourishing—things that fill you up, replenish you, and give your energy—or activities that are depleting or draining.”

Bringing that awareness to daily activities can help provide focus and meaning, allowing us to be intentional in our life choices going forward. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that 36 percent of participants in the “Science of Well-being” course started a new career upon completion. Michael F. Steger, Professor of Applied Social and Health Psychology and Counseling Psychology at Colorado State University, has devoted his career to well-being and how people might find meaning in their lives. “Finding meaning or purpose is not about necessarily overhauling everything you’re already doing, but rather it’s about finding meaning in what you already have going on,” Steger says. He recommends paying close attention to our own thoughts and actions.

“One of my favorite exercises is telling people to start taking photos of whatever they think answers the question “What makes my life meaningful?” and then sharing the photos along with their explanation as to why they’re meaningful,” he says. “The common theme is self-exploration and self-knowledge—that’s the way we come to be familiar and comfortable with the tools of creating meaning.”

Amidst the pandemic and all of the large-scale changes it entails, Professors Dimidjian and Steger see a societal focus on well-being as incredibly important. Likewise, Professor Santos has extended her course offerings via her podcast, The Happiness Lab, with ten episodes devoted specifically to helping people cope with COVID-19. All the professors subscribe to a philosophy that’s less about: Here’s a problem and here’s a solution, but rather: Here’s a problem and here’s a set of tools to help you think about it in a clearer, more effective, and sustainable way.

At the end of the class, students submit essays on their progress to be peer-reviewed. Those who combined learnings from the course, employing strong plans, perseverance, and a growth mindset, were most successful. In times of crisis or great societal change, it’s more important than ever to not become complacent and instead, to ground down in the lives we hope to lead going forward.

“The pandemic is forcing us to adapt and hopefully we adapt in good ways,” says Steger. “As a lot of infrastructure is getting crushed and things get stripped away, we get a chance to pay attention to not only what it’s going to take for us to survive, but also for us to dive into what makes a meaningful, worthwhile life.”

For me, the pandemic has been the catalyst for not only finding meaning, but also building healthier habits, the combination of which has improved my well-being overall. At the beginning of the course, my happiness scores were 3.04 out of 5 using the Authentic Happiness Inventory and 7.44 out of 10 using the PERMA Profiler. Ten weeks in and my scores had risen to 3.67 out of 5 and 7.9 out of 10 respectively, with significant positive change in regards to “loneliness” and “negative emotions.”

Anecdotally, I’ve never felt better. Along with meditation, I’ve continued to incorporate the many other lessons from the course and plan on doing so in perpetuity. I’ve been surprised to see how my own internal changes have affected those around me, eliciting positive feedback from friends and strangers alike. “The greater attention we can bring to the ways in which we’re all connected during this time is a really powerful opportunity for learning,” says Dimidjian. “I think it will help us chart a different kind of course into the future.”

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