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You Don’t Need Yale’s Course on Happiness to Learn the Power of Positive Psychology

In 2014, UC Berkeley had just introduced a free online course called “The Science of Happiness,” which would teach students “science-based principles and practices for a happy, meaningful life.” In an instant, some 40,000 people registered for it, prompting Forbes to wonder if happiness would soon become the world’s most popular college course. Cut to now, and Yale’s new course, “Psychology and the Good Life,” has attracted some 1,200 students in a matter of days, or a quarter of the entire undergrad population, The New York Times reported, making it the most popular class in the school’s over 300-year history.

Are these courses, and others like them — Harvard’s similar happiness class was also its most popular offering — just peddling the easy A once offered by Intro to Basket Weaving? Or can students (or anyone, for that matter) really be taught how to be happy? And what would a course like that involve? The Times notes that the Yale class will involve lectures, quizzes and a midterm on the “characteristics that allow humans to flourish,” and for the final exam, a “personal self-improvement project” called the “Hack Yo’Self Project.”

While it’s unclear how easy it will be hack your way to an A in happiness, we know that you can, at least, be taught about happiness. All the above courses are classes in the field of positive psychology, a branch of study that began in the 1990s and chose to get to the bottom of what actually made people happy. Much of psychology prior to this was really abnormal psychology — the study of what’s wrong with people. Positive psychology decided to approach this another way: If we know how unhappy people work, how do well adjusted, happy people operate?

I can tell you that, as well as what the lion’s share of the course will be, saving you time, money, and admissions process to Yale. It’s one book by one man that you can buy right now and read for yourself: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by the delightfully named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian psychologist born in 1934 who spent years at the University of Chicago, and is currently a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate College in California. Flow — a term he coined in 1975 — was published in 1990, based off years of research into how people spend their time, and how they feel about it. It is the also the seminal work in the field of positive psychology, of which he is a founding member.

And though I can’t be sure it will make you happier, I can say with confidence that it will change your understanding of what happiness means.

Before we get to what, exactly, flow is, you have to first isolate what you think happiness is. I read Flow in college in the nineties, but it’s one of the books I think of most, and probably the book I have recommended the most, if for no other reason that it forced me to shed my idea of what happiness looks like.

Like me, most people in the book thought of happiness as times we enjoyed ourselves — laughing a lot at a funny movie or having a good time at a party. But when he asked participants — scattered about the planet, from a variety of ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds — how they spent their time, and how content they felt while doing so, they gave him a much different answer.

People were “happiest,” he found, when they were able to spend their work or their leisure — ideally both — fully engaged in what they were doing, to the extent that they actually lost track of time, or forgot to eat. Whatever people did that gave them the best sense of happiness usually involved being challenged enough to stretch their skills, keep them totally engaged, and unaware of the rest of the world.

Csikszentmihalyi was originally inspired to do the work in seeing how artists seem to get lost in their work, but he found that a person needed no artistic impulses to achieve flow. They could be working on a painting, doing a crossword puzzle, playing music, playing a game of tennis or even gaming. It didn’t really matter what the activity was; what mattered was that it took all of their attention to do it in a way that was satisfying and validating. Some people in the study were able to achieve this state only with deliberate effort, but others could get there while waiting at the DMV.

He called this sense of engagement flow, and defines it as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”

Flow is met when six characteristics combine in any activity: intense focus, the merging action and awareness, losing reflective self-consciousness, feeling in control over the situation, experiencing an altered sense of time, and above all, enjoying this as rewarding. This won’t necessarily feel “fun” — one good analogy in the book is about playing tennis. If you’re an amateur playing a pro, you’ll just feel frustrated or bored. If you’re an amateur playing against a teacher well trained to work with your current skills and push them to the next level, you’ll experience flow.

It’s important that your skill level meets the challenge in a way that utilizes everything you already know, but pushes you to engage on a higher level that keeps your attention. You can imagine getting better at tennis after a long day of practice — you’ll probably be exhausted and worn out, but there will also be a kind of serenity in having leveled up.

In the simplest sense, the more a person could do things that led to flow, the happier they were. The more happiness they got through a flow-like state, the better they were at doing the things they enjoyed.

This is, of course, all easier said than done. But now that you know what most people and experts actually define as the good life, don’t you want to get it? But just like learning about happiness won’t necessarily make you happy (or a good student at Yale), knowing about flow doesn’t mean you can just go right out and get your hands on some.

Laurie Santos, the professor who teaches the class at Yale, underscores this truth. She told the Times that in spite of the perception that the class is an easy elective, she considers it the hardest class at the school. “To see real change in their life habits, students have to hold themselves accountable each day,” she said.