It was during that strange, limbo period between Christmas and New Year’s, and I was unhappy.

As December’s glow faded and the prospect of tackling a new year loomed, a deep feeling of being unfulfilled, unproductive and generally just a kak person weighed on me. If I was going to get through this, I thought, I had to wade into something new.

My brother had often and enthusiastically told me about edX. Created by Harvard, it offers access to 1 600 massive open online courses (MOOCs) from more than 100 leading institutions, including Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Microsoft, the University of California (UC) Berkeley, Tsinghua University, the Smithsonian Institution and many more.

The courses are free, with an option of paying for a verified certificate on completion, which you can use for your CV.

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It was on this wonderful democratising medium that I found a course by UC Berkeley called The Science of Happiness.


“The Science of Happiness is the first MOOC to teach the ground-breaking science of positive psychology, which explores the roots of a happy and meaningful life. Students will engage with some of the most provocative and practical lessons from this science, discovering how cutting-edge research can be applied to their own lives ... Students will learn about the cross-disciplinary research supporting this view, spanning the fields of psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and beyond,” said the course description.

It caught me at the right time, and I delved into it with fervour. Here were my two biggest takeaways:

Happiness through others

Happiness is inextricably linked to having strong social connections. This includes having connections with your family, friends, colleagues, neighbours and your community. Human beings aren’t made to be alone.

In fact, we evolved to foster social connections because it ensured a greater chance of survival. Babies who don’t have intimate connections with their caregivers face a greater chance of depression and anxiety later in life.

This may be alarming for an introvert. Do you all of a sudden have to become a social butterfly to be happy? No, but it could be useful to start thinking of the connections you already have and cultivating them more.

Various studies show that a simple thing like knowing our neighbours actually makes us more happy. In the depths of unhappiness, one of the hardest things sometimes is reaching out to other people, but this might be the very thing you need.

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Something bigger than yourself

Another key finding was that happy people feel that they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves.

This might be why people who work for places focused on social justice are happier. But you don’t have to work for a nongovernmental organisation or in a newsroom – a journalist’s bias here – to feel like you’re contributing to something.

Getting involved in your community, helping others, tackling a big project or engaging spiritually are some of the ways to achieve this.

So, am I happier now?

In some ways yes; in other ways no.

Although I wouldn’t say I’m all of a sudden a glowing sunbeam of positivity, there’s been somewhat of a mental shift in me. I’ve learnt tools and exercises that are proven to aid happiness when used actively.

I’ve also acquired knowledge that could guide future decisions and impact the way I think about things.

There’s so many cliches written about education, but it really is a tool you can’t put a value on. Buying a new pair of shoes feels good for a while, but learning that striving for connections with people is going to make me a fuller person in the long run is so much better.

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  • Want to try the course yourself? Register a free profile on edx.org and delve in. There are thousands of other MOOCs to try too

CAN MONEY BUY HAPPINESS?

Does money make you happy? Well, yes and no. When money lifts you out of poverty, it will certainly increase your happiness, but beyond that, your growth in happiness stagnates.

Two scientists who published a widely cited paper on money and happiness wrote: “More money may enhance SWB [subjective wellbeing] when it means avoiding poverty and living in a developed nation, but income appears to increase SWB little over the long term when more of it is gained by well-off individuals whose material desires rise with their incomes.”

In fact, there’s an actual “wealth threshold” for happiness.

Researchers found that up until earning approximately R904 935 per year, you will feel happier. After that, your happiness plateaus.

Please note that this research was done on American respondents in 2014.

Considering that South Africa’s cost of living is far cheaper, a salary of even less than that might be our “happiness-wealth” threshold.