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MIT blogger Ankita D. '23

on happiness and well-being by Ankita D. '23

Coursera attempts to cure our depression

During quarantine, I enrolled in The Science of Well-Being, a free course hosted by Yale on the online learning platform Coursera. A friend from my living community suggested that a group of us take the course since it seemed low-commitment and beneficial, so I decided to join. I used Coursera a lot in high school to take various Data Science/Chinese courses, so revisiting it for such a different purpose was pretty strange, but I ended up enjoying it a lot.

The course is a psychological overview of what happiness entails, but a significant component of it is the “rewirements,” or wellness activities designed to help you build more healthy habits. I’m a sucker for anything structured that makes me feel productive, so I printed out the pdf of activities immediately. I really loved doing them and felt that they were the most helpful part of the course!

In this post, I briefly summarize each week of course material and document my thoughts from each section. Writing things down is the most helpful way for me to internalize things and think about everything I’ve learned, and I hope some of these reflections will be helpful for you :)

Week 1: Introduction

There wasn’t much in this section, to be honest. The main takeaway from this week of content was the baseline happiness measurements, which assess various metrics of well-being.

PERMA Profiler:

Measures positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment, along with negative emotions and health. The range is from 0 (Never) to 10 (Always).

The first number is my result from the beginning of the course and the second is my result after Week 6.

Positive emotions = 3.67/8.33 

Engagement = 3.67/7.33 
Relationships = 5.33/9.67 
Meaning = 4/6.67 
Accomplishment = 3.67/5.67
Health = 6.67/7 
Negative emotions = 6/2 
Loneliness = 8/0
Overall Well-Being = 4.06/7.63 
Note that the increases in things like loneliness, engagement, accomplishment, and relationships can be attributed to me moving from doing classes on PENE01 pass/incomplete/no record at home to working 40 hours a week at an apartment with my friends. So…I don’t take these metrics to heart that much, but it is evident that I feel more productive living with my friends than living at home. I’m not lonely at all, for one, and I feel like I have more independence to pursue things I enjoy on my own terms.

Week 2: Misconceptions About Happiness

This section launches into a discussion of certain things that we think make us happy but actually don’t; namely, a good job, money, expensive things, a good body, and good grades. The professor talked about multiple studies that show that people tend to overestimate their unhappiness about not getting a job, as well as data that indicates that materialistic people have a higher incidence of mental health disorders. Okay, the latter makes sense⁠—seeking out expensive things does make you less happy, but why is pursuing a good job with a high salary bad for you?? Well, as it turns out, there’s a limit to which your life satisfaction increases with your income; studies point to it being around $75,000 that your emotional well-being stops increasing alongside your salary. I think there’s not one size fits all approach to this since everyone has vastly different circumstances, but the point is that it’s not as high a number as you think.

Obviously, as an ambitious person who is surrounded by countless other ambitious individuals, this is a tough concept to wrestle with. Also, despite the anti-“sellout” culture that’s prevalent at MIT, I feel like a good number of people would look down on those who pursue “ordinary” lives/career paths, even if they are ones that offer a lot of fulfillment. Things are a bit hypocritical in that we joke about people “selling out” to things like big tech/finance, but also pursue similar opportunities and thrust ourselves into the cut-throat frenzy that is the job search process. My understanding of this might be skewed since I’m only a rising sophomore and haven’t engaged in all of this myself…yet…but it’s pretty disconcerting to think about.

Rewirements

Savoring

Savoring is the act of thinking about what makes you happy. It’s supposed to help thwart mind-wandering and “hedonic adaptation,” which is the phenomenon by which we return to stable levels of happiness in spite of major changes. The exercise instructions were to “take part in a positive experience and then step outside it, considering what about it made you happy.”

Seeing how mundane the things I savored throughout the week were was pretty intriguing; they ranged from a delicious cup of dalgona coffee to a song that I really resonated with. I enjoyed practicing savoring because it made me appreciative of things that I don’t usually think about.

Gratitude

Keeping track of things you’re grateful for has quite a few positive benefits, so I gave it a try.

Here’s one of my entries:

5/4: I’m grateful for all the people who reached out to me after reading my Never Have I Ever post. I’m really happy that they took the time to read and comment on it; a few people told me that they agree with my sentiments and acknowledge my different experiences as a South Asian but that I’m still welcome as a member of the community. That warmed my heart to hear :)

I tend to fixate on things that make me unhappy, so I’m really glad I decided to do this!

Week 3: Why Our Expectations are so Bad

This lesson went over “miswanting,” or being mistaken about how much you will like something in the future, in the context of our goals and priorities. It also discussed our tendency to compare ourselves against reference points, which is something that struck me. I was really insecure and self-hating in high school because I was constantly comparing myself to others; as soon as I thought I was doing something right, I’d see another person’s success and feel bad about myself. I’m glad that at MIT, I don’t really care about what others are doing since everyone’s paths are different. It’s also harder to fixate on others’ achievements—for one, you don’t have the time to, and you certainly wouldn’t want to since who gives a shit, really?

I remember thinking at some point that MIT would have the same competitive environment as my high school, where grades were the be-all-end-all and people would guard their GPAs with a ferocity that inspired deep discomfort in me. Yeah, hahaha, no. It’s so collaborative. We all support each other and pset together and bitch about how hard our classes are together!!

The lesson also talked about social media, the holy pillar for unhealthy comparisons. I’ve noticed that my relationship with social media has changed since high school; in sophomore and junior year, I would put every facet of my life on Snapchat in a desperate attempt to seek validation. In retrospect, that was such a waste of time…I also would feed off the likes I got on Instagram since, to me, that platform was the only means of showing other people at my high school that I’m cool!! and not nerdy!!! Now, I post videos mainly to share content with the dance community I’ve formed while at MIT, and because dance continues to be a fun way for me to engage with others.

reference points diagram

reference points be whack. the orange circles are the same size!

Another interesting concept was “hedonic adaptation,” which is our tendency to return to a stable level of happiness in spite of major positive or negative events. Happiness does indeed wane, even if something you’ve been anticipating for a long time occurs, or a life change that you thought would be incredible occurs. The course referenced a student’s initial reaction to getting into Yale versus their current acceptance of the fact that they are a student at Yale. I know that getting into MIT made me tremendously happy, but now that feeling has faded to a “wow, I go to MIT” that pops into my head every now and then.

In a similar vein, we experience impact bias, which is our tendency to overestimate the emotional impact of a future event in its intensity and duration. I do this REALLY often. In junior year, when I didn’t do well on the AMC 12,02 the american mathematics competition or when I was only an alternate for NSLI-Y China, a program that I was certain I’d qualify for, I was depressed for days. DAYS. I thought that the AMC and NSLI-Y were the be-all and end-all to my college acceptance, and thus, my worth as a human being, so I felt completely worthless, which is absurd. Given, I had fixated on these two things as my means of getting into a good college, but I was so wholly impacted by them that it’s frustrating to even think about.

Lastly, there’s focalism, which is where we mispredict our emotions regarding an event. I know I did this regarding being kicked out of MIT in March; I was so devastated and convinced that nothing would ever be the same again. Sure, things are different than how they were, but I’m really happy right now; I’m with the freshmen from my living community in Cambridge, and it feels like I’m living at my dorm again! I can’t say I regret the intensity of the emotions I experienced in my last week at MIT since they’re a testament to how I feel about the relationships I forged this year, but it’s nice to know that things aren’t nearly as bad as I thought they’d be.

Rewirements

Kindness

Doing things for other people makes you happy! The assignment for this rewirement was to do one random act of kindness a day. This could be anything from donating money to an organization to giving someone a compliment.

Social Connection

Humans are innately social beings, so connecting with people boosts your mood. My ability to make new social connections was limited during this period of time, so I relied on things like xoxo.sh to meet new students and also scheduled a lot of video calls with people I haven’t been in touch with. I felt wonderful after catching up with my friends a few times a week!

Week 4: How Can We Overcome Our Biases

Rethink materialistic tendencies — Invest in experiences, not things; you don’t have time to adapt to them so they make you happier!

Thwart hedonic adaptation — Practice savoring since it helps you be present and focus on experiences, which starts you higher on your adaptation curve. Don’t tell yourself you don’t deserve things, or that this happiness won’t last forever, or that things will never be this good again; chances are, you’re wrong.

Rewirements

Exercise

Yeah, yeah…we know exercise is fantastic for your mental health. I was too lazy to actually do it, though. Oop

Sleep

This one wasn’t even an issue because I haven’t gotten less than eight hours of sleep since March. Quarantine do be like that

Week 5: Stuff that Really Makes Us Happy

This section talks about Martin Seligman’s character strengths, which are 24 strengths under six broader virtues that are prevalent across history and culture, such as wisdom, humanity, and justice. In a less general sense, they are positive traits for thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that benefit yourself and others. They lead to a recognizable feeling of excellence and as a result, make you happier.

According to the course, work is more fulfilling if you apply your character strengths to it. Studies show that productivity and job satisfaction increases in tandem with the number of strengths applied. It also contributes to participants thinking their job is a “calling.”

Alright, I don’t know about the last bit, but it checks out that applying your character strengths furthers your positive experiences. I feel this in my data analytics UROP this summer; drawing connections, working with qualitative and quantitative data, and visualizing data in creative and compelling ways are all things I love to do and am good at. I’m a communicative person, so discussing my project with my advisor and feeling like I’m actually being useful (!!) is super fulfilling.

Next, the course goes into the concept of flow, which is a mental state in which you’re performing an activity where you are fully immersed. You are energized, extremely focused, and enjoying whatever you are doing. When I heard this, my immediate thought was that I don’t experience flow nearly enough—my attention span is shit and I lose focus every couple of minutes. I considered the activities I do experience flow in: writing, art, reading, dancing…yep, I’m definitely a student at a tech school ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Most of my classes this year were GIR’s03 general 'tute requirements that I needed to get out of the way, so I didn’t experience flow in them. I think I did in my intro coding class, though. I would spend 6+ hours in office hours every week working on psets, which is something I found really enjoyable. I also definitely did when I grinded out a 2500 word essay in a few hours for one of my CI-H classes.

Right now, I experience flow in work for my UROP. That’s pretty lit!

Another thing that makes us happy is leisure activities that are challenging. For me, this comes in the form of learning guitar, drawing, and dancing. I like working towards goals and feeling like I’m progressing. Progress! It slaps!!

The course says that we are happy when our bodies and minds are stretched to their limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. It then elaborates on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, which are key in assessing how meaningful something is to you. Extrinsic motivation entails engaging in a behavior to get an external reward or to avoid punishment, and intrinsic motivation is when you partake in a task because you like it. When I was quarantining at home during the spring semester, which had a PENE grading scheme, the only thing keeping me going was intrinsic motivation to succeed in the classes I enjoyed. But with the other classes, like 8.02, I didn’t care at all, which lowered my mood often. Being on pass/no record is only fulfilling when you can occupy your time with other things and seek happiness elsewhere…when you’re in quarantine, there’s just no hope for you.

Lastly, we learn about fixed and growth mindsets. If you have a fixed mindset, you think that your intelligence and skillsets are immutable; they are qualities that you either have or don’t have. Everything you do in life determines whether you are smart or skilled, and you must accept every outcome. This mindset is associated with lower intrinsic motivation, performance, and self-worth.

With growth mindsets, however, you believe that your success requires hard work. You don’t fixate on outcomes and do things like focus on grades as a measure of whether or not you are learning rather than a metric of your intelligence. As a result, you have more control over your decisions and happiness.

In high school, I had a fixed mindset, but now I have a growth one. #glowup

Rewirements

Meditation

Meditation hinders mind wandering, which helps you be in the present moment. It also increases your mood, decreases your stress, and can boost your grey matter. I tried ten-minute guided meditations for this rewirement and really enjoyed it!

Gratitude Letter

Write a letter of gratitude to someone you care about, preferably someone who had a huge impact on your life but you never fully thanked. Write at letter of least 300 words and deliver it to them in person/read it to them over Skype.

I decided to thank a friend who supported me throughout high school but grew kind of apart from me once I got to MIT. Reading it to them was a v cute experience :)

Week 6: Putting Strategies Into Practice

Situation Support — Knowing is not half the battle. We think that if we’re cognizant of it, we can act with it in mind, but nah…we’re a bunch of dumb shits who make dumb decisions all the time.

To combat the affect proximity has on us, we have to change the visibility of things we don’t want to be doing. Hide your phone so you can further your ability to experience flow; surround yourself with others who do healthy things.

Living in an apartment where everyone works hard every day and eats fairly healthily affects my inclination to do things like procrastinate and binge eat snacks. My self-control was out of hand when I first got to the apartment, but now I feel like I have everything in check and I’m thriving.

Goal Setting:

Goal Specificity — generally, the higher degree of quantitative precision with which you create a goal, the more likely it is that you complete it

Goal Visualization — think about the outcome of your goal in a lot of detail, but spend the same amount of time about thinking about potential obstacles. This is called mental contrasting and has been shown to help you accomplish your goals.

Goal Planning — consider how to intervene in the automatic way that situations affect you. Form plans that enable you to get out of such situations without recruiting much willpower; such self-regulatory strategies lead to better goal attainment

I’ve always kept agendas since I’m so goal-oriented, but my goal specificity could use some work. I’m going to try to specify, visualize, and plan with my goals from now on.

Final Thoughts

I liked this course a lot! I felt like I gained quite a bit from it. Recently, I’ve noticed myself processing my emotions in a different way and noticing when I’m doing things that are unproductive, which is pretty great. I loved a lot of the rewirements and am excited to keep doing some of them!

If you tried this course, let me know what you thought. Thanks for reading :)

 

  1. pass/incomplete/no record back to text
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