Students who took an online happiness course during lockdown were less likely to feel anxious at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic than their classmates.
First year undergraduates taking the course maintained their mental well-being, compared with students on the wait-list who experienced a significant decline in well-being and an increase in anxiety over the same period.
The findings suggest that online courses could provide a relatively inexpensive and flexible way of supporting students at times of heightened stress.
The pandemic considerably raised levels of stress and anxiety, with six in 10 students reporting a decline in their mental health as a result.
Researchers analyzed the impact on student well-being of an 11-week course entitled The Science of Happiness, offered to first year undergraduates at Bristol University in the U.K.
The positive psychology course, modelled on Psychology and the Good Life developed at Yale University, looks at different methods of promoting mental well-being, including meditation, signature strengths, kindness, exercise, sleep, gratitude and social connections.
As well as watching pre-recorded lectures, students also took part in live online sessions led by psychologists and weekly ‘happiness hubs’, online discussion groups with a maximum of eight students, led by senior students and postgraduate mentors.
Finally, students completed an online weekly journal relating to positive psychology interventions, including three good things, learned optimism, a gratitude letter, acts of kindness, signature strengths and goal-setting.
Participants were then asked to complete a series of questionnaires, aimed at measuring mental well-being and levels of happiness and anxiety, with the results then compared to students who had not taken the course, but had enrolled for the following semester.
Students earned course credit for taking part, with a minimum level of participation required.
And those who took the course during the pandemic experienced a protect higher levels of mental well-being and lower levels of anxiety than those who had yet to take the course, analysis by academics at Bristol and Yale universities found.
This suggests it may have had a protective effect on well-being, according to the study, published in the journal PLOS One.
Researchers also compared the impact of delivering the course online during the pandemic in 2020/2021 to results from delivering it in-person pre-pandemic in 2019/20.
While the course had a similar impact on mental well-being on both groups of students, the effects seemed to last longer among students who had taken the in-person course pre-pandemic.
The researchers said their findings suggest that relatively low-intensity interventions could have a clear and positive impact on mental well-being, potentially using minimal resources to benefit a large number of students.
“Our findings suggest that the Science of Happiness is associated with beneficial effects on well-being irrespective of method of delivery and is effective even during the time of a worldwide mental health crisis,” they said.
Researchers also noted that taking the course was linked with a beneficial effect on mental well-being even though they did not see an association between the course and perceptions of academic performance, one of the principal causes of stress among students.
“The Science of Happiness course may have therefore had a protective effect not only from the mental health implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also from stressors arising from academic performance,” they added.