10 Open Courses on Human Happiness

Our constitution guarantees us the right to pursue it, countless TV shows and books claim to offer the secret to it, and yet true happiness (and the means to attain it) remains elusive to many of us. This quest is nothing new. Since the dawn of time, humans have been curious about happiness, from what it is, how to get it, and even how our brains understand it. While our scientific and philosophical knowledge may have expanded, we're no closer to having a formula for a happy life than people were thousands of years ago, perhaps because happiness is such a subjective and often inconstant feeling.

While college courses can't grant you the secrets to a happy life, they can help to educate you on what happiness is or what it means from a psychological, sociological, and philosophical perspective, offering insights into issues like morality, justice, motivation, and even choice. Here, we've collected a few college courses, all of them free, that offer key lessons on human happiness that can not only educate you on the fundamentals of happiness but that may also, in turn, help you be more informed about what makes you happy and why.

  1. Ethics, Capilano University:

    Will doing the right thing make you happy? Is taking away someone else's happiness to be happier yourself morally OK? These kinds of questions and more are addressed in this introductory philosophy class focused on ethics, which asks students to think very carefully about issues that they might not have considered in day-to-day life before.

  2. Ancient Philosophy, MIT:

    One of the most fascinating aspects of studying human happiness is learning that little has changed when it comes to our desire to understand the nature of happiness. Through this class, which explores the work of Greek philosophers like Socrates, Meno, Aristotle, Plato, and Lucretius, students will review Classical outlooks on issues like friendship, willpower, virtue, the soul, and, of course, happiness.

  3. Designing Your Life, MIT:

    The authors of this course designed it with the purpose of helping students learn to live the best life possible, whatever that means to them. Coursework covers topics like finding success, being proud of your work, and being happy, as students learn to control both the good (money, relationships, career satisfaction) and the bad (vices, fear, lack of self-control) in life through this highly enlightening course from MIT.

  4. Moral Problems and the Good Life, MIT:

    Few social justice issues have clear-cut solutions or easy answers, yet they can have a powerful effect on quality of life and happiness for a large number of people in our country and around the world. Through this course, students will touch on a variety of these issues, including euthanasia, gay marriage, free speech, and racism, looking at them through a moral lens and examining their own values, morals, and social obligations in the process.

  5. Human Emotion, UC Berkeley

    : Happiness and the absence of it have also been the subject of much psychological research, and this class offers students a chance to get a foundational understanding of the major literature on the subject. The course takes a look at human emotion with respect to mental illness, childhood development, evolution, personality, and a variety of other key factors, helping students emerge with a much more well-rounded understanding of the biological and psychological motivations behind our feelings.

  6. Understanding Happiness, TED:

    Listen to this series of lectures from TED to take a multifaceted look at human happiness. Lecturers, including big names like Dan Gilbert and Malcolm Gladwell, discuss how happiness is created and cultivated, challenging some of our basic assumptions about morality, culture, and economics along the way. While much of the series is focused on psychology, the lessons learned will transcend the academic and extend directly into the heart of everyday life.

  7. Philosophy and Science of Human Nature, Yale University:

    This course combines readings from some of the greats in Western philosophy (Plato, Kant, Rawls, Aristotle) with scientific lectures on cognitive and neurological research. This two-pronged approach to understanding happiness makes for a very well-rounded look at the issue and students can expect to emerge much wiser on topics like morality, justice, social structures, and the nature of happiness itself.

  8. The Pursuit of Happiness, Emory University:

    The Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University sponsors this lecture series focused on happiness. Through it, students can listen to lectures on the idea of "The Pursuit of Happiness" from scholars in the Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions, showcasing the differences and similarities between how religions define, limit, and explain the best route to a happy life.

  9. Sociology, UC Berkeley:

    This sociology course from UC Berkeley isn't exclusively focused on happiness, but much of the material it covers, including status, relationships, conformity, and social identity, plays a key role in how we define ourselves and ultimately derive pleasure from our lives. Any student hoping to have a well-rounded academic understanding of the subject shouldn't miss out on this essential perspective.

  10. Justice, Harvard University:

    In this course, Harvard professor Michael Sandel takes a look at some of the justice issues that surround happiness, from natural rights to the value of a life to same-sex marriage. He doesn't offer easy answers, but instead presents a challenging look at some of the most controversial issues in society since, well, society existed.

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