• Half of the world’s population is now in some form of lockdown to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
  • Online courses have surged in popularity since March, when restrictions became more widespread.
  • A course entitled "The Science of Well Being" at Yale University has seen a 295% increase in enrolment numbers in recent months.
  • Before the pandemic, 61% of people in the US reported feeling lonely, making them vulnerable to social distancing and lockdown measures.

Nearly half the world’s population has now been told to stay at home to limit the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. This is crucial to lessening the immediate impact of the virus – or flattening the curve – but concern is growing about how these stringent measures will affect mental health.

And as lockdowns continue across the globe, many people are heading online for help - such as the 1.3 million people now signed up for "The Science of Well Being", a free course from Yale University. Since the end of 2019, its enrolment numbers have risen 295%, and in March 2020 more than half a million new learners signed up within a matter of weeks.

Lockdown learning

The online enrolment boom is being experienced elsewhere, too. A course that also looks at the science of happiness, run by the University of California, Berkeley, has beaten its own enrolment record by attracting half a million students worldwide.

With full-time students and more casual “home learners” now utilizing much of the same technology, offerings are likely to become more diverse. And this extends further than university courses – everything from meditation apps and digital fitness classes to online cookery courses are booming.

However, the drive towards resources centred around happiness and well-being could be telling about how stay-at-home measures are affecting populations.

Loneliness among each generation in the US.
Image: Statista

Effects of isolation

Alongside buying us time and reducing pressure on health systems, isolation and social distancing measures are challenging us by affecting what we want to do, where we want to do it and who we want to be with, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It’s natural for us to feel stress, anxiety and loneliness under these circumstances, the agency says.

In recent years, there has been much discussion about whether loneliness has reached epidemic levels, particularly among the young. In the US, for example, 61% of the overall population told a survey they had experienced loneliness. Strikingly, nearly 80% of those in Gen Z – aged 18 to 22 – said they felt alone.

A common description of the problem – which has been found to be bad for physical and mental health ­– is the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contacts and relationships is not met. Given how much COVID-19 has reduced contact with the outside world for many, it’s a feeling even more people are likely to be experiencing.

Our increasing dependence on technology and social media is often cited as a contributing factor to loneliness, particularly in younger people. So it’s perhaps ironic that the same technology could be the very thing to help many of us fend off loneliness during the COVID-19 outbreak.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

The science of happiness

The sudden popularity of these courses highlights a general increase of awareness around mental health at a time when loneliness is almost entirely unavoidable. But can happiness be studied scientifically?

According to Professor Laurie Santos, who leads "The Science of Well Being" course at Yale, it is possible:

"It kind of seems odd to take a scientific approach to happiness," she explained in an interview with the World Economic Forum. "But researchers have been looking at the scientific basis of happiness for the past three decades."

Instead of focusing on circumstance, researchers find happy people, survey them, study their behaviours - and then use randomized control trials to test whether unhappy people can improve their well-being by doing the same.

"So, if we take the average person on the street and we make them do the things that happy people are doing, will that improve the average person's happiness?" explains Santos. Often the answer is yes, she adds.

Given global restrictions and lockdowns, you can't be that average person on the street right now. But, the rise of online courses like Santos' mean you don't necessarily have to leave your house to learn a little about happiness, well-being or a wide-range of other topics.

Which might be something to smile about.