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Positive Psychology Goes to College
By Martin E. P. Seligman

Research on positive psychology provides compelling evidence that individuals can increase their happiness by identifying and engaging in their signature strengths. The more we use these strengths, the more steadily we advance into the Good Life, a life of immersion, absorption, and flow.

Using Our Signature Strengths

One of my signature strengths is a love of learning, and I am fortunate to be in a profession that allows me to use this strength on a daily--even hourly--basis. I've found that much of my learning goes on in the classroom--my classroom--as I interact with bright University of Pennsylvania undergraduate and graduate students. Since entering the field in 1964 I have had ample opportunities to indulge my love of learning by teaching in settings ranging from large university lecture halls to intimate seminar courses with only a handful of students. But this semester I tried something different.

I teamed up with two of my colleagues--Dr. John Dilulio and Dr. Christopher Peterson--to teach an introductory course on positive psychology. As far as we know, this is the first time that a 100-level course in positive psychology has been taught on a university campus. The purpose of the course is to introduce students to the science behind positive psychology. We divide the material into positive emotions, positive character strengths, and positive institutions. The interdisciplinary content of the course attracted a diverse group of students interested in psychology, political science, communication, business, and other fields. Four hundred students competed for the 120 available places.

Making Students Happier

There is another purpose of the course beyond imparting academic knowledge: to make the students happier, possessors of the Pleasant Life, The Good Life, and the Meaningful Life. We aim for this by assigning weekly Positive Psychology exercises as well as intellectual material in each of 12 sections of 10 students.

Positive Emotions, Character Strengths, and Institutions

During the first third of the course in the weekly two-hour lectures, I presented what is known about positive emotions. Christopher Peterson lectured during the second third of the course about positive character strengths. (Dr. Peterson is uniquely qualified to lead this endeavor because he is the first author of the Values in Action Classification of Strengths, a large-scale classification of strengths valued across cultures, UnDSM-1.) The final third of the course, which focused on positive institutions, is taught not by a psychology professor but rather by political science guru John Dilulio (former Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and with Judy Rodin my fellow Robert Fox Professor of Leadership at Penn).

Not The Typical Course

The weekly section meetings allowed me the privilege of witnessing firsthand the students' excitement as they realized they were not in a "typical" university course with an exclusive emphasis on book learning. Half of their homework consisted of exercises in which they apply the science to their own lives. For example, in one section of the course students practiced specific savoring techniques (designed to enhance positive emotion in the present) by lingering over a meal, relishing a recent success (rather than immediately moving on to their next task), and losing themselves in the melody of a favorite song.

During the part of the course devoted to the study of character strengths, students learn to identify their signature strengths and use these strengths to transform boring tasks and to enhance their leisure time. Toward the end of the course, homework exercises challenge students to articulate the people, activities, and beliefs that give them a stronger sense of meaning and purpose for their lives. Each student does exercises that involve giving the gift of time, forgiving a wrong, expressing gratitude to others, mentoring another student, and serving their community. These practical exercises require written observations and evaluations in order to encourage the students to give thoughtful, sustained attention to their positive experiences and of course there are no right or wrong answers.

Not the typical undergraduate survey course!

I Know Things Will Be Different Now

So what was the impact on the students? Did students leave this course not only more knowledgeable about the subject but actually happier as well? The official results will be in soon. At the beginning of the course, students completed a series of questionnaires about their baseline levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Students will retake these same questionnaires at the end of the course and again one year later. But in the meantime, I am content to savor the mountain of anecdotal evidence provided by my students of the positive (and sometimes profound) impact this course has had on their lives. Let me close with an example of one exercise and the effect it had on my students. The assignment given to the students was as follows:

Imagine that one day, long after you have passed away, one of your great grandchildren asks about you and your life. How would you want to be remembered and described? Write a summary of your life (one page), as you would like to have it related to your great grandchild. Be sure to include a description of your values and your personal characteristics. Put this summary aside for a few days and then come back to it. Notice not only what you included in your summary but also what you omitted. Are there activities that consume a great deal of time in your waking life that you did not include in the summary? Why did you leave them out? What changes might you make in your life so that this life summary might one day be an accurate reflection of your life and personal priorities?

Almost all of my students reported that they found this experience helpful in that it helped them to "get my priorities straight" or that it "made me realize that I was spending too much time worrying about what doesn't matter and not enough time worrying about what does." The journal entry of one student in particular stands out in my mind, and I would like to close by sharing with you her reaction to the exercise:
"I simply was not prepared for my emotional reaction to this exercise. I sat down with my pen and paper and began to cry. At first I cried over the realization that for the past several years I have been utterly neglecting what used to be such an important part of my life. And then I cried out of relief because I know things will be different now..."


© Copyright 2003 Martin E. P. Seligman. All rights reserved.

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