Happiness is … What? A UK Psychology Class Delves into the Science of Cultivating Positive Emotions and Personal Meaning

By Richard LeComte 

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Usually one part of a semester is sure to bring happiness to students: the end. But in one University of Kentucky College of Arts & Sciences class, students are learning tools – backed by real science -- that will help them cultivate happiness throughout their academic year and even beyond. In fact, the class’s professor, Shannon Sauer-Zavala, wants her students to use the course material to find their own happy places.  

“I feel like every single thing that we learned about in my class, I have been trying to attempt in my own life,” said Sohayla Elhusseini, a senior psychology major from Lexington who’s taking the class this spring. “That’s definitely encouraged by Shannon as well.” 

The class where Elhusseini and her peers find all that encouragement is PSY 375: The Psychology of Happiness. Taught by Sauer-Zavala this spring, the class explores research-backed theories on what makes people happy. She uses as a textbook “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, though students also read multiple-disciplinary research articles on the subject. 

Students also take a hands-on approach by creating positive emotion kits, writing gratitude letters and learning ways to challenge negative ways of thinking- drawn from cognitive behavioral therapy.  

“The main push of positive psychology involves identifying strategies to increase well-being and happiness,” said Sauer-Zavala, who is an assistant professor in the Psychology Department and a licensed clinical psychologist. "A lot of the research in this area comes from clinical psychology and  social psychology and, in fact, many of the strategies we practice overlap with the cognitive behavioral therapy I provide to my patients.”

Although the focus in therapy is on alleviating symptoms, the emphasis in positive psychology is on building a meaningful and fulfilling life,  Sauer-Zavala said.  She has found that over the course of a psychology major, students will learn a lot about what goes wrong in the human psyche but not as much about goes right. As a result, departments have begun offering classes that look at recent research into happiness. 

“More and more departments have started offering positive psychology classes, but lots more have abnormal psychology classes, so I think it's still a little bit out of balance,” she said.  “Psychology, itself,is still a pretty new field – researchers only started studying psychology as a science in the early 1900s, and most of that history was studying what’s wrong instead of what’s right.” 

Elhusseini has noted the change in her perspective on psychology.  

“I think that there’s been a great sort of shift in my studies in psychology, because up until now I had just been learning about all the different psychological diagnoses and all the different ways that a person could have a certain psychological deficit or problem,” she said. “Now I’m looking at things differently.” 

Sauer-Zavala bases the class on recent, scientifically ascertained methods of increasing happiness. One sample tool she uses in the class resides on a website for the VIA Institute on Character: the site offers a self-assessment of character strengths students – and everyone else – can take, based on scientifically derived criteria. Another example lies in a TED talk about the “new era of positive psychology,” found here.  

“Because it's a class and not a treatment, we really try to take a science-focused approach to it,” she said. “Early on in the semester we make a point to discuss exactly how well being has been operationalized from different perspectives. So that's the starting-off point. Then we start to talk about empirically supported strategies -- strategies that have been tested in randomized control trials -- that have been proven to increase positive emotions and purpose in life.” 

Sauer-Zavala brings her perspective as a clinical psychologist to bear on the material. One of the perspectives involves getting students to think about negative thoughts and how to counter them. 

"We’re trying to get people to have a greater awareness of when they might be falling prey to negative thinking patterns and being able to be more flexible in their thinking,” she said. “Then we go beyond simply fact-checking a particular negative thought, like ‘I’m going to fail this test,’ to thinking more optimistically in general.” 

And, of course, the science of happiness suggests that no one-size-fits-all plans to cultivate well-being exist. In fact, strategies that may uplift one person, might not work as well for someone else.

"We talk about values and the relationship between them and happiness,” she said. “Getting into medical school because it’s a family tradition, when you personally value artistic pursuits, is unlikely to lead to the same long-term fulfillment as it might for another person that values education and helping others.”

Elaina Cravens, a  neuroscience major from Georgetown who’s taking the class, has spent a lot of time considering what happiness means to her. She notes that some psychological pathologies can intrude on the search for genuine happiness. 

“You can have a mental illness like say bipolar disorder and be manic and be really excited but it doesn't seem equivalent to real, deep happiness,” she said.  

Instead, she has found that taking on things that might momentarily bother her can lead to exactly that deeper form of happiness.  

"I get more excited now about things and more willing to engage in things that previously I wouldn't necessarily have done,” she said. “I never used to like exercising, but now I tell myself I’m going to do that because it's good for me. Mindfulness helps me to access what is actually good for me, versus what are my habitual thinking patterns that often were negative in the past.”

The final project asks students to create a “product designed to share a course concept or happiness-building exercise with your community.” Students can submit a TikTok video, Instagram post, infographic or another kind of content to embody a way to teach aspects of attaining happiness to the wider community. Elhusseini, for one, has found that one concept in particular has had a happy influence on her education and her life: gratitude.  

“I remember when we learned about gratitude: The professor asked us to write a letter of gratitude to a loved one in our life,” she said. “And that really prompted me to start thinking more about my appreciation for the people who are closest to me in my life. That exercise in itself was super, super helpful for me.” 

Sauer-Zavala will be offering this course in the future as PSY 120: The Science of Happiness.

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