This article appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of the APA Monitor. Reprinted with permission of the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.
As APA president in 1998, I suggested that psychology should turn toward understanding and building the human strengths to complement our emphasis on healing damage. So I decided to teach an undergraduate seminar in Positive Psychology this spring. As far as I know, it is the first time that such a course has been given, so I wanted to share my experience with my fellow teachers.
For texts, I chose David Myers's Pursuit of Happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, my own Learned Optimism, David Lykken's Happiness, and Daniel Goleman's Working with Emotional Intelligence. All students wrote a one-page essay each week on their best thoughts about the reading, came prepared to lead the weekly discussion, and prepared final portfolios of all their writings.
We spent the first class introducing ourselves. All students told stories about their most positive traits and the class reacted to each story: Saving the life of a dog in Greece, adventuring alone through Budapest, a daughter finally getting to know her mother's dark secret, coming back from deep depression. Tears were shed and I was surprised at how skilled the students became at listening and responding sensitively to heartfelt positive stories.
The weekly discussion turned out to center around a set of odd, spontaneous assignments, which came out of the "best thought" essays. The first one of these arose from Jon Haidt's work on "elevation" (the opposite of moral disgust) and David Myers's contention that the good life comes not from pleasure, but from kindness. After a heated dispute about this, we all undertook an assignment: We were to do one pleasurable activity and one philanthropic activity (and write it up).
The results were dramatic. The "pleasurable" activities (hanging out with friends, going to a movie) paled in comparison to the effects of the kind action. When the philanthropic act was spontaneous and called upon skill, the rest of the day went better; whereas the pleasure of the pleasurable acts faded immediately. One woman told about her nephew phoning for help with his arithmetic. After an hour teaching him, she reported that she could listen mellowly to others for the rest of the day and people liked her much more than usual.
Then there was the "Minister of Play" assignment. Barbara Fredrickson, one of the leading young positive psychologists, has argued that the evolutionary function of positive affect is to broaden and build cognitive and social resources. It follows that more creative and synthetic thinking might occur at faculty meetings, conferences, and classes in which creativity is at a premium if they were conducted in a positive--not the usual fighting-over-the-bones--atmosphere. The class wrote up numerous ways to change such gatherings to induce positive affect. And there was the assignment on converting each of 17 positive traits to one Gallup-poll question. These were shipped to Don Clifton, the CEO of Gallup, and brought the class plaudits from Don.
The class was wired to email@example.com and also kept current with several Positive Psychology conferences I attended. At one conference, Ursala Staudinger and Ray Fowler suggested that one form of human greatness was "life-as-a-work-of-art." A bewildered class discussion ensued ("but we're so young!"), and this resulted in the assignment to have a "day-as-a-work-of-art." The students brought in essays, which ranged from a sculptor having her boyfriend model to one essay that complained that having to become conscious of living destroyed spontaneous joy--and that the assignment per se made such a day impossible.
One warning: Be prepared for some uncomfortable silence. This was unusual in my other seminars, so I asked. The unanimous answer was "not boredom, but weighing up our lives."
From the student comments at the end:
"Positive Psychology taught me how I would like to live my life: put thought into every action, live purposefully and beautifully."
"My experience in Positive Psychology has been therapeutic: I have been given the tools to assess my own lifestyle and have been taught how to calibrate myself into a more positive individual."
"The topics we covered were even more relevant to me this term since so much time in my senior year was spent thinking about what I want in the future and how I should live."
Positive Psychology was a course that seemed to grab all of the young burgeoning psychologists in the room by their throats and say 'Hey! The world should be smiling a lot more than it is! What are you going to do about it?'"
I have decided to teach it again next year.