Saturday, July 19, 2008

Teaching Happiness

In the last 20 years a group of psychologists have been busy determining what makes us happy. It all began when Martin Seligman, a psychologist who discovered the emotions behind depression, gave his speech as President of the American Psychological Association. After noting that psychologists have made great strides in helping terribly unhappy suffer less, he suggested that maybe they should begin helping regular people even happier. Instead of focusing on mental illness, perhaps they should focus on mental well-being as well?

Positive psychology was born, and a wealth of books as well. In my last post I mentioned my favorite book in the positive psychology area, The How of Happiness. Some of the positive psychology studies use statistical analyses of cross-section data to determine why some people are happier than others. For those with a democratic bent, these studies find income equality is a contributor to happiness. For those with a capitalist bent, wealth does also.

Most interesting are the intervention studies. They take a group of people, randomly separate them into two groups, and attempt to determine if simple things like writing down things you are grateful for can make you happier. Indeed, many such simple tasks do make people happier.

Since we teach our students how to improve their physical health, should we also teach them to improve their mental health through the findings of positive psychology? Wellington College in the United Kingdom already does, as well as 200 colleges and graduates schools in the U.S. The "happiness course" at Harvard is also the most popular, with 855 students enrolled during the Spring Semester of 2007.

What does this have to do with agricultural economics teachers? If you love your students, you want to see them happy. The lessons of positive psychology are simple and noncontroversial. To become happier, people can
(a) practice experience gratitude
(b) practice extending compassion towards others
(c) consider religious involvment
(d) engage in activities where you "get lost in the moment"
(e) cultivate optimism
(f) seek and nurture friendships
(g) exercise
... and so on.

Sometimes we all need reminding that the goal of life is happiness, and students should not get caught up in academic achievements that they forget to be happy. If you are like me, teaching is rewarding because of the positive effect we [perceive to] have on students' lives. If you feel rewarded teaching an economic concept, just think how satisfied you will feel teaching students to be happy!

You can incorporate positive psychology into your advising in little ways. For example, this is a brochure I give to all my students about how to be a successful college student. Notice one whole page is devoted to tips on being happy.

I don't know if it has an impact, but the thought that it may has certainly make me a happier person!