Lanaya Ethington starts off with a simple question: "What does it mean to be happy?" Stumped for answers in this seminar at the nursing building, the University of Iowa freshmen frown.
Gradually, they start to throw out descriptions: excitement, few worries, pleasure. Actually, happiness is more complex, rewarding, and attainable than a bubbly, energized feeling. Martin Seligman, an internationally renowned psychologist who literally wrote the book on happiness, lists other attributes of well-being: "flow, meaning, love, gratitude, accomplishment, growth, better relationships."
Seligman is a driving force behind a fairly new field in psychology that underlies this UI seminar for freshmen: "You at Your Best: Using Positive Psychology to Thrive." Each year, the UI Counseling Service (UCS) helps a couple thousand students struggling with emotional or psychological problems often caused by academic or personal stresses. Ethington devised the seminar as a way to help ease undergrads into a major new life-stage that's often touted as the best days of their lives.
"There's this societal expectation and cultural picture of what college is going to be like," says Ethington, a staff psychologist with UCS. "We're going to be friends with everybody; it's going to be so great. When students come and it doesn't live up to that, it can be disappointing."
That's where positive psychology can help. Traditionally, psychology entails the study and treatment of pathology—or what's wrong—with minds and psyches. In contrast, the branch of positive psychology takes a glass-half-full approach. Emerging in the last decade of the last century, and boosted by Seligman's year as president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, it aims to help people, organizations, and entire communities not just to be happy, but to thrive or to flourish. It does so by helping people focus on what's going right in their lives—like a strong social support network, positive family relationships, or good academic performance—and use their personal strengths to find meaning in life.
Now director of the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, Seligman describes the movement as "a tectonic upheaval in psychology." As one of the leaders in the field, he has conducted extensive research, penned numerous articles, and written two popular books (Authentic Happiness and Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being). Seligman's theories have been adopted by the U.S. Army in a program to increase soldiers' psychological resilience, as well as in schools in the U.S. and abroad. His website, provides updates about developments in the growing field that has snagged the attention of scientists, researchers, and the public. After all, who doesn't want to be happy?
Grounded in solid science, positive psychology has also spawned an entire industry of books, websites, and academic courses. One such offering is the nonprofit VIA Institute on Character test (available, along with a free top-five character strengths profile, at www.viame.org/survey). Ethington's students take the 240-question online survey that classifies personal positive attributes and character strengths into six areas: wisdom and knowledge; courage; humanity; justice; temperance; and transcendence.
Reinforcing Ethington's point that "happiness is broader than we think," the survey highlights the importance of engagement, contentment, and building a life to include the people and activities that make us feel good.
“People think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives.” Martin Seligman
Using signature strengths intentionally can also enhance happiness. Participants in the UI course realize that people with qualities of humor and playfulness may be able to lighten stressful situations; natural leaders can guide group projects; and those with enthusiasm for living strive to be as prepared, engaged, and ready to learn as possible in their classes.
Other exercises help the students deal with a critical and often problematic component of happiness: relationships with others. After all, as Jean-Paul Sartre famously stated, "Hell is other people."
Such life lessons typically occur through trial and error and years of sometimes painful experience. Ethington hopes to give these undergrads some of the skills without the hard knocks. In one session, they discuss how to deal with a situation in which they've hurt another person. As they prepare to write a letter to the person they've wronged (they have the option to send it), their professor explains the three components of a good apology.
The first is acknowledgment of wrongdoing—a sincere acknowledgment, unlike a politician's passive apology: "Mistakes were made." Next, the apologizer has to note how the wrongdoing affected the other person, and finally, state how he or she will correct the injury.
"This would've been so helpful if I had known it when I was an 18-year-old," Ethington says. Students agree it's a great concept—although most are too nervous to send their letters. Typically, they apologize for a conflict with a family member, friend, or romantic partner. One young man asks his mother to forgive him for anything bad he's ever done. In a similar assignment, students write a letter of gratitude and then read it to the recipient in person or over the phone. Many thank their parents or a close friend, discovering in the process that they've strengthened their relationships.
Another exercise called "Three Good Things" tasks students with writing down each day three positive events and experiences—no matter how big or small. Most are decidedly small, like a sunny day or good food in the residence hall cafeteria, but they give students a new perspective. In his book Flourish, Seligman notes that people tend to "think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives.... [T]his focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well."
In the UI seminar, a secret good deed assignment illustrates how doing something nice for others can feel uplifting. One woman paid someone else's check at a restaurant, while another sent flowers anonymously to her grandmother. In their reflection papers afterward, students hoped that their secret acts of kindness would be passed on to others.
Ideally, what they learn in this course will help these students thrive not only in college but also in the days, years, and decades afterward. So, the final assignment asks them to write a mission statement for their lives. Inevitably, Ethington is amazed at the profound ideas these 18- and 19-year-olds express. Seligman would also be proud of the way they incorporate positive psychology tenets like service to others, associating with people who are a positive influence, forging strong relationships with family and friends, finding meaningful work, and expressing gratitude.
One student determines to live a life with few regrets, finding inspiration in a quote from basketball legend Michael Jordan: "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take."
Another says, "A great deal of my own personal happiness is to gift happiness to other individuals. I will use my sensitive heart, desire to teach others, my creativity, and free spirit to spread joy to everyone that I may encounter. I plan to love and be loved, to forgive and forget, and to remember there is always something or someone to be grateful for."
Another student pledges "to have courage when taking on challenges that will shape me into being a better and wiser person. To have days filled with laughter and smiles. I will stand up for what is right and all the things I believe in. Each day I will strive for optimism and bravery and keep my eyes and ears open to all the adventures life has to offer me."
Words to live by. Perhaps happily ever after.
Jackie Hartling Stolze, 84BA, 87MA, is lead communication specialist for the University of Iowa's IIHR–Hydroscience & Engineering.