Scattered across the walls of Janelle Collazo’s 11-by-12-foot bedroom are more than a dozen pictures of her smiling alongside friends and family. Some are in single thick black frames, others in thinner, larger, multi-photo frames. Each of these pictures is proof of one of the most important elements of happiness: having good social relationships.
More than the average person, Collazo knows about what elements human individuals need to live happy lives. A USF senior and psychology major, she is enrolled in a course called Motivation in which she studies “the science of happiness.”
The course, taught by USF St. Petersburg professor V. Mark Durand, was originally offered in class but is now online due to great popularity. Durand strays from the classical approach of the subject.
“This course is an overview of theories of motivation – why we behave the way we do,” Durand says. “Most courses on motivation highlight our more negative motives – e.g., anger or aggression. I decided to teach the course very differently, focusing on the positive motivations. In particular, I highlight those factors that lead to subjective well being. Subjective well being is the label behavioral scientists use to describe ‘happiness’.”
But is it possible for science to make us happy? Especially through an online course? Collazo is set to find out. She has taken a test that reveals her level of happiness and will take it again at the end of the semester to see how much her happiness improves.
Collazo had encountered a fairly new field of study called positive psychology that was founded 12 years ago by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman—though ideas about it date back to the period of humanistic psychology in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Positive psychology as defined by Seligman is the study of “what makes life worth living.” In a TED conference presentation, Seligman stated that positive psychology was developed because the psychology of the past 60 years has concentrated in helping people who are “miserable become less miserable,” and there was no form of psychology that addressed normal people and how to make their lives better.
Positive psychologists believe that psychology should concentrate on positive motivation just as much as it concentrates on negative motivation.
Durand states that behavioral scientists are studying what happiness is and what motivates people to feel that way. In addition, he states that it is subjective.
“[P]eople experience certain situations differently,” Durand says. “Watching a sunset, for example, could be a profound experience for one person but not for another. At the same time, watching a sunset one day could be experienced completely differently by the same person at two different times.”
Though happiness is subjective, behavioral scientists have found a way to measure it.
One of the first activities Durand requires his students to do in his class, is to take a questionnaire located in the Authentic Happiness webpage of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Authentic Happiness Inventory Questionnaire is designed to measure the overall happiness of a person and is part of an ongoing study. The scores range from one as the least happy, to five as the most happy. The results are compared to those of others who have also filled out the questionnaire on the web, by gender, age group, occupation, education level and zip code.
Collazo filled out the 24-question quiz during her first week of class and scored a 2.5, an average score.
“We were promised that by the end of the course we will be happier,” Collazo says. “At the end, we are supposed to take the questionnaire again to see how happy we are then.”
Durand has also assigned two personal projects to his students that are used in positive psychology to cultivate happiness.
“Research shows that being grateful can lead to long term subjective well being,” Durand says.
One of the exercises Durand has incorporated in this class is to write a thank you letter to someone you have always wanted to thank but have not. Students must write the letter and then deliver it to the person face-to-face. This can be intimidating, but an overwhelming number of students report to Durand that it can be a life changing positive experience.
Collazo did just that. The gratitude letter she wrote to her older sister came as a surprise.
“She cried a little,” Collazo said.
Another assignment Durand gives his students is to write down three good things that occurred during their day every evening.
“This simple exercise is shown to increase subjective well being by focusing less on the negative and more on the positive aspects of life,” Durand says.
“The assignment has made me happier because it has made me realize how to appreciate simple things,” Collazo says.
Collazo has learned in Durand’s course that things like wealth do not make people happy.
According to Ed Diener and son Robert Biswas-Diener, two of the top experts in the field of positive psychology, in their 2008 book “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth,” the simple things are what make human beings the happiest.
In their book, Diener and Biswas-Diener state that one key to life satisfaction does not exist but instead, it is a mixture of ingredients that compose it.
After spending ten weeks in Durand’s course, Collazo has learned that a combination of elements, rather than one single thing is what will make her happy. In addition, she has learned that happiness is long term, unlike pleasure which is short lived.
Though she thinks she is happier now, Collazo thinks taking the happiness test is important. She is both curious about the results, and in verifying the validity of the fairly new science because it is very subjective.
According to Diener and Biswas-Diener, these are basic elements are what genuinely make people happy: