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Learning Happiness

Story by
Nancy Joseph

We all want to be happy. If only there were a course for that.

At the UW, there is.

Tabitha Kirkland, lecturer in the Department of Psychology, offers PSYCH 448: Happiness, which combines scientific research on happiness with activities that have been shown to have a positive impact.

“When we talk about happiness, we’re not talking about it as an emotion,” explains Kirkland, a social psychologist whose dissertation on happiness was grounded in social cognitive neuroscience. “When we’re looking at happiness in this class, we’re thinking about it more as an enduring state, beyond temporary emotion or mood. It’s more about whether one’s orientation toward the world is more positive or negative.”

Portrait of Tabitha Kirkland

“While people have an individual set point for happiness, they can move from that set point with intentional practice,” says Tabitha Kirkland, above. Media credit: Whitney Sanchez

Weekly lectures and discussions of scientific readings are supplemented with hands-on activities, films, and guest speakers. Offered for the first time this quarter, the course quickly filled with psychology majors. Kirkland hopes to open the class to non-majors in the future, with a limit of 50 students. “The smaller the learning environment, the deeper we can go and the more the students feel a sense of community in the class,” she says.

Senior Rayanna Acia signed up for Happiness because she was “tired of being in a constant state of negativity” and hoped the class would change her perspective. She believes the course content and assignments have had a remarkable effect. “I find myself leaving the negativity behind and becoming happier each day,” Acia says. “I don’t even remember the last time I’ve felt this happy so consistently.”

If that sounds like magic, Kirkland insists it is not. People can become happier if they put in the work, she says. Studies suggest that 50 percent of one’s potential for happiness is attributable to genetics and 10 percent is the result of external circumstances. The remaining 40 percent can be influenced by how we choose to approach situations. “The fact that we can increase our own happiness is the toughest thing for people to wrap their minds around,” says Kirkland. “While people have an individual set point for happiness, they can move from that set point with intentional practice.”

The fact that we can increase our own happiness is the toughest thing for people to wrap their minds around.

So what can nudge us higher on the happiness scale? In her book The How of Happiness, research psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests a variety of practices that may help: savoring small pleasures, random acts of kindness, positive reframing, meditation, yoga, and more. Kirkland, who assigns the book for class, has each student pursue one of the practices all quarter, and introduces additional happiness habits to try in and out of class each week.

“The actual doing of activities is tough for a lot of students,” says Cameron McCann, a peer advisor for the course. “Some of the activities may seem corny or be things that people will find awkward. But the class isn’t just something that is taught out of a book focused on rote memorization. It encompasses knowledge and practice. I think the most challenging thing for students regarding a happiness practice is…practice!”

montage with a dog, a woman doing yoga, and a hand writing in journal

Many things have been shown to promote happiness, including owning a pet, practicing yoga, and writing in a gratitude journal. Media credit: flickr images by Rikki's Refuge, Pierre-Selim, and Wheeler Cowperthwaite Creative Commons Licence

McCann, a UW psychology major, speaks from firsthand experience. He took an earlier version of the course, taught by Kirkland at Bellevue College before she joined the UW faculty. McCann continues to practice mindful meditation on a daily basis and has kept up with other practices he learned in class. “Expressing gratitude is an important practice in my life, and arguably my favorite,” he says. “I’ve come to learn that searching for the good in things is intrinsically rewarding, and when found and shared, profound things happen.”

Of course each student responds to different practices. A favorite for Acia was a class assignment to monitor one’s use of technology for three days, with one day designated as a technology blackout day. While most students found it impossible to give up their phones, television, and other devices, Acia was resolute. “I ended up doing the technology blackout day for four days,” she says. “I also ended up deleting almost all my social media apps, stopped checking my email and texts as soon as they arrive, and stopped taking pictures of everything. …Because I’m no longer taking daily pictures for my Instagram account or scrolling through social media accounts, I have more time to do what I thought I didn’t have time to do.”

For another student, yoga was a revelation. When he learned that the class would attend a yoga session, he was unsure what to expect and nervous about keeping up. Writing about the yoga experience after the fact, the student shared that he was on a mind and body high the rest of the day. “He wrote that it’s the happiest he’s ever been,” recalls Kirkland. “That was really cool to read.”

Despite the benefits of the activities introduced in class, Kirkland admits it took her a while to practice what she preached. “There’s a difference between being academically interested in something and personally applying it,” she says. “I talked about mindfulness for about five years before I tried it myself. In the last year or two, it’s become a much more intentional search and inquiry for me. Now I think about it a lot, and I think it improves my teaching on the subject.”

Kirkland won’t say whether she’s happier as a result. But Acia offers an unequivocal endorsement. “I’m grateful for being able to attend this class,” she says. “I’m definitely much happier than before the quarter began.”