Pursuing Happiness in the Classroom

Pursuing Happiness in the Classroom

Classroom Close-up: Students study the art and science of happiness while discovering the source of their own

Susan Ho
As part of her happiness project, Susan Ho, in front of the Red Mango yogurt shop in New Brunswick, convinced the owners of the Red Mango to contribute to fighting human trafficking in Vietnam. 
Photo: Rutgers University/Ken Branson

'A goal of all my courses is not just to understand a problem, but to do something about it.'
 
– Sarah Rosenfield, associate professor of sociology

Sociologist Sarah Rosenfield has spent her career studying unhappiness – why people become depressed, anxious or aggressive, and what effect their mental state has on their relations with other people. One day, she decided she needed a break from all that. Why not study happiness?

After all,  happiness as a science is booming, with researchers hard at work taking our emotional temperature, trying to define happiness – is it a philosophy, an emotion or a biochemical set point? – and even conducting surveys measuring perceptions of well-being in countries around the world.

Soon Rosenfield, an associate professor of sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences, had enough material to build a syllabus for her course, “Sociology of Happiness and Mental Health,” which she is offering for the third time this semester.

It’s a small class, only 12 students, conducted in seminar style. The syllabus ranges from academic research, such as Ronald Siegel’s Positive Psychology: Harnessing the Power of Happiness, Mindfulness, and Inner Strength to Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, an international bestseller. Rosenfield decided to focus much of the discussion on Rubin’s memoir, which describes the year Rubin, a Yale Law School graduate, spent discovering how to be happier.

Rosenfield wanted to make action the point of the course, which requires students to create happiness projects of their own.

“A goal of all my courses is not just to understand a problem, but to do something about it,” Rosenfield says.  “I want students not only to understand research but to use it for improving their well-being and helping to solve problems that they and the people they care about face. “

Throughout the semester students follow Rubin’s technique of making resolutions to take steps toward happiness, and then turn those steps into concrete actions. Each Wednesday, when the class meets, the students discuss their resolutions and their progress in keeping them. Along the way, they reflect on what happiness is for each of them.  The happiness project is worth 50 percent of their grade.

Resolving to take active steps to make themselves and others happier, the students think about the meaning of happiness. Is it the mere pursuit of pleasure? Is it life satisfaction?

“I never took happiness to mean just pleasure-seeking,” said Gina Capella, a senior sociology and criminal justice major from East Brunswick, New Jersey. “I’ve always thought it was more about life satisfaction, and about friends.”

Mitch Horner, a senior political science and sociology major, has struggled to keep some resolutions, including one he made to meditate daily, as Rubin had related in her book. He was too busy; but he did meditate twice a week, and found it helpful in keeping another resolution. “I had been thinking about asking this girl out,” he said. “I hadn’t done anything about it. Then, one day, I thought, ‘Why not do it? Just do it.’ So I did it.”

Susan Ho’s happiness resolution was to see a project through. “Not 90 percent, not 95 percent, but to finish all of it,” she says.

happiness
We may not be able to define happiness precisely, but we all know it when we see it.
A senior sociology and communications major, Ho is also the fundraising chair of the Vietnamese Student Association at Rutgers. She needed to raise money for the VSA’s annual contribution to Catalyst, an organization that fights human trafficking in Vietnam. “It was hanging on my shoulders,” she said. “I’d never done a fundraiser before. I felt a little bit useless.”

She went to the owners of Red Mango, a yogurt store in New Brunswick, and convinced them to donate 30 percent of every check received for three hours on a Saturday afternoon.

And how did Ho feel? “Satisfied with myself,” she said. “And, yes, I guess, happy.”

Kunal Patel, a 2013 graduate who took Rosenfield’s course while at Rutgers, was dubious at first about making resolutions and carrying them out as a path to happiness. By semester’s end, however, he was a believer – so much so that he made a speech at the end-of-semester departmental reception in praise of Rosenfield and her course.

 “My happiness shot through the roof,” he said. “I walked into the course thinking, ‘This 400-level class is going to kill me.’ Instead, it brought me back to life.”  


Media contact: Ken Branson, kbranson@ucm.rutgers.edu, 848-932-0580, cell 908-797-2590

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