The Art & Science of Happiness

A branch of psychology known as Positive Psychology suggests that there’s more to being happy than just making more money than the week before – instead, it proposes that “Happiness is both an art and a science. All can benefit from having a greater appreciation of what’s right within them and building on those strengths.”

Dr. James P. Morgan, who has been a Gardner-Webb University psychology professor for the last seven years, originally created the Positive Psychology course as a seminar two years ago. This spring, it has been offered for the first time as free-standing course and will continue to be offered every spring in the years to come.

“Positive Psychology focuses on what’s right with us,” Morgan says. He explains that it compliments Gardner-Webb’s fall course of Psychopathology which reflects Clinical Psychology and the question of what’s wrong with us.

“It’s the scientific study of a life well lived,” Morgan quotes Christopher Peterson’s definition of Positive Psychology. Peterson was the leader in the field of Positive Psychology and died last year.

Morgan says that Positive Psychology “helps one learn how to lead a more meaningful life, enhancing your strengths and being more mindful of resources within yourself and in your relationships.”

The science of happiness can be broken down into three components: positive emotion, human virtues, and positive institutions. Of these, Morgan explains that “when you grow up in a family where you feel loved and accepted, when you can understand positive emotions and expand on those in your life, when you can appreciate virtues such as  love, wisdom, justice, temperance, and transcendence manifested in your life… those are the kinds of things that can lead to a life well lived.”

The art of happiness involves learning how to live a life that is pleasant, engaged, and meaningful. “A pleasant life has more positive than negative emotion in it,” Morgan says. “An engaged life consists of having purpose, of doing something purposeful. A meaningful life involves the first two but has more of a focus on service to others and making a difference in the world.”

Morgan discusses different exercises he has his students do in his Positive Psychology course. In the beginning, students participate in a “serious introduction” where they talk about and reflect on a time they were at their best.

Students also partake in an online survey which reveals their strongest virtues and character strengths. “For the rest of the semester, they find ways to give expressions to those character strengths. They write about what they’re learning about themselves and the difference it’s making in their lives and the lives of others.”

Another exercise includes writing and sharing a letter of gratitude with someone important in each student’s life. Morgan also has his students keep “gratitude journals.” They write down three good things that happen every day and then reflect on these over a period of time.

Through “Active Constructive Responding,” students pick a relationship in their life that they have difficulty dealing with. They intentionally find constructive ways of relating to that person for a week. Afterwards, they reflect on how their relationship with that person was impacted.

Morgan’s “Being a Good Team Member” exercise challenges students to pick a group that they’re a functioning team member in and look at their role in-depth and how they can give positive feedback and encouragement to others.

“If people practice some of these exercises consistently,” Morgan says, “it’s shown through research that it makes a difference in the quality of their mood and happiness as an individual.” 

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