Jason Johnson was searching the course catalog for a spring semester class at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg when one title stood out from the rest:
Motivation and the Science of Happiness.
A junior majoring in psychology, Johnson was more interested in the motivation part when the class started in January. Now, as the semester winds down, he says he's learned quite a bit about happiness — and himself as well.
"I was already pretty satisfied with a lot of the aspects in my life," said Johnson, 19. "But I've learned to be more reflective, which gives me more enjoyment."
While some would argue that happiness is a subject best left to the likes of Oprah and Dr. Phil, USF St. Petersburg psychology professor V. Mark Durand maintains that mental health professionals should go beyond simply helping people overcome problems.
To do that, they need a thorough grounding in new brain research that looks at positive thinking, character strengths and interpersonal relationships, said Durand.
"This is not a touchy-feely, warm-and-fuzzy look at what we think makes people happy," he said. "It's the science of happiness, not the philosophy of happiness."
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Classes like Durand's are based on a relatively new area of study called positive psychology, which takes what behavioral scientists have learned about the science and practice of treating mental illness and applies it to the practice of making people happier.
The traditional approach only addresses half of the equation according to positive psychology pioneers like Nansook Park, who argues that the ultimate goal of interventions should go beyond treating problems and help people lead fulfilling lives.
"The traditional psychologist tries to bring people from a minus to a zero," said Park, a psychology professor at the University of Rhode Island. "Positive psychologists try to figure out how to bring people with or without problems to a plus 2 or a plus 5 or beyond."
Interest in positive psychology has blossomed in the past decade as hundreds of articles on the subject have appeared in scholarly magazines such as American Psychologist. Courses in positive psychology have cropped up on college campuses nationwide, and positive psychology centers exist at several universities, including the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.
About 150 students tried to sign up for Durand's class this spring, the second time it was offered, but there was only room for 30. Beginning in the fall, it will be offered every semester online.
Part of the appeal are exercises borrowed from Martin Seligman, recognized as the founder of positive psychology.
One exercise features a gratitude visit, in which students write a letter and hand-deliver it to someone who has been especially kind to them but whom they never properly thanked. Another involves keeping track of three good things that happened to them each day for a week.
Marie Darginio, a USF St. Petersburg student who wants to be a mental health counselor, made her gratitude visit to the mother of a friend who supported her when she was a teenager. The woman cried when she read the letter Darginio wrote.
"Seeing how it affected her impacted me in a huge way," said Darginio, 34. "The exercise has made me more aware of the value in thanking people."
For the "three good things" exercise, Darginio found herself noting simple pleasures: sitting in the sun, talking to a friend, enjoying a doughnut.
"I easily ended up with six things each day," she said. "It was like running sand through a strainer and finding all the good stuff at the top."
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Motivation and the Science of Happiness topics this semester have included self-esteem, optimism, altruism and empathy. The lectures have been peppered with Durand's personal experiences, and he's kept the questions coming nonstop: Can self-esteem be taught? Are there drawbacks to being overly optimistic? If someone is socially intelligent, does that make him a good person?
But in the end, he always comes back to hard science, focusing on the role that genetics plays in determining happiness and underscoring the ways in which the brain reacts to pleasure and pain.
"I want them to question," Durand says. "My goal is to get them to be critical thinkers."
Michele Jones already was a critical thinker when she landed in Durand's class after 20 years in real estate. A month shy of graduation, Jones, who wants to become a mental health counselor, counts the class as one of the high points in her educational career.
"It's been like a gift," said Jones, 48. "It's been like, 'Here is the cherry on top of your years of going to college.' "
Jones wrote her gratitude letter to her brother, who retired from the Navy after being exposed to horrific scenes overseas. Like Darginio, she focused on life's simpler moments in the "three good things" exercise.
But Jones got something her classmates didn't: a teachable moment for her 12-year-old son Tristen, who has been experiencing bullying at Palm Harbor Middle School.
For the past few weeks, she's been suggesting to Tristen that perhaps the bullies are unhappy.
"It's easy to say, 'Just bully back,' " Jones said. "It's more difficult to suggest he look inside the lives of the kids who are bullying and see if he can find a reason for it."
Next week, she says, she'll start him on the "three good things" exercise.