Dan Lerner and Alan Schlecter run the Science of Happiness course at NYU, which is the second-most-popular course at the university, with around 500 students per semester from various different majors. I spoke to Dan to get a sense of what’s involved in such a big, popular course on well-being. You can check out the syllabus for the course here.
Hi Dan, could you tell me about the course?
The course was launched the year before I joined, in 2011. I joined in 2012, and Alan and I taught it together. When I got there, Alan was teaching solo, and about 80% of the class was focused on traditional ideas of well-being – what are the challenges you face, what is stress and anxiety, how does traditional therapy help us deal with that. It was mainly from the student perspective – what stresses do students face. When I came in, I thought there was an imbalance between the challenges and the opportunities that students face. Now it’s more 75% about the opportunities students have for flourishing.
But it’s important to focus on the challenges as well, because, if you look at the research, students are really struggling. Look at the research Gallup and other organizations have done – 90% of college students have been very stressed in the past year. 30% have been stressed in the past two weeks. 33% have dealt with debilitating depression in the last year. So there are lots of barriers you need to get through, in addition to dealing with opportunities.
Alan mostly teaches the barriers – he does a class on stress, on procrastination, on CBT. And then most of the classes I focus on are traditional Positive Psychology topics – meaning, purpose, will-power, passion, those kinds of things. Those are the three primary sessions – the basics that you need to know, then we talk about change – what are the elements of change you need to know. And then finally we talk about excellence – what role does meaning play in raising your game, what is the science of passion, goal-setting. We do a little bit of neuroscience, we study a book called The Brain That Changes Itself by a neuroscientist here at NYU, Norman Doidge.
We’re very clear, in the very first class, if you’re one of those people who say ‘I just can’t change’, this might not be the course for you, because it’s about change. We expect people to come in with the understanding that change is possible. We totally welcome sceptics. We want to have conversations, want to hear what your questions are and your challenges. But if you’re sitting here thinking ‘I’m not buying this’, it will be a long semester for you.
Is it open just to psychology majors?
No, it’s open to everybody. It’s an elective course. Maybe 30% of our students are psychology majors, 40% are dancers or singers. They might realize they’re going to be facing a lot of rejections in their career and they need to become more resilient.
You have a background working with musicians don’t you?
Yes, exactly. The rest of the students come from all over the map – pre-med, pre-law, business. They’re saying that they keep reading that people aren’t happy in our industry, and they’re trying to address that before they get into Goldman Sachs.
How is it assessed?
About 80% is experiential. We will take the most empirically-sound interventions we have – the gratitude journal, character strengths, the good day journal, things like this. And we will have them do each one over the course of a week, and then write a 1-2 page report on what it was like. What was it like to meditate every day for a week, for example, We’re clear that not every one will work for everyone. Just be honest. Some will feel right for you and some won’t. About 80% of the assignments, and 50% of the grades, are these weekly experiential assignments.
We have two larger papers, 5+ pages, we give them a choice of topics. One is heavily based on the book The Brain That Changes Itself. The final paper, we give them a very broad choice, for example – what do you think is missing from the current construct of well-being? They also have a final. We’re very clear that the topics in the final won’t be tiny peripheral studies, they’re things we want them to walk away with for the rest of their life, like: what are three characteristics of healthy passion, for example. What are three elements of expert development from the 10,000 hours theory? What are three ways positive emotion changes our experience? List three of your character strengths and how you use them? Those kinds of things. Then finally they have a group project.
In addition to their lectures – 27 lectures of 75-minutes each, twice a week – they have a recitation which is once a week. Our course is so big – we have 500 students a semester – so we try to make it as intimate we can. There’s a lot of Q&A in the lectures but we also have this recitation, done in groups of 25 or less. It’s a 55-minute class, they’ll have a teaching assistant there, more intimate Q&A, small group work, to go over the material and try some exercises. The TAs grade everything – the exercises, the exams, everything.
Does the university consider this a signature course, so it gets special funding?
Well, they budget it like they would everything else. NYU is a fairly expensive university, and having 500 students in there, we have a fair budget for working with TAs.
Are the recitation classes an essential part of it in terms of giving students more room to talk?
Certainly. There are students who are more likely to speak up in a lecture – maybe 40-50 of them – because we really do try and engage. And we try to have at least one huddle per lecture, like, speak to the person next to you. But the recitations give the introverts a much better shot at having a different kind of engagement. And to get to know each other, and talk about the exercises in a way that’s helpful.
It’s also about learning about your peer group. One of the first questions I ask in the course is ‘who here sometimes feels stressed at college?’ and 95% of the hands go up. And I say, great, keep them up, look around. The recitations help them to build solidarity with each other. You’re not the only one for whom meditation didn’t work, you’re not the only one dealing with a rough room-mate, you’re not the only one who actually found a really wonderful experience in the conscious acts of kindness exercise. To share that and talk about is essential to realizing the personal benefits. I can’t tell you how many messages I get after the course saying ‘it changed the way I experienced my time here at college’ – I get those messages a year later, four years later.
Can you tell me more about the group project?
The basic idea is to disseminate some of the principles of Positive Psychology on campus. They do it a number of ways. They will go out to Washington Square Park, at the heart of the campus, and might, for example, ask random folk who the most important person in their life is and why; and are they willing to reach out to them right now. They might share a bit of the science around relationships. And they might make a mini-documentary about that. Or they might give their entire dorm floor the character strength survey and then ask them to use one of their character strengths every day for a week.
Does the class involve ethics, and ethical debate? I guess a course on thriving or flourishing will involve different ways of defining it, different values, different cultural takes on it. Do those kinds of questions come up? I notice the syllabus includes a bit of Greek philosophy for example.
It’s something we don’t address in conversations, so much as we set them up for a broad definition of flourishing. It’s the nature of a large class like this, and given the demographic that comes to it…it’s not something we really push. We do discuss it in great depth at the graduate programme in Positive Psychology at Penn. Those guys are ready for that conversation. That being said, we’re very open to the fact that there are different definitions of well-being. There’s no one set way, but we’re going to teach this way, and are open to the conversation about other ways. For example, the argument over A in PERMA – what is achievement? It’s different for different people.
And I was wondering, for example if some students’ ideas of flourishing involve God. Do students draw on religious perspectives in their responses?
One of the most memorable experiences I had was a student in a full burqa. She sat at the front every time. And we had a lot of conversations about her religion, and her marriage. I tried to teach a class on spirituality and well-being, one class when we first started. And to really look at it empirically. There’s some strong research out there. It was too prickly a topic for this class. For a large class of undergrads. What students really seem to value most is to get a richer understanding of wellbeing and the actions they can take. When questions about spirituality come up I say I am more than willing to have a conversation with you, drop me an email if anyone wants to get involved. It’s come up way more often one-to-one or very small groups.
Any other tips on how to do this kind of course well?
The one thing I want to share is…OK, one of the biggest challenges for any university instructor is making the work relatable. When I came in, we would sometimes refer to research on positive emotions and how it affect their memory and learning ability. When you share that with students, they are locked in. And the next slide would be positive emotions and how it relates to marriage and divorce. You could see every student in the room blank out. They didn’t care about divorce. So I’m always asking TAs, tell me how this is reaching students, tell me what’s not connecting. They’re 18, they’ve never seen the film Titanic. We’ve pared down the research so carefully to be able to talk to students who are 25 or under.
You can read more about Dan and Alan’s course in their recent book, U Thrive: How to Succeed at College, and Life.