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Positive Psychology Made My Life Better

By: Jon Watford


Dr. Jann Adams, the professor lauded as the gatekeeper of the Psychology degree at
Morehouse College, offers a course in Positive Psychology in the fall of every year. Positive
Psychology is a relatively new field which investigates what causes individuals to be happier,
more resilient, and ultimately lead satisfying lives. The course, which does not have any tests,
usually involves reading articles, studying a book on Positive Psychology written by Christopher
Peterson, regular reflections, and a culminating project meant to inspire positivity in the
community of the Atlanta University Center (AUC). The purpose of the class, according to Dr.
Adams, is to improve the quality of your life.
This fall, in particular, the surprisingly small class enrolled in a Massive Open Online
Course (MOOC) called The Science of Happiness. This MOOC, offered by the Greater Good
Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, is taught with a series of videos and
essays on the newest information in the field. For eight weeks, the MOOC taught us about the
following topics: the power of social connection, kindness and compassion, cooperation and
reconciliation, mindfulness, mental habits of happiness, and gratitude. This wide breadth of
information was detailed, but allowed for plenty of room to ask questions. Many of our classes
were spent contemplating the implications of the material presented and verbally exploring what
role culture might play on the concepts that the course explained. The MOOC seemed to be from
a markedly Western perspective, which may have skewed the information, but it appeared to be
valuable regardless. Dr. Adams and the two students often found ourselves nodding and making
affirming sounds while listening to a video or reading an article.

Three concepts stood out tremendously, as they seemed to reverberate around every part
of the course. The first of these is mindfulness. According to Shauna Shapiro (one of the
lecturers to whom the MOOC links a video), mindfulness is a nonjudgmental awareness of the
present reality. In short, it is encouraged that people be present in the momentmindfulin
order to experience the greatest level of contentment and, perhaps, even joy. This concept is
difficult for some to grasp, but it is even more difficult to convince someone that mindfulness
has psychological and physiological benefits. The Science of Happiness showed Dr. Adams
students that simply being present in the moment on a regular basis is associated with lower
stress, more prosocial behavior, and higher overall life satisfaction. Physiologically, people who
consistently practiced mindfulness or meditation had lower blood pressure on average than those
who did not. Despite Dr. Adams original aversion to mindfulness, this section of the course
allowed her to reevaluate her understanding of the concept and she now attempts to bring herself
back to the present reality when she catches herself wanderingwithout judging herself for
wanderingand that is the first step to a mindful life.
The second concept is one that continually popped up in our conversations about the
MOOC, even when the term wasnt used in the material we had just viewed. Related to
mindfulness but known as savoring, this term describes the act of taking a few seconds or
minutes to enjoy the positive moments in our lifeeven the small ones. I have taken this into
special consideration; many days, I find myself grinning up at the sky as it is framed by the trees
around campus. As a result of this course, I savor meals and environments and time with friends
far more than I had before.
Lastly, I was wonderfully pleased by the serious focus that the MOOC gave to gratitude.
Although the entire class seemed to advocate for gratitude, I was thankful that an entire week

was dedicated to learning about the various benefits of engaging in gratitude and living grateful
lives. Research showed that people who practice gratitude regularly are happier with their lives
overall, and I intend to use that information to continue to be thankful for all that I am offered.
Also, from the very beginning, we were encouraged to use a gratitude journal, and I intend to
buy me a journal devoted solely to gratitude. I do not want to ever forget how lucky I am and I
am thankful for a class that reminded me that it is more than a nice sentiment to express
gratitudeit can improve your life.
Since the MOOC was rather large and extensive (and definitely more in-depth than any
of us expected it to be), it became the central focus of our class this semester. However, that did
not stop us from attempting a project that was meant to uplift the community. After some
deliberation, the two-person tag-team of college students in our class set out to gather positive
narratives of our peers around the Atlanta University Center with the intent of sharing these
positive stories with the entire community. We also asked the specific question, Can you tell us
about a positive, nonsexual experience that you had with a member of the opposite sex? This
question was phrased like this in order to lead project participants toward the agenda of
promoting understanding across the sexes. We assumed that, if we were able to get intriguing
and positive stories about individual interactions with the opposite sex, we would be able to
encourage behavior that mimicked what would be seen on the boards where we posted the
stories. Unfortunately, our selected method of positivity promotion never quite worked out.
There was not any conversation generated by our boards, to my knowledge, and there were not
enough stories gathered to truly make a ripple effect in the community. Looking back, there are a
few ways that this method could have been improved. For one, student contact information
should have been gathered for every participant so that they could be notified about when their

story would be postedthis would have at least driven some excitement among the networks of
the projects participants. Another way to strengthen the project would have been to create a
shareable video of some of the stories in order to generate a buzz about the project. This would
require starting earlier in the semester, but it is definitely a possibility to be explored if we decide
to take what we called AUC Stories any farther.
Regardless of all that I have mentioned, the real joy of Dr. Adams Fall 2014 course in
positive psychology was in the conversations that we had about everything. We discussed rape
culture and current events and graduate school plans and how to deal with the stress associated
with living in a world that constantly feels like it is out to hunt us down. Positive Psychology
provided each of its participants, Dr. Adams included, a chance to learn, laugh, heal, and grow
weekly in a semester that proved especially challenging for a variety of reasons. We created
valuable connections in this class of two students and a professor; better still, we used those
connections to have important discussions that I am sure many of us will remember for years to
come. It has been an absolute pleasure to take this class and the experience has reminded me how
necessary it is to have avenues for self-expression and discussion. The good energy in that class
is healthy, especially during the difficult times we sometimes face for a variety of reasons.
Without hesitation, I fervently recommend this course for students of any discipline.